While Patrick Kennedy has shaken up the race for Rhode Island's First District by announcing his retirement, U.S. Rep. Jim Langevin faces a contentious race to defend his seat in the state's Second District. His opponents include Democrat Betsy Dennigan and Republicans Michael Gardiner and Mark Zaccaria.
Langevin, who has served in the U.S. House of Representatives since 2001, made headlines last November by voting for the Stupak amendment, which alters the House health care bill to forbid the use of federal money "to pay for abortion or to cover any part of the costs of any health plan that includes coverage of abortion," except in cases of rape, incest or a threat to the mother's health.
Though pro-life, Langevin supports family planning and embryonic stem cell research.
"Representative Langevin's pro-life views are very personal," said Joy Fox, Langevin's campaign spokesperson.
But another priority for Langevin is "access to quality and affordable health care," an issue that he has emphasized since first running in 2000, Fox said.
Yet Langevin's pro-life stance puts him in a difficult position regarding health care reform given that the final bill may not contain the strict language of the Stupak amendment.
Despite his pro-life convictions, Fox said abortion language would not necessarily determine Langevin's vote on the final version of the bill. "Representative Langevin had long stated that no one issue will derail health care," she said.
Langevin is currently working on the House Budget Committee during the reconciliation process, though his position on the final bill is still uncertain, Fox said.
A challenge from the left
Betsy Dennigan served in the General Assembly for 13 years — as a representative from Pawtucket — before resigning last October to run for Congress. Dennigan has worked as a lawyer and an emergency room nurse, and she founded a non-profit called Books are Wings, an organization that hosts educational book parties for under-privileged children.
At her Providence office on Broad Street, Dennigan talked about her "passion for policy." She highlighted her work as a state legislator to promote "clean government" and health care issues like safe needle sticks and latex safety for health professionals. Her advocacy on the latter issues stems from her experience as a nurse, she said.
Dennigan also cited her involvement in promoting the Green Buildings Act, a law passed by the General Assembly last October, as a model for making buildings more environmentally friendly while creating green jobs. The legislation requires new building projects to comply with stricter standards for energy-efficient construction, specifically the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system.
Regarding what sets her apart from the incumbent Langevin, Dennigan pointed to her pro-choice record, crediting her time as a public servant for leading her to the view that "full access to reproductive health is very important."
Dennigan also said she would be a more vocal supporter of marriage equality and in repealing the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy.
Fixing health care the GOP way
Mark Zaccaria, who ran against Langevin in 2008, said the main motivation for his current candidacy is the nation's financial health.
"I was offended by the Bush deficits, but I'm appalled by the deficits now," Zaccaria said.
Zaccaria said he is "categorically opposed" to the health care reform legislation due to the additional cost he believes it would add to the system. Instead, Zaccaria advocates individual health savings accounts, which people would pay into throughout their lives. The account would be portable, and Zaccaria believes this system would increase individual accountability because consumers would be forced to justify health care costs when money is extracted from their accounts.
Zaccaria's primary challenger, Michael Gardiner, also opposes the version of health care reform being debated by Congress, Gardiner said.
Gardiner said he supports setting a "uniform health code" that would apply nationwide and require all insurers to provide minimum health care requirements standardized across state lines. This would allow every insurer to compete in every state and Gardiner believes it would remedy the problems created by monopoly control that characterize health care markets in many states.
Like Zaccaria, Gardiner is pro-life. While he called abortion "a secondary issue" for voters concerned with the poor economy, Gardiner challenged the rationale behind Langevin's Stupak vote.
"Who's he more afraid of — Nancy Pelosi or losing Catholic support?" Gardiner said.
The abortion issue
Langevin's vote on the Stupak amendment has caused consternation on both sides of the abortion debate.
"It's no secret that the pro-life movement was behind Langevin in 2000," said Barth Bracy, executive director of Rhode Island Right to Life.
Bracy also cited Langevin's support for embryonic stem cell research as a point of divergence with many in the state's pro-life community, which is shaped by the existence of a large Catholic population in Rhode Island.
Carolyn Mark, president of Rhode Island National Organization for Women and chair of Rhode Island NOW Political Action Committee, finds Langevin's positions on abortion issues disconcerting. The national NOW PAC has endorsed Betsy Dennigan.
"Representative Langevin is not the advocate we feel is going to protect women's rights in Rhode Island and around the country," Mark said.
Langevin's Stupak vote is especially problematic because many women could lose their coverage under reform, and states could decide abortion coverage will not be permitted in the exchanges that are created, Mark said.
But according to Associate Professor of Political Science and Public Policy Wendy Schiller, the abortion issue will only become problematic for Langevin if his pro-life stance is a rationale for a "no" vote on the final health care bill.
A bigger issue for Langevin is proving to voters that he can be an effective advocate for Rhode Islanders, Schiller said.