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More independent candidates running in RI

By David Klepper
Associated Press / July 15, 2012
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PROVIDENCE, R.I.—James D'Ambra served in the Rhode Island Senate for eight terms as a Democrat before leaving politics two decades ago to raise a family and focus on his career as a teacher and principal. Now he's retired, his children are grown and he's running for the Statehouse again -- as an independent.

The Lincoln resident is one of 37 people who have filed to run for the General Assembly in this fall's elections as an independent. The number of independent candidates is higher than in past elections and underscores a trend among voters in this traditionally Democratic state, where unaffiliated voters now outnumber registered Democrats and Republicans combined.

"I was a partisan Democrat, a registered Democrat for centuries," said D'Ambro, who is running for state House of Representatives. "I've lived in this state for 65 years and I've never seen things as bad as they are now. I want to go back with the freedom, the independence to do what needs to be done."

Rhode Island has long been a Democratic bastion. The party still holds overwhelming majorities in both the House and Senate. All four members of the state's congressional delegation are Democrats. So are its treasurer, secretary of state, lieutenant governor and attorney general.

Gov. Lincoln Chafee stands out as a notable exception -- the former Republican U.S. senator left the party and won the governor's office in 2010 as an independent. He's the nation's only sitting independent governor.

"I think there's a shift going on in how people view themselves," Chafee said. "There's a sense too that all this gridlock in Washington has to stop. I think that filters down all the way to the state and local level."

The number of independent candidates continues to rise, with 37 this year, compared with 32 in 2010, 18 in 2008 and six in 2006.

Independent candidates interviewed by The Associated Press gave varied reasons for their decisions to run without Democratic or Republican Party backing. Some say they became tired of what they see as one-party rule by the Democrats. Others said they disagreed with what they said is a Republican Party increasingly focused on social issues. Still others blamed both parties and said Rhode Island voters deserve a new option.

Candidates pointed to the state's unemployment rate of 11 percent, budget deficits, taxes and the recent collapse of former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling's video game company 38 Studios, which had received a $75 million loan guarantee from the state.

"People are so tired of the way things are done," said independent Mark Stoutzenberger of Cranston, who is running for the Rhode Island House. "I'm not kidding myself, it's tough to win without a party. But hopefully a few of us could win. If the numbers (in the General Assembly) just sway a little bit it would be helpful."

Independent and third-party candidates typically fare poorly in elections. Currently only one state lawmaker is an independent -- Sen. Ed O'Neill of Lincoln. But independent candidates point to state voter registration numbers and say it's only a matter of time before that number grows.

Of the state's 721,000 registered voters, 39 percent are registered as Democrats and 10 percent as Republicans. Just over 50 percent are unaffiliated.

"Most of the voters in my district are unaffiliated," said Mary Ann Shallcross Smith, an independent candidate for a House seat representing Johnston and Pawtucket. Shallcross Smith was a one-term Democratic state lawmaker who lost a re-election bid two years ago. "You go door-to-door and people tell you they're unemployed. They're worried about their job, or the economy. I think people are more concerned about solving problems than they are about what party you're from."

University of Rhode Island political science professor Maureen Moakley said independent candidates may be avoiding partisan labels for practical reasons. By running as an independent, candidates can skip primary elections and concentrate their attention and resources on the general election when unaffiliated voters turn out.

"I think the politics of primaries has gotten so sharp that we're seeing more and more candidates see a path to victory by bypassing the primary altogether," she said.

In addition to 37 independent candidates, one Libertarian and two Moderate Party candidates have filed to run for the Legislature. Ken Block, founder and chairman of the Moderate Party of Rhode Island, said the state's problems have little to do with the national platforms of the Republican and Democratic parties.

"I think we're reaching a tipping point here in Rhode Island," he said. "I think the relevance of the two parties is declining and people really like the idea of candidates who focus on the economy and education."

But party affiliation has definite advantages. Party organizations can supply volunteers, offer campaign advice and help raise funds. Voters unfamiliar with a candidate's name or views may simply go by their partisan designation. And once elected, independents can find it difficult to succeed without the automatic allies that a party provides.

"There are pros and cons," Chafee said. "You're not committed to any party ideology. But having the grassroots (of a party) really helps. It also helps with raising money."

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