PROVIDENCE — Former Providence City Council member Sam Zurier on Tuesday edged two progressive newcomers, Geena Pham and Bret Jacob, in a highly competitive five-person Democrat primary for a vacant state Senate seat representing Providence’s East Side.
The victory all but ensures that Zurier will succeed state Senator Gayle L. Goldin, a progressive Providence Democrat who stepped down on Aug. 17 to join President Biden’s administration as a senior adviser in the US Labor Department’s Women’s Bureau.
Zurier had 1,282 votes, topping Pham with 982, Jacob with 908, Hilary Levey Friedman with 613, and Ray Rickman with 269, according to unofficial results from the state Board of Elections. Those totals includes in-person votes, mail ballots, and early voting.
Zurier will face Republican candidate Alex Cannon in the general election on Nov. 2. He will be heavily favored in a district that is 63 percent Democrat, 32 percent unaffiliated, and 5 percent Republican.
On Tuesday night, Zurier told the Globe that he was grateful for the support the District 3 voters had shown in him. But he noted he received 31.6 percent of the vote, saying he would have to earn the trust of the two-thirds of voters who chose someone else. “I do not treat this as a smashing victory by any means,” he said.
Zurier said he did think voters in the district responded to his campaign, which had emphasized not just his goals but his track record of achievements and his plans for reaching future goals. “I didn’t see this as a contest of ideological purity,” he said. “I saw this as a way to present practical achievements. I presented this to voters as applying for a job.”
Providence College political science professor Adam S. Myers noted that the combined totals for Pham, who recieved 24.2 percent of the vote, and Jacob, who received 22.4 percent, far surpassed Zurier’s vote total.
“In theory, this means that if the progressives had simply united around a single candidate and marshaled all of their resources on behalf of one candidate it seems that candidate might have won,” he said. And while all five candidates were progressive, Zurier was one of the least-progressive candidates in the field, he said.
But Zurier’s victory “indicates that name recognition in this case beat out grassroots mobilization.”
“Senate District 3 is a professional, well-educated district, and many voters do value experience and a sense of qualifications for this position,” Myers said. “Zurier is a long-time resident, a former city councilman who has a lot of knowledge about Providence and Rhode Island issues.”
Zurier, 62, a lawyer and Providence councilman from 2011 to 2018, had the backing of Representative Edith H. Ajello and City Councilwoman Helen Anthony. But Myers said he did not appear to have an army of supporters going door-to-door on his behalf.
Pham, 27, a public school teacher, had grassroots support from groups such as the Rhode Island Political Cooperative, a progressive group that plans to run up to 50 state and local candidates in a bid to secure a “governing majority.”
After the results were in, the Rhode Island Political Cooperative issued a statement, saying, “Our state’s whole corrupt political establishment did everything they could to beat Geena Pham because she represents the possibility of real change. In the face of attacks and a crowded field, Geena ran an incredible campaign.”
The co-op said, “We have not seen the last of Geena Pham.”
Pham issued a statement, saying, “There is great and growing momentum in our progressive movement.”
“I ran because we need to oust the corrupt political machine in this state that serves corporations and the richest few,” Pham said. “We need new leadership so we can build a state that works for all the people. After tonight, that has not changed. Our state still faces a climate crisis, our schools continue to crumble, our working people in our state still struggle to get by, and the East Side still needs a Senator who will fight for the bold solutions we need to those issues. I’m not going anywhere.”
Jacob, 28, was backed by the Rhode Island Working Families, Rhode Island Working Families Party, former state Representative Aaron Regunberg, and the Senatorial District Committee the included Goldin’s husband, Jeff Levy.
Georgia Hollister Isman, New England director for the Working Families Party, said it’s hard for any new candidate to break through in a special election, with a short campaign period, but she called Jacob “a wonderful, authentic leader” who has a bright future.
“There were two strong progressives in this race, and together our campaigns had hundreds of powerful conversations with voters – conversations that made clear that many East Siders want urgent action on ending homelessness, transforming our broken criminal legal system, and fighting climate change,” Hollister Isman said.
“We have friends and allies who supported both progressive candidates,” she said, “and we look forward to coming together to hold Sam accountable to passing the type of bold progressive change that keeps us moving toward a Rhode Island that works for the many, not the few.”
Levey Friedman, 41, former president of the Rhode Island Chapter of the National Organization for Women, raised more money than any other candidate in the race. But, Myers said, “That amounted to very little. It goes to show that money isn’t everything in politics.”
Levey Friedman issued a statement saying, “Though we didn’t achieve the result that we hoped for, I want to thank the voters of the East Side who believed in our campaign. I also want to thank all the volunteers who turned out to talk to voters about our vision for this district and for Rhode Island. I congratulate Sam Zurier for his victory this evening.”
Outside the Jewish Community Center polling site, voters cited a wide variety of reasons for backing different candidates.
Sheila Lennon said she voted for Zurier because the former Providence City Council member has a lot of experience and a “grasp of the issues.” And Alan Senecal said he was voting for Zurier because “he wants to do what he feels is right and is not following a certain agenda.”
Robert Lee said he voted for Pham because “she represents something new, even within the progressive movement.” He said, “Everything needs to be shaken up.”
Herberto DaSilva said he voted for Jacob after learning more about him on social media. He described Jacob as a “young progressive” who seemed knowledgeable about issues such as health care and reproductive rights.
Linda Finn, former executive director of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence, was holding a sign supporting Levey Friedman. She said that as president of the Rhode Island Chapter of the National Organization for Women, Levey Friedman had testified in support of bills to ban assault-style weapons, high-capacity magazines, and guns on school grounds.
Wearing a blue “Make Oceania Great Again” shirt, William Viall of College Hill said he voted for Rickman because the former state representative has the deepest connection to his neighborhood. Describing himself as a “paleo-progressive” who is “rabidly anti-war and pro-worker,” Viall said he was tired of candidates running for office when they haven’t lived in the district for very long.
“I’ve known Ray a long time,” Viall said.
Turnout seemed strong early in the day, when voters, supporters, and candidates mingled at the polls.
As of 10 am, 249 people had voted at the Jewish Community Center in PVD in the state Senate District 3 Democratic primary. “It’s pretty good turnout so far,” clerk Aleena Johnson said. “It’s still early.” pic.twitter.com/EPadTN0Qu3— Edward Fitzpatrick (@FitzProv) October 5, 2021
Senate District 3 candidate @PhamForRI , second from left, is joined by supporters including her mother and @KendraForRI outside the Jewish Community Center in PVD pic.twitter.com/CQoltwLKLa— Edward Fitzpatrick (@FitzProv) October 5, 2021
Senate District 3 candidate @SamZurier outside the Jewish Community Center polling site pic.twitter.com/m8kIeUcxiW— Edward Fitzpatrick (@FitzProv) October 5, 2021
Polls are open until 8 pm in today’s state Senate District 3 Democratic primary pic.twitter.com/eMaN3CIods— Edward Fitzpatrick (@FitzProv) October 5, 2021
Senator @Cynthia_Mendes_ and @JenRourke29 outside the JCC supporting @PhamForRI pic.twitter.com/zaNAjM9wU2— Edward Fitzpatrick (@FitzProv) October 6, 2021
Representative @LeonelaFelix and former Representative @AaronRegunberg outside the JCC supporting @electbretjacob pic.twitter.com/UpJYuMyWkR— Edward Fitzpatrick (@FitzProv) October 6, 2021
Carlos Munoz of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.
Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv. Dan McGowan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @danmcgowan.