The race for governor and the scramble to replace retiring Representative Patrick J. Kennedy have obsessed Rhode Island's chattering class. But all the talk has obscured an intriguing set of "down ballot" races for lieutenant governor, attorney general, treasurer, and secretary of state.
There are, of course, some important public policy concerns at stake — law and order, consumer protection, ballot access, business permitting, and the management of the state's creaking pension system, among others.
But the elections could also play a big role in mapping the state's political future: the down ballot offices, after all, make for prime launching pads to higher office.
James Langevin was secretary of state before he landed in Congress. The two Democrats fighting for their party's gubernatorial nomination, Frank T. Caprio and Patrick C. Lynch, are running from the treasurer's and attorney general's chairs, respectively.
And early indications are that this year's class of down ballot officers could put a new face on Rhode Island politics. Among the leading candidates: a Filipino American who could be New England's first Asian-American in statewide office, a policy geek with a strong progressive pedigree, a venture capitalist who has never run for office before. But there are some strong candidates with more traditional pedigrees, too.
Here, then, is a glimpse at the future:
Joseph M. Fernandez
The Attorney General is probably the most powerful of the down ballot statewide offices. And with Lynch terming out of office, there is heavy competition to replace him.
On the Democratic side, four candidates have declared for the office — State Representative Peter F. Kilmartin, of Pawtucket, a lawyer who worked as a police officer for years; Joseph M. Fernandez, former Providence city solicitor; Stephen R. Archambault, a lawyer, Smithfield Town Councilman, and former cop; and Robert E. Rainville, an East Greenwich lawyer and former probate judge in West Warwick.
None of the candidates are household names, which may work to their advantage in an anti-establishment year. But playing the outsider will be tough for Kilmartin, a 20-year veteran of the General Assembly who rose to the position of majority whip in the House.
Kilmartin's opponents will be sure to plumb his lengthy voting record for vulnerabilities. And they'll do all they can to tie him to a deeply unpopular General Assembly: in a recent Brown University poll, only 18 percent of voters said they had a "great deal of confidence" or a "good deal" of confidence in Democratic legislators to make the right decisions for Rhode Island's future.
But if the whip can't escape his record, he'll do all that he can to take advantage of it: emphasizing his push for a bill banning texting while driving, for instance, and another ratcheting up penalties for those convicted of abducting children. His years in politics have also delivered support from a lengthy list of elected officials and union leaders who can validate him in a low-profile race.
And with all the candidates offering up a similar message — cracking down on corruption and soaring health insurance rates are consistent themes — Kilmartin is counting on his story as a police officer-turned-elected official to propel his candidacy.