PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Rhode Island’s political class was abuzz with speculation Wednesday about who might jump into the unexpected special election to replace Congressman David Cicilline, as details emerged about how soon voters may cast their ballots.
Cicilline’s bombshell announcement Tuesday that he will resign on June 1 to become CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation has created a rare federal vacancy locally for the second time in two years, and roughly two dozen people are looking at running for the Democratic-leaning seat.
“At this point it’s a free-for-all,” said 12 News political analyst Joe Fleming. “That number of people who want to run will dwindle as people start declaring and others say, ‘Hey, that person has a lot of money, I can’t match them, so it’s not worth me running.'”
Two of the most closely watched Democrats — Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos and former gubernatorial candidate Helena Foulkes — have been tight-lipped over the last 24 hours, but are in active discussions about whether they should enter the race.
“The lieutenant governor is discussing the opportunity with her family and loved ones and will sincerely consider how she can best serve Rhode Island,” said David Folcarelli, a Matos spokesperson. He declined to elaborate on her level of interest or any potential timeline.
Foulkes, a former CVS executive who nearly defeated incumbent Gov. Dan McKee in last year’s primary, confirmed Tuesday she is “seriously considering” a congressional bid. A spokesperson also said she and her husband recently bought a house in Providence, where they previously lived, giving her a residence in the 1st District.
Gabe Amo, a Pawtucket native who serves in the Biden White House, is being encouraged to run by some of his former colleagues in the Raimondo administration. He has declined to comment on his plans. Various state lawmakers, mayors and municipal officials have been public about their interest in the seat, too.
Some other big names — including House Speaker Joe Shekarchi and Attorney General Peter Neronha — have left the door open to running, but are widely viewed as unlikely to give up their powerful current posts to serve as a backbencher in the minority party on Capitol Hill.
At least one possible Democratic candidate ruled himself out on Wednesday: Xay Khamsyvoravong, Newport’s recently elected mayor, who tweeted that he will remain in his current post.
• Target 12: See who’s in the mix to run for Cicilline’s seat
Rhode Island hasn’t had a special election for Congress since 1967, when veteran Democrat John Fogarty died in office. Fogarty’s 2nd District seat was filled in April, three months after his death, in a close contest.
Speaking to reporters on a conference call from overseas Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Jack Reed — Rhode Island’s most senior elected Democrat — acknowledged Cicilline’s decision had come as a surprise, but expressed confidence that his party’s eventual nominee will hold the 1st District.
“We’re going to put all of our resources, as we did last election, into holding that seat,” Reed said. He added, “There’s no such thing as a safe seat.”
Democrats have held the 1st District seat almost continuously since 1940, interrupted only by the three terms of Republican Ron Machtley, who unseated scandal-tarnished incumbent Fernand St Germain in 1988. Last November, Cicilline received 64% of the vote against Republican Allen Waters.
Democratic Congressman Seth Magaziner — who eked out his own hard-fought victory last November to replace Jim Langevin — is now poised to become Rhode Island’s senior U.S. House member just months into his term. Magaziner told 12 News on Wednesday it’s too soon for him to say whether he might endorse in the primary to replace Cicilline.
“It would be premature for me to weigh in — we don’t even know who’s running yet,” he said. “But I certainly am committed to helping make sure that a Democrat holds the seat and that we have someone to work with in the delegation to deliver results for working Rhode Islanders.”
Magaziner was living in the 1st District when he decided to jump into the 2nd District race last year, forcing him to move with his wife and baby to a new house. But he expressed no second thoughts even though the seat representing his old home address has opened up so soon.
“I really do feel that I’m tremendously lucky to represent the 2nd Congressional District,” Magaziner said.
Unlike Cicilline, Patrick Kennedy — his predecessor representing the 1st District was already prepared on Tuesday to identify a preferred candidate for his old seat.
“As you know I was a big fan of Helena Foulkes in the race for governor,” Kennedy said during a live interview on 12 News at 4. “I think she’s very capable and obviously would make a great elected official. … She definitely comes off strong, especially after the very strong race that she made for governor.”
Kennedy added, “As you know, in Rhode Island if you’re representing either one of the congressional districts, you’re seen as a Rhode Island leader, not just a member of that congressional district that you represent.”
Even as the flurry of behind-the-scenes phone calls and machinations continue, there is still no certainty about exactly when the special election will take place. Under state law, the election dates cannot be formally set until the seat has been officially vacated on June 1.
“We are beginning to map out a possible timeline for the special election that would comply with elections law and create enough time to satisfy all of the procedural elements of holding a special election,” said Faith Chybowski, a spokesperson for Secretary of State Gregg Amore.
Under the earliest possible scenario, the primary would be Aug. 8 and the special election would likely be Oct. 3; under another scenario, the schedule would follow a fairly typical election rhythm for Rhode Island, with a Sept. 5 primary and a Nov. 7 special election.
Chybowski cautioned: “These are only preliminary, possible dates. Later dates are possible. No dates have been set or confirmed.”
State leaders are also contending with warnings from legal experts that Rhode Island’s existing statute for special elections may set a schedule that is too tight to comply with the federal law that governs distribution of mail ballots to military personnel and others overseas.
Quinn Yeargain, a professor at the Widener University Commonwealth Law School in Pennsylvania, said federal law requires overseas voters to get their absentee ballots at least 45 days before the primary election, but Rhode Island’s candidate filing deadline isn’t until 38 days before the vote.
“Certification of filing papers wouldn’t have happened by that point,” Yeargain told 12 News. “Even if they were given a ballot, for example, and told to write in — which does happen sometimes, depending on the timing of elections — they wouldn’t know who they are voting for.”
John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, supported Yeargain’s analysis and urged legislative leaders to act quickly to amend the schedule. Otherwise, he said, the U.S. Department of Justice might sue the state to force compliance.
“We are interested in making sure that the federal law is upheld so that all voters can participate in that special election, because every vote counts,” Marion told 12 News. “You never know how close that election can be.”
General Assembly leaders said they would defer to the secretary of state’s office to determine whether the law needed to change.
“Our office recognizes how critically important it is that all eligible voters have access to their ballot, including our military members who may currently be out of the country, and the special election will comply with federal law,” Amore said. “We will continue to prioritize enfranchisement in all of our elections planning activity.”
Ted Nesi (email@example.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook.
Amanda Pitts and Kim Kalunian contributed to this report.