Many Lawmakers Get Free Ride to Office
Monday, July 23, 2012
No challengers emerged for more than two dozen members of the General Assembly as well as two non-incumbents, according to the Secretary of State’s website.
All told, 20 House seats and nine Senate seats will not be up for grabs this fall after potential opponents failed to gather enough signatures or simply chose not to run for office. Instead, 27 incumbents, one candidate running for an open Senate seat and another who was expecting to challenge a sitting State Representative will sit back and watch as 84 other legislative races play out in the coming months.
In Senate District 10, newcomer William Conley, a Democrat who sits on the East Providence City Council, was expecting to face a primary challenge, but his opponent failed to qualify. In House District 71, Democrat Dennis Canario was handed the seat after Republican Dan Gordon was also unable to garner enough signatures to get his name on the ballot.
Gordon briefly mulled running a write-in campaign, but now says he plans to move on. He said he may run for office again in 2014 if he feels the district, which spans Portsmouth, Tiverton and Little Compton, is underserved.
“Although there are a large number of candidates seeking office in the General Assembly this election year, it’s discouraging that many seats are going unchallenged,” Gordon said. “Sadly, it appears that our dismal economic situation hasn’t gotten bad enough to rile the constituency enough to field candidates for those seats. Either that or we have succumbed to a Stockholm Syndrome-like scenario. I feel badly for District 71 in particular, which is the seat I currently hold, because of my error in gathering some signatures in geographical locations that are no longer in the district, due to redistricting this year, and disqualified me for ballot placement.”
Several veteran legislators on both sides of the aisle are also running unopposed, including Senate Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin, Senate Minority Leadership Dennis Algiere, State Rep. Charlene Lima and State Rep. Joe Trillo.
According to Brown political science professor Wendy Schiller, “voters are fundamentally underserved by their state legislature because there is so little competition for seats between the Democrats and the Republicans that state legislatures never really fear losing election (unless they are a Democrat targeted by strong labor opposition).”
Schiller said Rhode Island’s problems with finding people to run for office is hardly unique, but she noted that the General Assembly being part-time position is a contributing factor. She said not having a full-time legislature means many residents cannot afford to take the time out from their jobs to run for office.
Moderate Party chairman Ken Block said that among part-time legislatures, “Rhode Island shares the title of having the most onerous time commitment with just a few other states.”
“In my role as Chairman of the Moderate Party, I found that a lot of quality individuals felt that they could not afford to spend the large amount of time needed to serve in the legislature for the six month session,” Block said.
Block suggested a shorter legislative session might make residents more likely to run for office.
“It is especially ironic that our session works this way given that most of the bills that are passed into law get passed in the last 24 hours of the session,” Block said. “It would seem to me that we should be able to function with a three month session where the legislative bodies have a floor session once a week, with committee hearings scheduled two other days of the week beginning after dinner.”
Rhode Island Tea Party president Susan Wynne said her group is “encouraged that so many new people have been jolted into action and are stepping up for the 1st time,” but agreed the Ocean State doesn’t make it easy to get involved in politics.
Still, Wynne said she is concerned about the message that is being sent by having 29 candidates without an opponent this fall.
“An incumbent running unopposed gives an impression that the office holder is entitled to the seat,” she said.
Dan McGowan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @danmcgowan