PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – House Majority Leader John DeSimone was the most powerful incumbent who lost his primary race on Tuesday, but he wasn’t the only one.
DeSimone, D-Providence, was one of six incumbent General Assembly members who went down to defeat in the low-turnout primary, and a number of them were long-tenured veterans, according to initial results from the R.I. Board of Elections.
In addition to DeSimone, the other defeated incumbents were Rep. Jan Malik, D-Warren; Rep. Eileen Naughton, D-Warwick; Rep. Thomas Palangio, D-Providence; Sen. Juan Pichardo, D-Providence; and Sen. William Walaska, D-Warwick. Four of the six lost to candidates endorsed by the Rhode Island Progressive Democrats.
It’s still possible some of the races could go to recounts.
DeSimone, first elected in 1992, has been House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello’s powerful No. 2 since the latter replaced Gordon Fox in 2014. He was seeking a 13th term in the R.I. House of Representatives and his allies had been expressing confidence in recent weeks that he wouldn’t have trouble against Marcia Ranglin-Vassell, a schoolteacher and political newcomer. The pair debated on WPRI 12’s Newsmakers earlier this month.
But Ranglin-Vassell pulled it off, winning the Democratic primary for House District 5 by just 16 votes and dealing a significant blow to Mattiello’s leadership team. She will face Republican Roland Lavallee in the November election. Meanwhile, the scramble for power was already beginning Tuesday night as other House Democrats jockeyed to see who would replace DeSimone as Mattiello’s top deputy.
Two of the other House incumbents who lost were, like DeSimone, longtime incumbents who drew solid challengers.
Warwick Rep. Eileen Naughton had held her House seat since 1992 and was a Mattiello ally who was said to be working hard to win another term. Nevertheless, she lost by 73 votes to Councilwoman Camille Vella-Wilkinson, who criticized Naughton’s vote for truck tolls; Vella-Wilkinson will face three opponents in November.
Warren Rep. Jan Malik, first elected in 1996 and owner of the eponymous liquor store, was easily defeated by Jason Knight, a Barrington attorney who challenged him from the left. Knight will face Daryl Gould, a libertarian, in November.
Less of a surprise was the defeat of Providence Rep. Thomas Palangio, who lost by 21 votes to progressive newcomer Moira Walsh; he was in his second tenure after previously serving from 1992 to 2002. Walsh had been running an aggressive campaign, while Palangio had been ill for sometime, and political insiders had long ago thought she was favored in the race. Walsh will be unopposed in November.
“Voters are clearly hungry for bold progressive policy,” said Georgia Hollister Isman, Rhode Island state director for the Working Families Party, which backed the four progressives who beat incumbents. “These victories send a clear message to the legislature – it is time for some big changes.”
Two other House incumbents nearly went down to defeat but managed to squeak by: Pawtucket Rep. David Coughlin, who beat progressive challenger David Norton by just 11 votes, and Providence Rep. Anastasia Williams, who held on for an 89-vote win over Michael Gazdacko. Neither has an opponent in November.
Mattiello’s preferred candidate won in four of five House races with open seats this November: Ramon Perez in Rep. John Carnevale’s District 13, Alex Marszalkowski in Rep. Karen MacBeth’s District 52, Helder Cunha in Rep. Helio Melo’s District 64, and Susan Donovan in ex-Rep. Ray Gallison’s District 69. The exception was former Rep. Linda Finn, seeking to take back her old District 72 seat from retiring Rep. Dan Reilly; she won a landslide victory over James Cawley, who had Mattiello’s support.
On the Senate side, seven-term Senator Pichardo of Providence and 11-term Senator Walaska of Warwick both knew they were in trouble, but in the end they couldn’t fight off strong opponents. Pichardo lost by 97 votes in a rematch against Ana Quezada, and Walaska lost by 81 to Jeanine Calkin, a prominent local Bernie Sanders supporter; Walaska had also been suffering from cancer.
Quezada and Calkin will be unopposed in November.
But in Senate District 7, which straddles Providence and North Providence, Sen. Frank Ciccone scored an emphatic victory over Doris De Los Santos, who was challenging him for the second time, winning by 214 votes. Pawtucket Sen. James Doyle also won but not as comfortably, receiving just 67 votes more than challenger Matt Fecteau.
Ciccone and Doyle will be unopposed in November.
There was no immediate estimate of voter turnout from the Board of Elections, but fewer than 61,000 votes were cast in the two races for U.S. House at the top of the Democratic primary ballot, which would put turnout at only about 8%, even lower than in 2012 and 2008.
It’s not clear, however, how many Democratic voters cast ballots in other races while leaving the U.S. House race blank, or how many took a Republican ballot, which in both cases would increase the turnout total.Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He writes The Saturday Morning Post and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram