Analysis: RI Progressive Democrats Win Crucial General Assembly Seats

Sep 12, 2018

While Matt Brown’s underfunded and underwhelming primary campaign from the left failed to even dent Gov. Gina Raimondo’s march to a second term as Rhode Island’s first female governor, progressive Democrat Aaron Regunberg, a 28-year old Providence state representative, fared much better and ran a close, but ultimately losing bid, against incumbent Lt. Gov. Dan McKee of Cumberland.

But the real progressive victories were in General Assembly elections, where liberals and outsiders defeated establishment Democrats, many with close ties to embattled Democratic House Speaker Nick Mattiello of Cranston.

Unofficial returns tonight showed a slate of progressives winning all over Rhode Island. The lone liberal to lose was State Sen. Jeanine Calkin, a Warwick Democrat who lost to businessman Mark McKenney. Calkin defeated the late William Walaska in 2016, who was a close McKenney friend.

Among the big winners were Rep. Moira Walsh, in Providence’s House District 3, who raised Mattiello’s ire by saying publicly that there was too much drinking at the Statehouse. She cruised past challenger Michael Earnheart, a former Donald Trump supporter who had support from Mattiello.

Rep. Marcia Ranglin-Vassell, a first-term member from Providence District 5 who won the upset of 2016 by knocking off former House Majority Leader John DeSimone, cruised over Holly Taylor Coolman, a Providence College professor and anti-abortion activist, in a Mount Pleasant and Elmhurst district.

In another closely watched Providence contest, Rebecca Kislak, stomped Mark Tracy in the House 4 East Side district, which had a healthy turnout. The seat was held by Regunberg, who left to run for lieutenant governor. Kislak is a health policy expert and East Side political activist who ran with progressive support.

In the House 68 District in Bristol, insurgent Laufton Ascencao, who ran a relentless door-to-door campaign and was endorsed by the RI Progressive Democrats, won a huge victory over Andrew Tyska, a Bristol Town Council member. The seat was vacant due to the retirement of Rep. Ken Marshall.

In District 66 in nearby Barrington and the East Providence Riverside neighborhood, progressive Liana Cassar easily defeated John Chung, a law professor at Roger Williams University, in seat left open by the retirement of Democrat Joy Hearn.

In a seat won by an adherent of Mattiello, Rep. Dan McKiernan,  fended off a challenge in Providence District 7 in Mount Pleasant and Smith Hill from Belen Florez, who was backed by former state Rep. Joanne Giannini.

In Senate races, the surprise of the evening was the huge margin of victory in District 5 in Providence’s West Side, for Sam Bell, another progressive activist, over incumbent Paul Jabour and Nick Autiello.

In Senate District 6, incumbent Harold Metts, the chamber’s lone African-American member and a popular retired Central High School teacher and basketball coach, won in a landslide over Jonathan Hernandez. And in the 14th Senate District, Valerie Lawson, a teacher union activist running with progressive support, easily defeated Delmar Cordinho, who had support from Sen. Dan DaPonte, D-East Providence. The seat was open due to DaPonte’s departure.

In District 35 in East Greenwich, Bridget Valverde, another candidate with progressive support, crushed former state Sen. Greg Acciardo. Valverde won more than 80 percent of the vote.

Other Democrats who had backing from the Working Families Party and RI Progressive Democrats and won included incumbents Jean Philipe Barros of District 59 in Pawtucket; Susan Donovan in Bristol's District 69; and Katherine Kazarian in District 63 in East Providence.

"The work that Rhode Island Working Families began in 2016 continues to show that voters are hungry for bold leaders who will work for them," said Georgia Hollister Isman, state director of the RI Working Families Party.