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RI voters favor challengers in statehouse contests

By David Klepper
Associated Press / September 12, 2012
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PROVIDENCE, R.I.—Look for new faces in the Rhode Island Statehouse after voters favored challengers over incumbents in Tuesday's statewide primary, a low-turnout contest that also set the ballot for the fall's congressional election.

Several sitting state lawmakers lost their bids for re-election in the primary, including Democratic Reps. Rene Menard, of Lincoln; Jon Brien, of Woonsocket; Peter Petrarca and Michael Tarro, of Providence; and William San Bento, of Pawtucket, a 20-year veteran of the General Assembly who lost by only 12 votes.

In the election's highest-profile race, U.S. Rep. David Cicilline dispatched businessman Anthony Gemma in the state's 1st District Democratic primary.

Democratic Senate candidate Adam Satchell, who defeated state Sen. Michael Pinga, of West Warwick, said voters want new ideas for solving the state's economic woes.

"They were ready for a change," said Satchell, who faces Republican Paul Caianiello in the Nov. 6 election.

State Rep. Michael Tarro, D-Providence, said that sometimes all it takes to defeat an incumbent in a primary is an energized challenger. Tarro came in last in a three-way Democratic contest that was won by former Providence acting mayor and City Councilman John Lombardi.

"With such low voter turnout it's all about who gets out their voters," he said. "Anything can happen."

Lawmakers looking ahead to the General Election are likely to wonder if Tuesday's anti-incumbent mood will be a factor in November.

Voter Steve Enderby said he's fed up with the Assembly's attempts to help the beleaguered economy in Rhode Island, which has the nation's second highest unemployment rate at 10.8 percent.

"I'm tired of all the career politicians that have done nothing for us," he said. "I want to see jobs in this state. It's the lack of results that bother me."

Democratic state Rep. Leo Medina, who was charged last month with practicing law without a license, lost to former lawmaker Joseph Almeida by 30 percentage points. Medina also is facing allegations he pocketed the proceeds from a life insurance policy on a friend's dead daughter and has pleaded not guilty.

Other incumbents survived close calls.

Senate Finance Chairman Dan DaPonte, D-East Providence, won 51 percent of the vote to fend off a challenge from state Rep. Roberto DaSilva, D-East Providence.

Sen. Michael McCaffrey, of Warwick, narrowly beat challenger Laura Pisaturo to win the Democratic nomination. McCaffrey's victory was a bitter loss for gay-marriage supporters, who had hoped to unseat McCaffrey, chairman of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee and an opponent to same-sex marriage. Pisaturo is openly gay.

Ray Sullivan, campaign director for the group Fight Back Rhode Island, which supports gay marriage, noted that other candidates backed by his group won, including Satchell. He said his group will continue to play a role in the next phase of the election.

"We picked up some momentum, and we we're very excited about the general election," he said.

Voter turnout on Tuesday was light at most polling places, at about 12.5 percent of those eligible to vote in the primary.

For many voters, Tuesday's election was the first time they were asked to present identification at the polls. Election officials said that there were no significant problems and that they've heard of only two voters who were given provisional ballots because they lacked ID. No problems with voter ID were reported in three smaller elections held earlier this year.

Providence poll worker Sylvia Stimma said voters seemed to understand the new requirement.

"The voters have been great and they have their IDs ready to go when they show up," she said.

Unlike several legislative upsets, the primary's congressional races had few surprises.

Along with Cicilline's win over Gemma in the 1st District, U.S. Rep. James Langevin easily beat Democratic primary opponent John Matson in the 2nd District. Langevin, of Warwick, was first elected to the U.S. House in 2000 and is the only quadriplegic serving in Congress. Langevin spent Tuesday in Washington, saying he didn't want to miss any votes.

"I never take any election for granted," Langevin said. "I'm going to continue to work hard to fight for the middle class, fight to put people back to work and create a tax code that helps small businesses."

Langevin will face Republican Michael Riley, who won a four-way primary against Kara Russo, Donald Robbio and Michael Gardiner to secure his party's nomination.

Riley, a Narragansett resident, stressed his experience as an investment banker during his campaign and said he favors cutting government spending and revising the tax code to spur the economy.

"I'm on a mission," Riley said. "My idea is to take action. What we have is a guy (Langevin) who has been here for 12 years and hasn't produced a lot."

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