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Undergrad wins upset in election

Aspiring politicians take note — resumed undergraduate Teresa Tanzi may unseat a powerful incumbent, win election to the state legislature and help craft crucial state policies, all before receiving her Brown diploma. In fact, she has already completed the first of these three daunting tasks.

Tanzi, a public policy concentrator from Wakefield, R.I., is running to represent Rhode Island's District 34 in the state House of Representatives. Last Tuesday, she won a surprising victory over House Judiciary Committee Chairman David Caprio — younger brother of state treasurer and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Frank Caprio — in the district's Democratic primary. Tanzi will face Republican Timothy Burchett and independent Peter Stone in the November general election.

Rep. Caprio, D-Narragansett, Wakefield and Peace Dale, is an 11-year veteran of the General Assembly and a scion of a prominent Rhode Island political family. He was one of 10 incumbent state legislators to lose their seats in an election year deemed particularly inhospitable to political insiders.

While Tanzi is using her time at Brown to pursue a passion for policy, her political inclination didn't start on College Hill.

"I have definitely always been a political junkie and a little bit of a policy fanatic," Tanzi said, adding that as a child, a subscription to the New York Times was at the top of her birthday wish list.  

Tanzi, the daughter of an Italian-immigrant father, had a "modest upbringing" that led her to a New Jersey community college and then to the University of Rhode Island before enrolling for three years at Brown, she said. Tanzi, 38, left Brown in October 2008 to start a family and later struggled with the prospect of paying both the cost of her daughter's primary schooling and her Brown tuition.

But with her daughter off to kindergarten this fall, Tanzi said she tentatively plans to return to College Hill in the spring.

Though education informed Tanzi's outlook, her advocacy work for the National Organization for Women, Ocean State Action and the Campaign for Rhode Island's Priorities ultimately convinced her of the need to change state policies from the inside, she said.

"One of the ideas of the National Organization for Women is to bring women into the political process and the policy-making process," Tanzi said. "It came down to looking at myself and saying ‘Well, why not me?' "

Tanzi "probably stands a fairly competitive chance" of winning the November general election, according to Maureen Moakley, chair of the URI Department of Political Science.  

"She worked very hard, she started very early and she didn't take anything for granted," Moakley said.

Union backing may also have played a role in Tanzi's victory, according to Victor Profughi, Rhode Island College professor emeritus of political science and director of the polling firm Quest Research.

"There were a number of legislators who were targeted in the race this year, and Caprio was one of those," Profughi said.

Yet, Tanzi faced a well-funded incumbent who may have benefited from the help of workers from elder brother Frank's gubernatorial campaign, according to Associate Professor of Political Science and Public Policy Ross Cheit. Cheit — who taught Tanzi in PPAI0100: Introduction to Public Policy —  served as Tanzi's adviser in the race.

"She was up against some definite money and established interests," Cheit said. "I think she presented a different vision and gave people a choice that looked better."

Cheit noted that a number of public policy concentrators, including Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal '91.5, have gone on to careers in public service. Matt Dunne '92, also a public policy concentrator, ran in Vermont's Democratic gubernatorial primary this year, though he was defeated. Reconciling idealistic goals with practical political realities is a challenge, even for someone with Tanzi's "amazing dedication," Cheit said.

"It's an environment where you have to build coalitions and trade votes and make compromises, and those will be the things that she'll have to negotiate," he said. "It's not completely an old boys' club there, but put it this way: There aren't a lot of Teresa Tanzis in the legislature."


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