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RI POLITICS

‘We expect to grow the ranks’: As GOP field builds, six R.I. Assembly races to watch

Rhode Islanders are “ready to give Republicans a shot,” GOP Party Chair Sue Cienki said. But Democratic Party Chair Joseph McNamara said he’s found voters appreciate the Democratic legislature’s achievements.

The Rhode Island State House.Edward Fitzpatrick

PROVIDENCE — This year, 66 Republicans are running for the 113 Rhode Island General Assembly seats, marking a 57 percent increase over the 42 Republicans who ran in 2020.

In deep-blue Rhode Island, a red wave is unlikely. Republicans hold 15 of those 113 Assembly seats, representing just 13 percent of the state legislature, and GOP Assembly candidates lost three out of every four times they faced a Democrat in 2020.

Rhode Island Republican Party Chair Sue Cienki acknowledges the GOP probably won’t achieve its long-term goal of gaining the one-third of House or Senate seats needed to block a state budget proposal. But she said Republicans were able to field more candidates this year because of a “vigorous” recruitment effort and because, she said, people are fed up.

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“We expect to grow the ranks,” Cienki said. “There were people we actively recruited, but people came knocking on our door because they have had it, and the top three issues are inflation, education, and crime.”

Rhode Island Democratic Party Chair Joseph M. McNamara contends that Democrats are going to take all five statewide general offices while returning a Democratic majority to both the House and Senate. And he said the goal is to reduce the already small number of Republicans in each legislative chamber.

McNamara, a Democratic state representative from Warwick, said he’d knocked on 2,000 doors over the past six months and found people appreciated the achievements of the Democratic-dominated legislature. For example, he said the Assembly passed “common sense” gun laws that limit magazine capacity to 10 rounds, prohibit the open carry of long guns in public, and raise the age from 18 to 21 to buy long guns. And he noted the state budget eliminated the car tax and provided a one-time child tax credit of $250 per child.

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McNamara said the Rhode Island Democratic Party includes a wide range of views, which can make it difficult for Republicans to gain traction. In the House, the political spectrum includes conservatives such as Representative Arthur J. Corvese, a North Providence Democrat, and liberals such as Representative David Morales, a Providence Democrat and Democratic Socialist.

“If you look within our party, we have a very huge tent,” he said. “Certainly, it makes it difficult for me sometimes. I feel like I’m herding cats, but we respect that diversity of opinion.”

Cienki agreed the Rhode Island Democratic Party has historically included some “real blue dog Democrats” — a term used for southern Democrats with conservative voting records. But she said the Democratic Party is moving further to the left in recent elections.

“Rhode Islanders are sick of being at the bottom of all sorts of metrics, from education to business climate to cost of living,” she said. “They are ready to give Republicans a shot.”

The Globe asked both Cienki and McNamara to name three races in which their party hopes to wrest a legislative seat away from the other party.

Cienki said she is looking for Republican victories in:

House District 30. Republican Amanda M. Blau is challenging Representative Justine A. Caldwell, an East Greenwich Democrat. Blau, who lives in West Greenwich, is an attorney who was elected to the Chariho School Committee at age 20, serving from 2010-14. Cienki said Blau “works well with all individuals across the political spectrum,” and she accused Caldwell of ignoring the West Greenwich portion of House District 30.

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McNamara said Caldwell “has proven to be an effective leader who has a record of accomplishments, including common sense gun reform that I believe is strongly supported by her constituents.” For example, Caldwell sponsored a bill that became law this year, limiting magazine capacity to 10 rounds. He argued the she has accomplished more than her Republican predecessor, Antonio Giarrusso.

House District 21. Republican Marie A. Hopkins is challenging Representative Camille F.J. Vella-Wilkinson, a Warwick Democrat. Hopkins has worked as an acute and criminal psychiatric nurse, and has degrees from Brown University and the University of Rhode Island. As a candidate, Hopkins “works extremely hard and is out there seven days a week, knocking on doors, listening to people,” Cienki said.

McNamara said Vella-Wilkinson is a former Warwick City Council member who understands constituent issues such as filling potholes. She is a retired Navy officer who sponsored a new law that extends property tax exemptions to veterans who served in uniform during the Cold War. McNamara said she “does not always vote with the Democrats on every issue” and serves as “an advocate for the sometimes more conservative views of her district.”

Senate District 26. Republican Joseph A. Powers is challenging Senator Frank S. Lombardi, a Cranston Democrat. Powers served in the US Coast Guard and now works as a real estate agent, general contractor, and investor. Cienki criticized Lombardi for initially signing onto a vaccination-mandate bill introduced by Senator Samuel W. Bell, although Lombardi later removed his name after it was criticized by Republicans.

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McNamara said Lombardi is another Democrat who “matches his district regarding Second Amendment rights and being very conservative on many issues that would not fly on the East Side of Providence. We have a big tent and we are proud of it.” First elected to the Senate in 2012, Lombardi is an attorney who served served as a probate clerk/judge for the City of Providence from 1994-2004.

McNamara said he is looking for Democratic victories in:

House District 36. McNamara noted the Assembly’s two top Republicans — House Minority Leader Blake A. Filippi and Senate Minority Leader Dennis L. Algiere — aren’t seeking re-election, and he said Democrats are looking to pick up both seats. Democrat Tina L. Spears is running against Republican John F. Pacheco III for the seat Filippi has held since 2015. Spears, a Charlestown resident, is a well-known executive director of the Community Provider Network of Rhode Island, and her focus on the environment will be well-received in that district, McNamara said.

Cienki said Republicans expect to hold onto House District 36, which includes all of Block Island and Charlestown, plus parts of Westerly and South Kingstown. She said Pacheco, who lives in Charlestown, is a former Burrillville Town Council member and small business owner who is working hard on the campaign trail. She said he will benefit from support from Filippi, a Block Island Republican who was popular in the district.

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Senate District 38. Democrat Victoria Gu is running in a four-way race for the seat that Algiere, a Westerly Republican, is vacating after 30 years in the Senate. Gu is one of the candidates this year who could become the first state state legislator to identify as Asian American. Gu is a Harvard University graduate who chairs the Climate Resiliency Commission in Charlestown. McNamara noted the House passed a shore access bill in June, and he said, “We need a champion in the Senate. I believe she is a person who can get that across the finish line.”

Cienki said House District 38 — which includes Westerly, Charlestown, and South Kingstown — is “more of a “purple district, rather than red or blue,” and she suggested that Gu is too “far left” for that area. Gu is facing Republican Westin J. Place and independent candidate Caswell Cooke Jr. She said Place, an independent owner/operator truck driver, is a young father who is well known in the area.

House District 39. Democrat Megan L. Cotter is again challenging Representative Justin K. Price, a Richmond Republican. McNamara noted that Price faced pressure to resign after tweeting that he “marched to the Capitol” with “peaceful patriots” on Jan. 6, 2021. Price said he didn’t enter the building and claimed Antifa “false flagged” the “Trump rally.” McNamara said Price voted against the Act on Climate and other major legislative initiatives. “He drank all the Kool-Aid that they are selling,” McNamara said.

Cienki noted Price beat Cotter in the 2020 election, taking 52 percent of the vote to Cotter’s 48 percent, and she expects Price to prevail again. “Unfortunately for them, Megan Cotter is a far left progressive,” she said, noting Cotter was backed by the progressive Rhode Island Political Cooperative in 2020. “That will not play well in that hugely conservative district.” Independent candidate Sean Patrick Comella also is running in House District 39, which includes Richmond, Exeter, and part of Hopkinton.


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him @FitzProv.