PROVIDENCE — Senator Samuel W. Bell is a progressive who has emerged as the chamber’s most outspoken critic of state Senate leadership. David A. Salvatore, a Providence City Council member for the past 12 years, is challenging him for his District 5 seat.
With no Republican challenger, whoever wins the Sept. 13 Democratic primary will win the seat.
Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio has made his choice: He donated money to Salvatore, making the outcome of interest to many who live outside the Mount Pleasant, Elmhurst, Federal Hill, and Valley neighborhoods, plus part of the West End, served by District 5.
Bell remains focused on one of his main goals, as stated on his campaign website: “new leadership in the Senate.” When he was first elected to the Senate in 2018, he was one of two senators to vote against Ruggerio for Senate president, and in his second term, he was one of nine senators to oppose Ruggerio in the Democratic caucus vote. Ruggerio has opposed abortion rights, Bell noted, and received donations from the National Rifle Association.
With Ruggerio facing a primary of his own and Senate Majority Leader Michael J. McCaffrey departing, there are “lots of unknowns” about the future of Senate leadership, Bell told the Globe in an interview. “There are a lot of exciting possibilities. The fact that so much is in flux means the question of leadership should take on much bigger importance in this year’s primaries.”
“I have been inspired by a growing movement in the Senate looking for real Democratic leadership,” Bell said. “It would be one of the more significant achievements possible to have a Senate leadership that is ethical and reflects the core values of our Democratic Party.”
Salvatore said he has not promised to back Ruggerio’s leadership team, regardless of Ruggerio’s $300 donation to Salvatore’s campaign on June 15.
“In terms of supporting leadership, my focus is on getting elected to the Senate, and I have not made promises to anybody,” he said. “I respect the Senate president, but I have disagreed with him publicly.”
Salvatore opposed plans, backed by Ruggerio, for a proposed 46-story tower by New York developer Jason Fane on former I-195 land in Providence. He said he been on and off the leadership team during his tenure on the City Council but he has always been able to work with others and get things done.
That’s what sets him apart from Bell, Salvatore said. He claimed Bell had introduced 37 bills (not including resolutions) during his four years in office, and only one had become law.
A review showed Bell was primary sponsor of two bills that became law: One removed the 10-year period within which the secretary of state’s office is authorized to withdraw a certificate of revocation for corporations. Another allowed a Broadway business to have a liquor license within 200 feet of a school or place of worship.
Salvatore said his point is that Bell isn’t getting results for his constituents.
“While Senator Bell talks and tweets about issues he supports and opposes, voters have not seen a lot of action,” he said. “They are looking for representation that will produce more results and less tweets. I am that person.”
In response, Bell said he has passed seven pieces of legislation, including four resolutions and three bills. He said he introduced the Trauma Informed Schools Act for years but Senator Sandra Cano sponsored the bill that became law. “The machine sometimes chooses the petty approach of requiring a different senator’s name to be placed on a bill for final passage,” he said. “Ultimately, what I care about is results, not these silly games.”
Bell rejected the idea that he is not getting results, saying, “When I first ran, I heard from so many constituents who were tired of politicians promising they would ‘get things done’ and then not delivering. They asked me how I’d do things differently.”
“I told my constituents that I would actually vote my conscience instead of pledging my vote to the machine,” he said. “I told my constituents that I would fight to stop bad legislation from passing. That is what I’ve done. And I am honored that so many other senators have chosen the same strategy. We have changed the Senate. Dramatically.”
Besides halting “many bad bills,” Bell said he and others have helped to pass “good bills” such as minimum wage increases and the Act on Climate. “Most importantly, we are weakening the machine. Four years ago, they looked untouchable. Today, we are closer than ever to defeating them.”
Salvatore, 46, works as government affairs director for the Rhode Island Association of Realtors. Bell, 33, works as an associate research scientist at Planetary Science Institute.
Salvatore, who is term limited, is not the first Providence City Council member to challenge Bell.
In 2020, Bell crushed Providence City Council member Jo-Ann Ryan, taking 72.5 percent of the vote to Ryan’s 27.5 percent in a Democratic primary for the Senate District 5 seat. Ryan also had the support of Senate leadership.
But with the primary fast approaching, Salvatore has twice as much campaign cash than Bell. Salvatore had $85,886 in his campaign account while Bell had $34,770, according to reports filed with the state Board of Elections for totals 28 days before the election.
Bell’s endorsements include Planned Parenthood, the Coalition Against Gun Violence, Rhode Island Queer PAC, and Representative David Morales, a Providence Democrat.
Salvatore’s endorsements include the National Education Association Rhode Island, the Rhode Island AFL-CIO, Moms Demand Action, and Representative Anastasia P. Williams, a Providence Democrat.
On Aug. 19, the Rhode Island Right to Life Committee released its list of endorsements and recommendations, and it recommended Salvatore in Senate District 5. Salvatore immediately disavowed the group’s support, tweeting, “Let me be clear: I never pursued this designation, I never spoke with the organization, and I reject their recommendation.”
Salvatore said he supports abortion rights, “full stop.”
He noted he was the lead sponsor of a City Council resolution urging passage of the Reproductive Privacy Act, which aims to protect abortion rights in Rhode Island, and he said he supports the Equality in Abortion Coverage Act, which would let Medicaid recipients and state employees use their health insurance to cover the cost of abortions.
Bell called the Right to Life recommendation of Salvatore “very interesting,” saying he has not disavowed the support strongly enough for the group to remove its recommendation.