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Best of Boston 2009

RI ’08: Prelude to 2010

In a national year of change, stasis is likely to prevail at the General Assembly
By IAN DONNIS  |  October 31, 2008

Correction:  In a previous version of this article, the race in which Kenneth Capalbo is running was incorrect. Capalbo is running as independent against US Representative Patrick J. Kennedy.

During a national election season in which “change” remains the dominant motif, Rhode Island politics is locked in a holding pattern marked by a Democratic stranglehold on state and federal offices. Not much is likely to change after the votes are counted next Tuesday, Novem-ber 4.

If ever there were a time for the beleaguered Rhode Island Republican Party to mount a successful assault on the status quo of the Democrat-dominated General Assembly, this would have been the year. The Ocean State remains mired in fiscal woes, so voters might be ready to try something different.

And the RI GOP still offers brave talk before the election. Yet unless challengers are able to displace Senate President Joseph A. Montalbano and/or Senate Majority Leader Teresa Paiva-Weed — which is far from a certainty — Republicans (whose overall House and Senate numbers aren’t about to significantly change) will have little to show for their efforts.

Instead, Election Day 2008 signals the start of the march to a far more consequential statewide election season — complete with the high-stakes race to succeed two-term Governor Donald L. Carcieri — in 2010.

Particularly because of their antipathy toward Carcieri, but also since they haven’t had one of their own in office since Bruce Sundun’s tenure ended in 1995, Democrats will make an all-out effort to re-gain the governor’s seat.

Barring the unexpected, Stephen J. Laffey, who retains impressive political skills and will likely have learned from his US Senate primary setback in 2006, will marshal similar zeal in trying to keep the top job in Republican hands.

In the interim, here are some of the highlights from the current campaign season.

O, what a feeling
An Obama presidential victory would obviously gladden Democrats and progressives after two terms of George W. Bush. Yet it could also have a dramatic impact on the 2010 governor’s office in Rhode Island.

Earlier this year, Attorney General Patrick Lynch was the most high-profile Rhode Island Democrat to endorse Obama, back when the party’s establishment — including his brother, state Democratic Party chair Bill Lynch — was firmly aligned with Hillary Clinton. So it’s not inconceivable that Patrick Lynch, who is prevented by term limits from running for another term as AG, might land a job in Washington.

The same is true of another Obama supporter, Republican-turned-independent Lincoln Chafee, who has been speculated about as a potential administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency. If Chafee remains in Rhode Island, he will still be an intriguing possibility, given his high statewide approval rating, as an independent candidate for governor in 2010.

Larkin Barker and Eli Zupnick, former staffers for Lieutenant Governor Elizabeth Roberts, are among the Rhode Islanders working on the Obama campaign. Should the Democrat win, additional Ocean Staters can be expected to seek jobs in the new administration.

Back in Rhode Island
By 2010, fallout from the ongoing national and state fiscal crises could still frame the race to succeed Carcieri. And as it happens, two of the likely candidates, Laffey and Democratic General Treasurer Frank Caprio, each like to tout their financial acumen.

The prospect of a wider Democratic gubernatorial primary remains in play; Lynch, Roberts, Providence Mayor David N. Cicilline, and former LG Charles Fogarty (who very nearly beat Carcieri in 2006) could also be in the mix.

For now, though, the fiscal nightmare offers an edge to Caprio, who’s getting far more media attention of late than the quantity normally afforded to someone in the treasurer’s office. Adding to the in-trigue is the friendly relationship between the Carcieri and Caprio clans, as evidenced by how some of the treasurer’s relatives have made past political contributions to the governor.

Yet the middle ground appeal of Caprio — who has been known to sound like a Republican on occasion — could also work against him in a Democratic primary dominated by more liberal voters.

Republican stasis
For an indicator of the hurdles facing RI Republicans, consider the party’s congressional candidates: Jon Scott, a semi-employed grant writer (with independent Ken Capalbo), is making his second run against US Representative Patrick J. Kennedy; Mark Zaccaria, an Air Force veteran and former corporate executive is opposing US Representative James R. Langevin; and Bob Tingle, a pit boss at Foxwoods is challenging US Senator Jack Reed.

These challengers deserve credit for getting in the ring and for giving a choice to voters. Yet is it really a choice when their under-funded campaigns have such minimal chances of success?

To take it a step further, it’s worth noting that Reed, a graduate of West Point and Harvard Law School, served a few terms in the Rhode Island Senate before running for the US Senate. By compari-son, Scott and Tingle have never held elective office, and Zaccaria served two terms on the North Kingstown Town Council.

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Related: Senate shuffle, Obama for president, That’s what he said, More more >
  Topics: News Features , Barack Obama, Bill Lynch, Bob Tingle,  More more >
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