12 RI General Assembly primary races to watch on Wednesday

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – When Rhode Island voters go to the polls for Wednesday’s primary election, they won’t just be picking party nominees for governor and U.S. Senate. They’ll also be picking candidates for state legislature.

This year there are 33 contested primaries for the General Assembly’s 113 seats, nearly all of them in the Democratic Party, which has long dominated the legislature. Some of those winners will face no opponent in the November election, meaning the primary is effectively voters’ final decision.

Here’s a look at the 12 General Assembly primaries to watch on Wednesday. All of them are contests for the Democratic nomination. (The three GOP primaries are in Warwick’s House District 21, Coventry’s House District 28, and Senate District 23 in the northwest part of the state.)

House District 3 in Providence: It’s safe to say this is the only Rhode Island legislative primary that has garnered national headlines. The reason: incumbent Rep. Moira Walsh has drawn the ire of Democratic House Speaker Nick Mattiello for her outspoken criticism of him (and of State House drinking culture) as well as her progressive voting record. Mattiello is backing Michael Earnheart, a Trump supporter who says he will be more pro-business than Walsh. The contest drew huge attention in early July when the Rhode Island Democratic Party, which is controlled by Mattiello, endorsed Earnheart over Walsh, leading to a surge of contributions to her from outraged progressives. The party quickly withdrew its support, but Mattiello remains in Earnheart’s corner. A surge in mail ballots in the district has spurred speculation Earnheart could win on Wednesday. The winner will be unopposed in November.

House District 4 in Providence: A race to represent one of Rhode Island’s wealthiest and best-educated legislative districts, on the East Side. Two Democrats – Rebecca Kislak and Mark Tracy – are vying to succeed incumbent Rep. Aaron Regunberg, who is running for lieutenant governor. (The seat was former Speaker Gordon Fox’s before Regunberg.) Both candidates are running progressive, policy-oriented campaigns. Tracy, a finance professional, has been making aggressive use of social media, recently releasing a video on Providence’s pension problems featuring a toy dinosaur. Kislak, a health policy expert, managed last year’s victorious campaign for popular City Councilwoman Nirva LaFortune and has been emphasizing her community ties. The race has gotten expensive, and the pair are evenly matched: Kislak has spent about $34,000, while Tracy has spent about $33,000. The winner will face independent Aryeh Rosenfield.

House District 5 in Providence: This district was the site of one of 2016’s biggest upsets. Incumbent Rep. Marcia Ranglin-Vassell won the seat two years ago after defeating Democratic House Majority Leader John DeSimone, a longtime lawmaker and State House leader. But DeSimone retained control of the local Democratic district committee, and this year it spurned Ranglin-Vassell to give the party endorsement to Holly Taylor Coolman, a theology professor at Providence College. Progressives have rallied to support Ranglin-Vassell, a teacher and one of relatively few women of color in the General Assembly. Coolman, who is pro-life, argues she is a traditional Democrat and that abortion should not be a dealbreaker for Democratic primary voters. The winner will be unopposed in November.

House District 7 in Providence: This is yet another race where the Democratic Party endorsement was an issue, but the script was flipped. Incumbent Rep. Dan McKiernan, an ally of Speaker Mattiello, was blocked by his district committee from receiving the party endorsement, which instead went to Belen Florez, a progressive backed by former Rep. Joanne Giannini. Turnout could be high, since there are other competitive primaries in the same neighborhoods, including the Ward 5 City Council race and the Senate District 7 contest. The winner will be unopposed in November.

House District 13 in Providence and Johnston: This district has been in the news more than almost any other in recent years, due to the long-running residency challenge of its former representative, Democrat John Carnevale, who is now serving a sentence for lying about whether he lived there. Carnevale’s abrupt exit from his re-election race in 2016 opened the door to Ramon Perez, who won the seat and is seeking re-election. As a freshman lawmaker, however, Perez repeatedly received negative news coverage, first when porn was spotted on his computer (he said it wasn’t his) and then when he made a controversial comment at a sexual-harassment training. Perez is being challenged by Mario Mendez, who is backed by the Rhode Island Progressive Democrats and former City Council President Sabina Matos. The winner will be unopposed in November.

House District 66 in Barrington and East Providence: This seat is open in the East Bay after Rep. Joy Hearn, the well-respected incumbent, opted to retire rather than seek another term following a decade in the House. The primary has drawn two energetic candidates: Liana Cassar, co-chair of the Barrington Democratic Town Committee and a former Women’s Fund board member, and John Chung, a lawyer and professor at Roger Williams University. Chung recently made headlines with a surprising endorsement from California Congressman Adam Schiff, who attended law school with him; Cassar’s supporters countered that the most important support comes from local residents. The winner will face Republican Rhonda Holmes in November.

House District 68 in Bristol and Warren: Another open seat in the East Bay, after the abrupt retirement of Rep. Ken Marshall, whose campaign finances have come under scrutiny. The race has turned into one of the primary’s biggest establishment-versus-progressive Democratic contests, with Marshall (and Speaker Mattiello) backing Town Councilman Andrew Tyska, while progressives are strongly supporting activist Laufton Ascencao. Both candidates are mounting well-funded campaigns, with Tyska blanketing the districts in signs and Ascencao’s team knocking doors aggressively. The winner will face Libertarian Bill Hunt in November.

Senate District 5 in Providence: This is a marquee primary, with three credible Democrats who all have a chance to win this West Side seat. The incumbent seeking re-election is Sen. Paul Jabour, who’s been in the General Assembly for 33 years, first as a representative and for the last 12 as a senator. That has given Jabour deep ties in the district, and he has seen off aggressive challenges before. This time he faces two younger opponents: Nick Autiello, who worked for the Raimondo administration at Commerce RI, and Sam Bell, the prominent progressive activist. The incumbent is being heavily outspent: Autiello has shelled out $59,000 and Bell has spent $33,000, while Jabour has only spent $13,000. While Autiello and Bell cut different profiles, they run the risk of splitting the young change-agent vote, helping Jabour to a victory. The winner will be unopposed in November.

Senate District 6 in Providence: Democratic incumbent Harold Metts has been in the General Assembly a long time, serving as a representative from 1984 to 1998 and as a senator for the last 14 years. A pastor, he is also Rhode Island’s only African-American senator. Metts is facing two challengers this year: Jonathan Hernandez, an architect, and Carlos Cedeno, a political newcomer. Hernandez ran against Metts two years ago, and the incumbent won that primary 60% to 40%. Some Providence political observers think Metts has a real fight on his hands this year, in part thanks to Cedeno’s edge in mail ballots. The winner will be unopposed in November.

Senate District 14 in East Providence: This seat is open for the first time since 1998, as longtime incumbent Democrat Dan Da Ponte decided to retire after being on the losing end of last year’s Senate leadership fight. Da Ponte is backing Delmar Condinho, an insurance agent and retired Marine he’s known since they were in school together. Condinho faces Valarie Lawson, a lifelong East Providence resident and a leader in the city’s teacher’s union, who was already challenging Da Ponte before he opted to step aside. The winner will be unopposed in November.

Senate District 30 in Warwick: Incumbent Sen. Jeanine Calkin won this seat two years ago after she defeated veteran Democrat Bill Walaska in the primary. (He died of cancer the following spring.) Calkin was closely involved in Bernie Sanders’ successful 2016 campaign, making her a leader in the local progressive movement; she is also the only state lawmaker who has formally endorsed Gov. Gina Raimondo’s primary challenger Matt Brown. Calkin is being challenged by Mark McKenney, who was friends with Walaska and who received the local Democratic committee’s endorsement over Calkin. The winner will be unopposed in November.

Senate District 35 in East Greenwich, North Kingstown, South Kingstown and Narragansett: This was the other race at the center of last month’s Democratic Party endorsement controversy. Bridget Valverde, a progressive who is vice-chair of the party’s increasing active Women’s Caucus, has been running hard for months. But the state party initially endorsed Greg Acciardo, a former state senator who jumped into the race shortly before the filing deadline. Valverde cried foul, citing Acciardo’s arrests for drunk driving, and the endorsement was withdrawn, though he has stayed in the race. The winner of the Democratic primary will face Republican Dana Gee. (She is the wife of the incumbent, Republican Mark Gee, who is retiring.)

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook

Dan McGowan and Tim White contributed to this report. An earlier version of this story left out the Republican primary in Senate District 23.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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