Council races could hurt Chafee ’75 in Senate primary

Independent voters must choose to vote in either the Democratic or Republican primary

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

For Sen. Lincoln Chafee ’75, R-R.I., today’s primary election may hinge on voter turnout in the hotly contested Democratic primaries for open Providence City Council seats. In a rare turn for Providence politics, all 15 council seats are contested – 13 of them with Democratic primaries.

Chafee is running in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate against Cranston Mayor Stephen Laffey.

Though Rhode Island is a historically Democratic state, the most talked-about primary this election cycle has been Laffey’s challenge to the one-term incumbent Chafee.

Chafee has the name recognition of a celebrity in Rhode Island, but he has lost his lead over Laffey. Whether a failure to campaign on his legislative record or a disconnect from the constituents he serves is to blame, Chafee has lost much of the base that elected him six years ago.

It is not clear which candidate has an advantage going into today’s primary. Polling is even less reliable for Rhode Island primaries because unaffiliated voters can choose to vote in either the Democratic or Republican primary on the day of the election. Without a concrete idea of who will vote in which primary, recent conflicting polls have named both Chafee and Laffey the projected winner by a margin of more than 10 points.

It would be virtually impossible for a Republican candidate to win a statewide Rhode Island election solely with GOP support, since Republicans make up roughly 10 percent of the state’s electorate. As of Monday afternoon, there were 673,920 registered voters in Rhode Island, according to the secretary of state’s voter roll.

A Republican Senate candidate must be conservative enough to appeal to the majority of the Republican electorate and hold views that appeal to the 90 percent of Rhode Islanders who are unaffiliated or registered Democrats.

As a liberal Republican, Chafee is facing that very problem. He has lost a significant amount of support from Republicans to the unapologetically conservative Laffey. Chafee’s solution has been to court Democrats likely to disaffiliate for the primary and coax unaffiliated Rhode Islanders to vote in the Republican primary against inveterate campaigner Laffey.

Unfortunately for Chafee, his Senate race has coincided with an upheaval in the Providence City Council races. According to the secretary of state’s office, over 9 percent of Rhode Island’s unaffiliated voters live in one of the 13 Providence wards with a Democratic primary.

Many unaffiliated voters in Providence may choose to vote in their local council race rather than in the Republican primary. As a result, they would be unable to participate in the Chafee-Laffey contest.

In such a tight Senate race, decisions like these may cost Chafee the election.

With current Ward 1 City Councilman David Segal stepping down to run in the Democratic primary for the District 2 State House seat, the Ward 1 Democratic primary contest between Seth Yurdin and Ethan Ris ’05 is one of the 13 races heating up across the city.

The new Democratic challengers mounted across the board against incumbent city councilmen are largely representative of two separate but not necessarily opposing forces: Mayor David Cicilline ’83 and the growing political influence of Providence’s Latino community.

In his first term as mayor, Cicilline has clashed with the council numerous times, and City Hall officials have said his relationship with the council is less than amicable. Cicilline has not abstained from endorsing candidates for the council – even when those candidates are running against current members who helped him win the mayoral seat in 2002.

Cicilline has endorsed Ris in Ward 1 and stopped just short of a full endorsement for Cliff Wood, his former director of the Department of Art, Culture and Tourism, in the Ward 2 Democratic primary. Wood, who stepped down from his position in Cicilline’s administration to run for the Ward 2 council seat, is facing 16-year council veteran Rita Williams.

Williams, the council’s deputy majority leader, was one of many Cicilline supporters in his 2002 campaign against then-Mayor and convicted criminal Vincent “Buddy” Cianci Jr.

Ward 8, which includes the Reservoir and West Elmwood neighborhoods of Providence, has a five-way Democratic primary contest for the vacated seat of Councilman Ronald Allen. Cicilline has endorsed former District 11 State Rep. Leon Tejada.

Tejada is one of several Latinos exercising their political influence by running for City Council in previously unseen numbers.

In Ward 9, incumbent Councilman and Dominican-American Miguel Luna is being challenged by lawyer Kas DeCarvalho, real estate agent Wellington Garcia and housing investor Hector Jose. 

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