In less than five weeks, Rhode Islanders will go to the polls for a primary election. And because the state has so few Republican voters, primaries sometimes decide who will hold a political office even before the general election. That's the case in a Providence race between a former Trump supporter and an incumbent Democrat.
Back in 2016, an insurgent General Assembly candidate, Moira Walsh, knocked off an incumbent state representative by just 21 votes. That shows the importance of primary elections – and how they can turn on a very small number of voters.
This year, Democrat Walsh is running for re-election and she faces a former Donald Trump supporter running as a Democrat. Her rival, Michael Earnheart, earned the endorsement of the Rhode Island Democratic Party, sparking a controversy that got national attention. Faced with a public backlash, state Democrats withdrew their support for Earnheart.
That crackle of controversy seems far away on Charles Street, a main drag in Walsh’s mostly low-income House district.
Some residents, like Carolyn Hughes, said they don’t follow politics all that closely. “I’m 65 and I haven’t voted at all ever, never,” Hughes said.
On a recent weekday, Hughes was relaxing on a beach chair outside the Charles Place high-rise apartment complex with a friend. She said voting is pointless.
“For me it doesn’t matter who you vote for, because they promise everything they can promise you," Hughes said. "Then they don’t do diddly squat.”
Other residents in the district do plan to vote. Michael Anderson was waiting for a ride on Charles Street. He’s undecided in the state rep race between incumbent Walsh and her Democratic challenger, Michael Earnheart. Anderson said his top concern is President Trump: "I don’t believe Donald Trump has the state’s and the nation’s best interest. I believe Donald Trump is out for money and himself."
Elsewhere in the district, Jill Blunt walks her three small dogs down Smith Street when she pauses to talk. Blunt is concerned about whether the state is doing enough to help the needy. She’s frustrated by ongoing problems with Rhode Island’s computerized public benefits system. Blunt is also apprehensive about President Trump.
“I don’t care for his politics. I don’t care for how he takes care of our country," Blunt said. "I don’t care for how he’s handling Russia.”
Blunt is an ardent Democrat. So much so that she named one of her dogs ‘Obama’ back when the future president was a U.S. senator from Illinois, "And then I have Tedy and Digger … Tedy Bruschi."
Bruschi – that’s the former New England Patriots player. And Blunt is supporting Moira Walsh with the same enthusiasm she has for the Patriots. She called Walsh a fighter who cares about her constituents: "I love Moira. I think she’s excellent."
Walsh was 26 when she first won election in 2016, in a district that includes parts of Smith Hill, Wanskuck and the North End. She’s part of the progressive bloc in the House, advocating for issues like equal wages for women and the needs of struggling Rhode Islanders. Walsh has also occasionally raised the hackles of legislative leaders, like when she spoke last year about a culture of drinking at the General Assembly.
Walsh’s challenger, Michael Earnheart, did not respond to interview requests for this story. But longtime Providence GOP activist Dave Talan argues that Earnheart could be more productive than Walsh in the General Assembly.
“I think Mike would probably be more effective at actually than getting things done than Moira is," Talan said. "Moira is very personable, but she’s also very outspoken at criticizing people, and it makes it very hard for her to get anything done at the Statehouse.”
Talan is running as an independent for City Council across town in Ward 8. That ward includes a poor largely non-white neighborhood much like Walsh’s district. Talan says voters in these areas are more focused on basic concerns, and not so much President Trump or even the race for governor.
“It’s generally can you fix my sidewalk, can you fix the pothole, can you get me a job?” he said.
I spoke with Representative Walsh while she was taking part in a meeting to plan a retirement party for a city councilor. She says money is a constant worry for her constitutents.
"Pretty much everybody in my district makes less than $40,000 a year," she said. “The thing that we all share is that we have to work twice as hard to get ahead. You know, they say it’s very expensive being poor, and it’s something that people in my community struggle with a lot.”
It’s a struggle that Walsh can relate to. She’s a single mom who says she gets by on her lawmaker’s salary of about $15,000 a year. Walsh says she ran for the legislature after a state rep pooh-poohed her concern about improving wages for waitresses and other tipped workers.
In Walsh’s first race, fewer than 600 people voted in the primary. That was all it took to elevate her to her post as a state representative because there was no Republican candidate to challenge her in the general election. Now, with two sessions under her belt, Walsh calls being a state rep the best and worst job she’s ever had.
“It’s the best job as in when you make a difference, it’s a really big diffence," she said. "It’s the worst job because you got to really beat your head against a brick wall for six months to get there.”
Though he declined to be interviewed for this story, Walsh’s challenger, Michael Earnheart, said on Facebook that his priorities include improving public education, increasing jobs for middle and working class families, and improving the quality of life in Providence’s neighborhoods.
This time, Earnheart is the insurgent. Voters will decide September 12th whether his message is strong enough to unseat incumbent Moira Walsh. And like the primary that she won to first gain a seat in the General Assembly, the result could be decided by a very small number of voters.