OP-ED: Tight Race for District 3 Democratic Primary

Zurier wins primary race for State Senate, LaFortune enters race for Mayor

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After a wild and intense five-week campaign sprint to the finish, Sam Zurier hung in to win a tightly contested five-candidate race to replace Gayle Goldin as the State Senator representing District 3 on the East Side of Providence. The five candidates, three of whom were first-timers, attracted statewide attention as money flowed into the race at a staggering pace, eventually exceeding $200,000! By comparison, the last primary contest in 2014 drew only $55,000.

While all of the candidates considered themselves progressives in terms of policies, there were significant differences in terms of experience and name recognition. Zurier will face a relatively unknown Republican, Alex Cannon, to represent the district on November 2.

A very strong primary turnout saw over 4,000 votes cast. Preliminary results had Zurier (32 percent), Geena Pham (24 percent), Bret Jacob (22 percent), Hilary Levey Friedman (15 percent), and Ray Rickman (7 percent). Zurier won four of the 10 polling places, the early vote, and the mail-in votes. Although significantly outspent by both Friedman and Pham, as a former City Councilor, Zurier ran as a pragmatic progressive with the experience and understanding of the major issues that the city is facing, which proved to be the difference over more limited issue-specific candidates. 

Early analysis suggests that voters supported the progressive agenda, but wanted a Senator who would be sensitive to that agenda but also had experience and a strong understanding of the specific issues facing Providence. The Boston Globe’s Dan McGowan observed how Pham somehow managed to tie virtually every issue under discussion into the need to do something about global warming.

Zurier was endorsed by State Rep. Edith Ajello and City Councilwoman Helen Anthony; Pham was backed by Matt Brown’s Rhode Island Political Cooperative, Climate Action Rhode Island, Black Lives Matter RI PAC, and Reclaim RI; Jacob, who works for Elorza, was the hand-picked candidate of the Senate 3 Democratic committee representing old line East Side Democratic insiders – he ran on the progressive agenda and his presence in the LGBTQ+ community. He was also endorsed by outgoing Senator Gayle Goldin’s husband and former Rep. Aaron Regunberg; Friedman had support from the Providence Firefighters Union, the Rhode Island AFL-CIO, and RI NOW; and Rickman from the Rhode Island Black Political Action Committee.

Wasting no time, immediately after the outcome of the race became clear, Georgia Hollister Isman, director of Working Families Party New England Region, issued a statement, which reads more like a threat. It congratulated Zurier and then pointed out that their two candidates had tremendous support (48 percent) and that “We have friends and allies who supported both progressive candidates, and we look forward to coming together to hold Sam accountable to passing the type of bold progressive change that keeps us moving toward a Rhode Island that works for the many, not the few.”

Zurier’s victory marks the beginning of our political season 2021-22, which promises to be one of the busiest non-presidential seasons we’ve had in quite some time. Since Mayor Elorza is term-limited, his seat is wide open. Already four candidates have officially announced their candidacy. Two are from the West Side: Gonzalo Cuervo, the former chief of staff for Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, and Michael Solomon, former City Council President who ran a tight race against Mayor Elorza seven years ago and is back to try again; from the East Side comes Brett Smiley, both Gina Raimondo’s and Jorge Elorza’s former top aide, and Nirva LaFortune, the City Councilperson representing Ward 3 (the Summit/Mt. Hope area).

It’s likely several more people are considering a run, including City Council President John Igliozzi. The cost of the Mayoral race is considerably less expensive than statewide races, well under $500,000 if you’re keeping score. Each of the current four candidates have between $130,000 to $350,000 in their political war chests already and we’re still a year out.

Term limited, Elorza had been considering a run for Governor until polls convinced him otherwise but is sitting on well over a million dollars in his personal campaign account that he could sprinkle around if he wanted. If all the candidates stick it out, we are likely facing a minority vote victory for the winner… reminiscent of the Cianci victories of old. Given the huge amount of federal money that he or she will control, there are plenty of reasons for all of us to pay attention.

We may have lost the PawSox. And the Patriots are sucking air right now. But when it comes to hard, tight-fisted, sharp-elbowed political fights, Providence rarely lets us down.

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