Progressives oust multiple incumbent lawmakers in RI primary

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Senate Finance Committee Chairman William Conley was the most high-profile casualty of Tuesday’s statewide primary, according to results released Thursday, as progressive challengers defeated incumbent Democrats in both chambers of the General Assembly.

The final results took nearly two days to tabulate as the R.I. Board of Elections worked to count more than 38,000 mail ballots, a number driven up by the pandemic. In many cases, however, the outcomes of the contests were foreshadowed by the preliminary results from in-person voting, which accounted for a bit more than half the total turnout.

Turnout was relatively strong, considering there were no high-profile statewide or federal races and 14% of registered voters had no contested primaries at all in their precincts. More than 90,000 ballots had been cast at last check, putting voter turnout at roughly 11.4% — higher than in three of Rhode Island’s last five presidential-year primaries. (It hit 12.8% in 2012 and 15.4% in 2000.)

In a closely watched race away from the State House, Maria Bucci came out on top in the Democratic primary for Cranston mayor against Steve Stycos. She will face GOP nominee Ken Hopkins in the November election to succeed Mayor Allan Fung, who is term-limited.

The outcomes in the legislative races suggested growing strength in the progressive wing of the Rhode Island Democratic Party, powered by a variety of groups including the Working Families Party, the Rhode Island Political Cooperative and Reclaim RI. It was also a strong night for women Democrats, a number of whom unseated more moderate men, and candidates of color.

Not every progressive challenger was successful, however.

The top two leaders in the Senate — Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, D-North Providence, and Senate Majority Leader Mike McCaffrey, D-Warwick — both survived competitive primaries in their home districts.

“I greatly appreciate the support of my constituents and neighbors reelecting me to the Senate,” Ruggerio said in a statement. “We have many challenges ahead of us and I will work as hard as I can with my colleagues in the Senate and with the House and Governor Raimondo to get Rhode Island moving again.”

Conley, D-East Providence, lost the Senate District 18 primary to Cynthia Mendes, who ran an energetic campaign across the district — which includes part of Pawtucket — introducing herself as a single mother who works two jobs. Conley simultaneously faced a fierce backlash in East Providence for working for the developer pushing the controversial Metacomet Golf Club redevelopment plan.

“The RI Political Cooperative is building a movement,” Mendes declared in a statement Thursday night. “We’re not going to stop until we’ve replaced every corporate sell-out politician in this state with leaders who will stand up for our communities.”

Conley was one of 10 incumbents ousted by Democratic primary voters in Tuesday’s election, nine of whom had not conceded before the mail ballot results were released.

In Senate District 6, Providence Sen. Harold Metts lost to Tiara Mack, a Black woman and Brown University graduate who identifies as queer and drew a clear contrast with Metts’ outspoken social conservatism. Metts, who is currently the only Black senator, was first elected to the Senate in 2004 and before that spent 14 years in the House.

In Senate District 16, Central Falls Sen. Betty Crowley lost to Central Falls City Councilor Jonathon Acosta. He pledged to “bring impactful, compassionate, and inclusive leadership” to the Senate, where Crowley has served for 12 years.

In Senate District 30, Warwick Sen. Mark McKenney lost to former Sen. Jeanine Calkin, a rematch of their primary two years ago, when Calkin lost to McKenney. Calkin is also a co-chair of the new Rhode Island Political Cooperative group that is working to elect more progressives.

“Tonight is just the beginning,” Calkin said in a statement. “We’ve got 16 general election campaigns for November, then Co-op legislators will begin working together to turn our policies into state law.”

Jennifer Rourke, who lost her challenge to the Senate majority leader but is also a Co-op co-chair, added: “We spent nearly two years building this team of 24 extraordinary candidates. Recruitment begins now for 2022.”

In House District 7, Providence Rep. Dan McKiernan lost to David Morales, who criticized the priorities of wealthy, well-connected State House leaders. Morales said he received crucial help from Reclaim RI, which was founded by Bernie Sanders supporters.

“Our grassroots campaign was successful because we had an effective ‘ground game’ as we knocked on every door in the neighborhood three times,” Morales said in a statement, adding, “Some doors were even knocked six times!”

In House District 16, Cranston Rep. Chris Millea lost to Brandon Potter, a first-time candidate whose top issues included health care and climate change.

In House District 61, Pawtucket Rep. Raymond Johnston lost to Leonela Felix, a political newcomer, who works as a lawyer for the city of Providence. Johnston had served in the House for a decade, but insiders said he was caught flatfooted by the strength of Felix’s challenge.

“I said it hundreds and hundreds of times over these last months. ‘Hello, my name is Leonela Felix, and I’m running for state representative because I believe the State House is not working for real people like us,'” Felix said in a statement Thursday night. “And people kept nodding their heads.”

Millea and Johnston were both targeted for defeat by the SEIU due to the House’s refusal to pass a bill that would enforce minimum staffing standards at Rhode Island nursing homes.

The story was more unusual in House District 13, where Providence Rep. Mario Mendez lost to former Rep. Ramon Perez, whom Mendez had unseated two years ago. Perez had won the seat after a Target 12 investigation triggered the downfall of former Rep. John Carnevale. But Perez wound up apologizing during his first term for passing out a printed copy of a Wikipedia article that showed multiple open web browser tabs referencing pornography.

In House District 64, East Providence Rep. Joe Serodio lost to Briana Henries, a Black woman who emphasized tackling the lack of affordable housing in Rhode Island among other issues. Serodio, a first-term representative, had faced negative headlines just before the primary for failing to file his campaign finance reports.

In addition, progressives also scored victories in some open-seat races.

Warwick’s Kendra Anderson came out on top in a four-way primary to succeed Erin Lynch Prata in Senate District 31; Portsmouth’s Michelle McGaw won a landslide victory to succeed Dennis Canario in House District 71; Pawtucket’s Meghan Kallman easily won the primary to succeed Donna Nesselbush in Senate District 15; and Narragansett’s Alana DiMario won the Senate District 36 primary to succeed James sheehan.

Incumbent Sen. Sam Bell easily survived a leadership-backed challenge from Providence City Council Majority Leader Jo-Ann Ryan in Senate District 5, as well.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) is WPRI 12’s politics and business editor and a Target 12 investigative reporter. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook

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