Analyzing the Races Where Incumbents Lost on Tuesday
Scott MacKay of WRNI’s On Politics blog summed up Rhode Island’s Tuesday-night primary election results by saying “the only real throw-the-bums out anger came from the Democratic left, not the GOP right”. MacKay also quoted Local AFL-CIO President George Nee’s reaction, “I’d say it was a pretty good night for organized labor”. Let’s take a closer look at the nine House races where incumbent Democrats lost, to get a clearer idea of how large a role organized labor did or did not play in them
There’s no doubt that Teresa Tanzi‘s victory over David Caprio in District 34 (Narragansett/South Kingstown) and Richard Morrison‘s victory over Doug Gablinske in District 68 (Bristol/Warren) were the result of long-term, announced campaigns over Democrats consistently described as DINOs — Democrats in Name Only — by the RI progressive/labor left.
David Bennett beat Al Gemma in District 20 (Warwick) by the largest margin of the night for anyone challenging an incumbent. Despite Gemma receiving August campaign contributions from House Speaker Gordon Fox, Majority leader Nicholas Mattiello and Democratic Party Chair Ed Pacheco, as well as having received support from a number of private-sector labor organizations earlier in the election season, Bennett was clearly the candidate of public sector organized labor, racking up big donations from NEARI-PACE, the RI AFL-CIO, the SEIU, and the United Nurses and Allied Health Professionals late in the cycle. It looks as if organized labor wanted to replace a sometime supporter (Gemma) with someone they expect will act more predictably (Bennett). However, especially given the size of Bennett’s victory, it would be a mistake to chalk up the final result entirely to machine politics — it is also likely that a portion of Gemma’s constituency believed that the time had come to let someone new take on the task of representing the district. Still, it’s safe to make David Bennett’s victory the third victory for George Nee’s “organized labor”.
Mary Ann Shallcross-Smith lost to challenger Jeremiah O’Grady in District 46 (Lincoln/Pawtucket). In 2009, Shallcross-Smith received money from the big public labor PACs like NEARI-PACE and the RI AFL-CIO, but in 2010 O’Grady got their money while Shallcross-Smith didn’t. It seems that the incumbent did something to displease her organized labor benefactors; a pre-election interview of both district 46 candidates done by Audra Clark of the Valley Breeze provides a list of possibly significant issue differences; Shallcross-Smith was yes on e-verify, favored pension reform, and non-committal on binding arbitration. O’Grady was no on e-verify, non-committal on pension reform, and yes on binding arbitration.
Spencer Dickinson defeated incumbent Michael Rice in District 35 (South Kingstown). Rice was very specific in an interview with Liz Boardman of the South County Independent as to why he believed he was primaried…
Rumor is that the AFL-CIO and teachers union is upset with me for voting for Article 16 of the budget, which removes part of the pensions for teachers. They courted Spencer Dickinson to run against me.Rice also speculated that some constituents may have been upset with him for sponsoring a same-sex marriage bill. Dickinson replied in the article by saying that social issues aren’t his thing, and by talking about how important pensions are. Rice received money from multiple teachers unions up until April of this year. After the state budget vote that included pension reform (early June), Rice got nothing else from the teacher’s union, while Dickinson received a substantial contribution from NEARI-PACE in August. Rice had been generally regarded as a reliable progressive, evidenced by his no vote on e-verify when it was voted on last year and his sponsorship of a same-sex marriage bill this year. The combination of Shallcross-Smith’s and Rice’s races seem to show that Rhode Island legislators don’t have to reach Al Gemma levels of non-linear behavior to find themselves subjected to union discipline; apparently taking the wrong side of pension reform is enough.
The dynamics in the other four races are a tad murkier.
James McLaughlin defeated incumbent Kenneth Vaudreuil in District 57 (Central Falls/Cumberland). McLaughlin was not the recipient of overt organized labor support. At the level of statewide intrigue, McLaughlin did receive a contribution from Rep. Karen MacBeth, an opponent of the current House leadership cadre, while Vaudreuil received money from House leaders Fox and Mattiello. The more notable name on Vaudreuil’s contributor list, however, may be that of Central Falls’ deposed mayor Charles Moreau. Vaudreuil won Central Falls, but lost Cumberland, and it is easy to imagine that association with Moreau would be a magnet for voter dissatisfaction, with voters from Cumberland being less than enthused about a friend of Charles Moreau representing them, and MacBeth taking the opportunity to ingratiate herself to a potential new ally against the House’s leadership.
One other note of interest: Vaudrieuil was one of 10 legislators commended in a recent letter from a national group called “Democrats for Education Reform“. Five of the ten legislators mentioned in that letter lost their primaries on Tuesday night (Vaudreuil, Gablinske, Gemma, Shallcross-Smith, plus Joseph Almeida who will be discussed below). It doesn’t look like either Vaudreuil or Almeida were targeted specifically for their education reform positions, but whether it was intended or not, there is the potential for a major shift in the state legislature’s balance on education policy brewing — unless more explicitly pro-reform legislators are elected in the general election in November.
Peter Wasylyk‘s loss to Raymond Hull in District 6 (North Providence/Providence) and Christopher Fierro‘s loss to Robert Phillips in District 51 (Woonsocket) seem to have been powered by regular voters unhappy with their incumbents performance, as both incumbents were on organized labor’s side of the Article 16 pension vote mentioned by Rice, and both were no’s on the 2009 E-verify vote, suggesting they reliably voted with the progressive caucus.
Finally, there is Leo Medina‘s (pending recount) victory over Joseph Almeida in District 12 (Providence). Beyond the entanglement with the Providence Mayoral race, Almeida seems to have found his way to Rhode Island political no-man’s land. Though he was an annual sponsor of some of Rhode Island’s most progressive legislation, Almeida also voted in favor of the dreaded Article 16, and was praised by the Democrats for Education Reform. So while organized labor may not have targeted him in this cycle, neither were they inclined to come strongly to his support. On the other hand, based on the campaign finance reports, it doesn’t look like Almeida was interested in anyone’s support — he has no reports of any individual campaign contributions since 2005. His minimal campaign efforts obviously opened the door to a challenger out-hustling him on the ground.
By my tally that makes 5 cases of organized labor knocking off their targets (Gablinske, Caprio, Gemma, Shallcross-Smith, Rice) and 4 incumbents who fell victim to broad-based dissatisfaction amongst their constituencies (Vaudreuil, Wasylyk, Fierro, Almeida). 5-4 is not quite the rout that was reported in the early analysis, though the organized labor wing of the Rhode Island Democratic party does look to be engaging in a systematic purge of any legislator whom they can, who even considers pension reform.
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