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News Analysis — Elections 2022: Few contested races remain after primaries

For information about the upcoming RI general election on Nov 8, see the web site – vote.sos.ri.gov – that explains how and where to vote, options for early voting, and lists of candidates for all offices. RI has early in-person voting Oct 19 through Nov 7 at city and town halls; no special application is required to vote early in-person.

The deadline to register to vote for this general election is Sun, Oct 9. The deadline for registered voters to apply for a mail ballot is Tue, Oct 18. Registering to vote can be done in-person, by postal mail, and on-line.

Most of the RI races in the 2022 general election are not considered seriously competitive, and more than a few major offices do not even have an opposition candidate. For mayor of Providence, Democrat Brett Smiley won an aggressively contested primary with 41.9% against Gonzalo Cuervo with 36.2% and Nirva LaFortune with 21.9%, but no Republican declared candidacy at all and a lone independent, former city council member (then as a Democrat) Wilbur Jennings Jr, failed to submit nomination papers to qualify for the ballot.

US House, 2nd district: Fung v. Magaziner

Allan Fung and Kevin McCarthy in RI, Aug 6, 2022. (Source)

The marquee race is unquestionably for the second district seat in the US House of Representatives being vacated by James Langevin who has held it since 2002. In the Democratic primary, outgoing General Treasurer Seth Magaziner trounced a crowded field of five other candidates, with 54.0%. On the Republican side, Allan Fung, who served as Cranston mayor from 2009 to 2021, earned the nomination unopposed.

In the only public poll of the race, conducted by Suffolk University in collaboration with The Boston Globe, Fung led by 6 percentage points head-to-head against Magaziner (45% – 39%), but the result is of dubious value because it was conducted Jun 19 – 22, long before the Sep 13 primary; and it included all of the other Democratic candidates at that time.

Nevertheless, Fung is an unusually strong Republican candidate by RI standards and has a credible chance of winning the House seat. He is well-regarded and his twelve years as mayor of Cranston are generally seen as a successful example of good governance of a municipality that recently eclipsed Warwick to become the second most populous city in the state. (Cranston was in third place while Fung was mayor.)

No one thinks Fung is the favorite in heavily Democratic RI, and political forecasting news service Five Thirty Eight considers the race “likely Democratic” with an 83% probability of Magaziner winning with 52.0% of the vote to Fung’s 44.1%. That would still be a considerably stronger showing by Fung than his two gubernatorial losses against Gina Raimondo in 2014 (40.7% – 36.2%) and 2018 (52.6% – 37.2%), although 2014 was quirky because “Cool Moose” and Moderate Party candidate Robert Healey drew 21.6%, apparently almost entirely from Raimondo and nearly enough to make Fung governor.

The real obstacle for Fung is that US House races have become nationalized in a highly-polarized climate where Democrats are struggling to defend their slim 221–214 seat majority in a “mid-term” election (that is, without a presidential contest). As of Oct 2, the Five Thirty Eight ranks 214 seats either strongly, likely, or leaning Republican; 208 seats either strongly, likely, or leaning Democratic; and 13 seats a toss-up: 218 seats are needed for a majority. In other words, control of the House is absolutely up for grabs.

Fung has been doing an awkward dance with national Republicans. House minority leader Kevin McCarthy tweeted a photo of himself visiting Fung in RI on Aug 6, and a few weeks later Ted Nesi of WPRI reported that Fung had flown to McCarthy’s annual donor retreat in Wyoming. According to Punchbowl News, the event “was loaded with millionaires and billionaires (including Elon Musk, the world’s richest person) who want [McCarthy] to become the next speaker of the House.” This is dangerous company for Fung to keep as he risks scaring off RI voters. Punchbowl wrote, “Just hours after the Jan. 6 insurrection, even as the tear gas still wafted through a blood-stained Capitol, McCarthy and 146 other House Republicans refused to certify Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory. Just weeks after Trump left Washington in disgrace, McCarthy visited him at Mar-a-Lago, kicking off the process of resurrecting Trump’s national standing. And McCarthy worked to derail a separate House investigation into the insurrection, even repudiating a deal that one of his own Republicans made with Democrats to create a bipartisan commission to look into the Capitol attack. And now, should McCarthy become the speaker in January 2023, he’ll preside over a conference filled with those either disinterested, unwilling, unable or afraid to speak out against Trump. And the result of that dynamic is that the House GOP will be made up of loud voices who want to impeach Biden, investigate the Jan. 6 select committee’s investigation, defund the FBI and take Trump’s revenge tour to the House floor.” It’s understandable why Fung is not anxious to have his fundraising and other ties to McCarthy displayed too openly.

Motif has in the past given generous coverage to Magaziner, for example with his BankLocal program using state investments to back loans to RI small businesses. In the end, though, most voters are not going to make their choice based on any personal qualities of the candidates, neither competence nor track record, but rather on whether they want to see Kevin McCarthy as speaker at the head of the Republican majority in the US House. Despite his efforts to remain aloof from national politics, that is likely to sink Fung.

RI Governor: Kalus v. McKee

In theory, Republicans can win the governor’s office in RI. They have held it repeatedly: most recently, Edward D. DiPrete (1985–1991), Lincoln Almond (1995–2003), and Donald Carcieri (2003–2011) served as Republican governors. But RI is heavily Democratic: In the 2020 presidential election, Joe Biden trounced Donald Trump in the state by more than 20 percentage points, 59.4% – 38.6%. Other state offices are overwhelmingly won by Democrats.

Daniel McKee was weakened severely by a difficult five-way primary that he won with only 36.8% against a surprisingly strong performance by newcomer Helena Foulkes with 30.1% and outgoing Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea with 26.1%. Exactly what happened, and whether Foulkes and Gorbea split the anti-McKee vote, will be debated for years.

The result set up a general election contest against Ashley Kalus who is running as a Republican conservative. Kalus has been taking real shots at McKee, and some of them have been landing. She attacked his giving government money to renovate the Industrial National Trust Tower (the “Superman building”) as a boondoggle: “Here’s an idea – instead of giving $69 million in corporate welfare to the developer of the Superman Building, why don’t we invest in RIPTA? Considering the average driver makes $16.75/hour – imagine how impactful even an additional $1 million would be for RIPTA’s abilities to provide services,” she has said. She likewise praised the federal court ruling that tractor-trailer tolls were unconstitutional as applied, a mess McKee inherited from former Gov. Raimondo.

The Kalus campaign called a McKee ad claim that she would roll back abortion rights “blatantly false,” saying “Ashley would not support any effort to overturn the 2019 law” that enshrined the Roe v. Wade viability standard into state law despite its overruling at the federal level. But she would oppose the Equality in Abortion Coverage Act supported by McKee and which his office said on Sep 30 would be included in the budget for next year, to “provide insurance coverage for abortion-related services for state employees and individuals enrolled in Medicaid.” By contrast, the Kalus campaign said “she stands with the overwhelming majority of Rhode Islanders, 77%, that do not support taxpayer-funded abortions.”

McKee succeeded from his role as lieutenant governor when Raimondo resigned to become secretary of commerce in the Biden cabinet. Other than succeeding a gubernatorial vacancy, there are no remaining duties of the lieutenant governor since the state constitution was amended a few years ago to remove the ex-officio job of presiding over the State Senate. I remember being shocked at a press conference when a reporter asked then-Gov. Raimondo to respond to comments then-Lt. Gov. McKee had made, and she dismissively said he was welcome to call her office like any other citizen. McKee never fit into the Raimondo administration: With her Ivy League pedigree (Harvard undergrad, Yale Law) and Rhodes Scholarship (Oxford D.Phil.), Raimondo was used to being the smartest person in the room and surrounded herself with other people who had the same outlook. McKee, despite his Harvard Kennedy School M.P.A., is very much not that sort of person.

McKee is also as good a politician as Raimondo is not: he can relate to ordinary people while Raimondo has no tolerance for fools, and his experience as mayor of Cumberland helped him learn to govern. I’ve had the opportunity to observe him closely, including his management of the state through a blizzard and a hurricane, and his approach was to surround himself with competent experts and listen to their advice. He has clearly made mistakes, such as approving a no-bid contract for government services, and he may pay a price for that, politically or worse. The most charitable interpretation is that McKee trusted his friends and they exploited him.

The political weakness of McKee should have served as an invitation for the Republicans to nominate a candidate with a solid management background and broadly moderate ideological views, but Kalus seems to have blown that opportunity. Kalus gave an extended interview to the experienced and incisive political reporter Ian Donnis for his “Political Roundtable” show on RI Public Radio, the overall effect of which could only be described as disastrous for the candidate. Donnis pressed her repeatedly on refusal to answer “whether you believe teaching about race and racism should be restricted or whether certain books should be banned” and she ducked the question, saying “My focus is on the things that we can agree on… which is math, and reading, and writing.”

Donnis said “You started a business with your husband that operated COVID-related services in Rhode Island, and then got into a dispute with the State Department of Health. That’s now the subject of closed-door mediation.” Kalus responded, “And what we see with Dan McKee is we see a governor that is under FBI investigation for giving out federal money, contracts to insiders and his friends.” Donnis had to correct her in real-time, saying “We should know there’s no information at this point indicating that Dan McKee himself is the subject of this probe.”

Donnis asked Kalus several times whether she voted for Donald Trump in the presidential election, and she avoided answering, saying, “The question of Donald Trump is not the question of the governor’s race in Rhode Island.”

Kalus has also faced embarrassing questions about how she filed for a homestead tax exemption for a $1.2 million property in Illinois while claiming to live in RI. As WPRI reporters Eli Sherman and Ted Nesi explained, “Under state law, the homestead exemption is supposed to be only for homeowners who live in their residence full-time. Kalus said that was always true for her husband, who she said stayed in Illinois while she was living in RI to manage a state COVID-19 contract they won.” Sherman and Nesi note that Kalus, whose RI declaration of candidacy lists her domicile at a second house in Newport, voted in Florida in the 2020 election, residing at a third house the couple bought in 2015.

All Republicans running for office in RI face the same dilemma: how to separate themselves from a national party that has embraced a culture war that is deeply unpopular in RI, let alone Trump’s “big lie” about which the Polling Institute at Monmouth University has been asking a representative sample of the electorate this question monthly: “Do you believe Joe Biden won the 2020 election fair and square, or do you believe that he only won it due to voter fraud?” and consistently about one-third of the public says voter fraud.

Kalus, without any local track record like Allan Fung, is an unknown and possibly unknowable quantity about whom all assessments are necessarily based on her own statements and campaign, and by that measure she has been doing herself no favors. There has been no public polling of the race because the conventional wisdom is that Kalus has the chance of a snowball in hell of upsetting McKee.

Bond referenda

There are three bond referendum questions on the ballot with the 2022 general election, the first two pretty ordinary.

Question 1 asks for $100 million to design and construct new facilities at the URI Narragansett Bay Campus. “This project would support educational and research needs in ocean engineering, oceanography, and other marine-related disciplines,” according to the secretary of state. Over the 20-year life of the bonds, interest would add an estimated $60 million to the total cost.

Question 2 asks for $250 million “to improve Pre-K through grade 12 public school facilities and equip them for 21st-century learning,” mostly construction projects. “Funding may be used to address immediate health and safety concerns, early childhood education, career and technical education, and other educational needs including but not limited to science labs, libraries and modern learning technology,” according to the secretary of state. Over the 20-year life of the bonds, interest would add an estimated $151 million to the total cost.

Question 3 combines nine separate items under a $50 million umbrella of “environmental and recreational” projects for the “green economy.” We will consider these from largest to smallest, preserving the item letters as they will appear on the ballot.

Item a: $16 million for up to 75 percent matching grants to help cities and towns identify hazards resulting from climate change, such as more frequent and intense storms that cause increased flooding of coastline, rivers, and streams flood plains.

Item i: $12 million for Roger Williams Park and Zoo to construct a state-of-the-art, carbon-neutral education center and event pavilion.

Item b: $5 million to establish a Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank, essentially a revolving fund lending to small businesses with zero interest and below-market-rate loans and grants to help implement clean energy projects.

Item e: $4 million to clean up former industrial or commercial “brownfield” sites that may be contaminated by hazardous waste or other environmental pollution, providing up to 80% matching grants for remediation projects that bring sites back into productive use.

Item c: $3 million for matching grants to complete projects that restore and protect the water quality, aquatic habitats and the environmental sustainability of Narragansett Bay and RI’s watersheds, furthering efforts to clean water for drinking, shell-fishing, recreation, commerce and other uses.

Item d: $3 million for maintenance of forests, wildlife habitat, and related infrastructure on state properties, such as state management areas, including removal of dead and/or dying trees and tree planting.

Invasives removal and other forest health and wildlife habitat activities; and the repair and maintenance of fire roads, trails, and bridges to improve and maintain recreational public access and mitigate the risk of wildfire.

Item f: $3 million for the State Land Acquisition Program allowing the state to acquire open space, farmland, watershed, and recreation lands, investing these funds in the preservation of working farmland and recreational resources. Funds will be matched by federal, local and non-profit sources in a 1-to-3 ratio with every state dollar being matched by three other dollars.

Item g: $2 million for up to 50% in matching grants to cities and towns, local land trusts and non-profit organizations to acquire open space lands in Rhode Island.

Item h: $2 million for up to 80% in matching grants to cities and towns to develop or rehabilitate local public recreational facilities such as parks, playgrounds, and athletic fields, and up to 50% in matching grants to acquire land for public recreational facilities.

Over the 20-year life of the bonds, interest would add an estimated $30 million to the total cost.

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