If you’re to believe the most avid fans of either Seth Magaziner or Allan Fung, the race for Rhode Island’s 2nd Congressional District is going to determine whether Democrats or Republicans control the US House of Representatives and, by extension, the fate of the world.
By that logic, the most important man in America, and perhaps the universe, might be a 55-year-old North Kingstown resident who works for Electric Boat, collects arcade games, claims he’s got a 39-0 record as a pro se litigant (self-represented, mostly on small civil matters), and has run, and lost, campaigns for governor, lieutenant governor, and Town Council over the past two decades.
Bill Gilbert is running like he’s got nothing to lose in large part because he knows he has no chance to win. So he’s using his campaign to promote the Moderate Party (which he chairs) and make the case that voters deserve a third option because “a lot of Americans are sick of voting against a person.”
“You know what I need?” Gilbert asked during the only recent debate where he was allowed on stage with Fung and Magaziner. “I need the Democrat, I need Mr. Seth Magaziner, to go, ‘you know what? [Donald] Trump had some good polices.’ And I need Allan Fung to say, ‘Trump was an ass.’”
In a race as razor thin as this one could get, Gilbert is embracing his role as the wild card who will almost certainly be blamed by whichever candidate loses the race.
At the very least, his presence means Fung or Magaziner could become the first Rhode Islander to win a general election for a congressional seat with less than 50 percent of the vote since 1967, when Democrat Robert Tiernan won a US House seat in a special election by just 313 votes, according to Steve Frias, a Cranston Republican and prominent state historian.
A Globe/Suffolk University poll released earlier this month showed Fung at 45 percent, Magaziner at 37 percent, and Gilbert at 5 percent, with 13 percent undecided. A WPRI 12/Roger Williams University poll from around the same time had Gilbert at 4 percent.
When you look at the crosstabs of the Globe/Suffolk poll, Gilbert was pulling about 6 percent of Democratic voters, 3 percent of Republican voters, and 5 percent of independents. But Joe Fleming, a veteran pollster in Rhode Island, said “it’s tough to say” whether Gilbert takes more votes away from Magaziner or Fung.
“I’ve been called by both parties asking me to get out of the race,” Gilbert told me on Monday.
But Gilbert said he’s sticking around because he believes he’s “the most idealistic choice,” but also because he isn’t buying the argument that Magaziner or Fung are going to help destroy the country if they are elected to succeed US Representative James Langevin, a Democrat who is retiring in January.
“If I thought the devil was going to be in office, would I participate? Absolutely not,” Gilbert said.
Gilbert has bounced between being a Democrat and Republican in his adult life, but he traces his first party switch back to long before he was eligible to vote. He recalls being in the 7th grade in 1979, and not liking how president Jimmy Carter was handling the Iran hostage crisis. He started to identify with Republicans once Ronald Reagan beat Carter the following year.
While an international issue converted him to the GOP, it was the most hyperlocal of issues that brought him back to the Democrats. In the early 2000s, there was a local ballot question to build a new school in North Kingstown, and rather than debate the pros and cons of the matter, he said local Republicans chose to take the opposite side of wherever the Democrats stood.
Now he leads the Moderate Party, which, to paraphrase Jay-Z, “had a spark when it started.”
The party was founded by Ken Block, who managed to win 6.5 percent of the vote in the governor’s race in 2010. Four years later, Robert Healey, a perennial statewide candidate who was best known among voters for his scraggly beard, earned 21.4 percent of the vote as the Moderate candidate for governor.
Gina Raimondo ultimately won the 2014 race, 41 percent to 36 percent, over Fung – and there are plenty of Fung supporters who still blame Healey, who died in 2016, for costing him the governor’s office.
Since 2014, the Moderates have been far less successful. Gilbert earned just 2.7 percent of the vote when he ran for governor in 2018 as Raimondo cruised to reelection over Fung again.
“I’ve been trying to build a third party movement,” Gilbert said, pointing out that untraditional political parties operate at a distinct disadvantage in Rhode Island: Established parties have an easier path to collect signatures for candidates to qualify to appear on a ballot, their candidates get better placement on the ballot once they qualify, and they can secure matching campaign funds from the state.
Gilbert makes a better case for his political party than he does for himself.
You’ll find very little about where he stands on a lot of the key issues (he partially blames the media for rarely calling him and not allowing him to appear in most debates). He thinks abortion should be legal but rare, opposes Green New Deal policies, and wants to keep Trump’s tax cuts in place while he pushes for broader tax reform. On his website, he pitches himself as a candidate focused on the economy, education, ethics, and the environment.
He isn’t helping himself by spending virtually no money to spread the word about his campaign. But if his poll numbers hold and he wins 4 or 5 percent of the vote, you can bet that we’ll hear his name a lot on election night.
“I’m not trying to muck up elections,” Gilbert said, “but I don’t mind doing it.”