Running for office any time, much less during a pandemic when people don’t have a lot of interest in talking to strangers on their doorsteps, can be a thankless endeavor.
Statistically, if it’s a multi-candidate race like Tuesday’s special Democratic primary on Providence’s East Side, you’re probably going to lose. You’re going to spend a lot of money on items that will be utterly useless in a few weeks, like mailers and lawn signs. And you’re inevitably going to be compared to your predecessor, which won’t be easy for the five people running to succeed former senator Gayle Goldin, who was extremely popular in District 3.
All that for a part-time job that pays $16,636 a year for a term that expires next year. So cancel those vacation plans because you’re going to do all this again next summer.
Under those conditions, it would be easy to see some party hack or Richie Rich-type with nothing better to do emerge as the frontrunner. But that hasn’t happened in Providence.
Instead, something unusual – and refreshing – is taking place in District 3: Hilary Levey Friedman, Bret Jacob, Geena Pham, Ray Rickman, and Sam Zurier have all emerged as excellent candidates, almost annoyingly so, who are qualified to serve in the Senate right now.
All of the candidates have strong progressive credentials in a district where Democrats outnumber Republicans 13-to-1, so with apologies to Republican candidate Alex Cannon, you can safely bet your million-dollar Blackstone Boulevard home on the outcome of the Nov. 2 general election.
But that doesn’t mean that the Democrats are cookie-cutter candidates with the same priorities.
Rickman, a former state representative who, at 72, is the oldest candidate in the race, has moved all his chips in on children, promising to focus solely on Providence public schools if he’s elected. Pham, 27, is the youngest candidate in the race, and she has a remarkable ability to make addressing climate change the answer to almost every question she’s asked.
Zurier, 62, is a former Providence School Board and City Council member whose top priority is making education a constitutional right that should go on the ballot next year. Jacob, 28, has the best personal story and wants to end chronic homelessness in Rhode Island, a goal that could be effectively addressed with the right voice leading the cause at the State House. And Levey Friedman, 41, approaches her policy views with the empathy and urgency that you only find in mothers who are thinking about their children’s future.
Best of all? Even if they wanted to focus on specific issues, they have all spent the past month listening to voters and developing views on every topic affecting Providence. They’re ready to contribute to the serious debate that must take place about public safety, and they’re prepared to advocate for the needs of the capital city, like addressing the city’s pension crisis once and for all.
A few Thursdays ago, I moderated what felt like the longest candidate forum in the history of local politics among the five candidates, and I ended the night feeling jealous that none of them can be my senator because I live on the other side of the city.
That’s not to say that they are perfect. If you tend to lean more conservative, you might not have an ideal choice. It’s possible that Levey Friedman is running for the wrong office, and would make a better statewide candidate. Rickman might be past his prime, and Jacob a few years away from his. Pham might be a tad too radical, and Zurier might be a little boring.
If those are their worst problems, the Senate will be lucky to welcome any of these candidates.
Even their approach to campaigning has been a model for democracy. Other than a last-minute attack mailer on Pham by the Providence firefighters’ union, which landed with a thud, the race has been respectful and issues-oriented.
Now everything comes down to organization. More than 750 residents (between mail, emergency, and early in-person ballots) had voted by 5 p.m. Monday, and hundreds more will vote in person on Tuesday. The race appears to be close enough where 500 votes might be enough to secure a victory.
There are no participation trophies in politics, and there can be only one winner in this race.
But the voters in this district can’t lose.