In Rhode Island's most dynamic political season in years, one set of intriguing races is getting short shrift: the Providence City Council contests.
The media could, perhaps, be forgiven for focusing its energies on a hotly contested gubernatorial battle, a sure-to-be expensive battle to succeed Congressman Patrick Kennedy, and a three-way Providence mayoral tilt.
But the capital city's legislative body is on the verge of a metamorphosis that could have far-reaching effects on politics and public policy.
Fully one-third of the 15-member council is not seeking re-election, including an old guard of Council President Peter S. Mancini, Councilman Joseph DeLuca, and Councilman John J. Lombardi. Lombardi is leaving to run for mayor.
Another long-serving member, Josephine DiRuzzo, who represents parts of Olneyville and Silver Lake, is facing what one observer suggested could be a "blood bath" in a rematch of her 2006 battle with the determined Sabina Matos.
And three members of Providence's increasingly powerful Latino political firmament — Councilmen Leon Tejada, Miguel Luna, and Luis Aponte — face serious challenges.
The tumult makes it exceedingly difficult to determine who will succeed Mancini as the council president, though speculation centers on four councilmen: Michael Solomon, Terrence Hassett, Nicholas Narducci, Jr., and Aponte — if he survives the Democratic primary in September.
The jockeying for position with council members, would-be council members, and the three leading mayoral candidates — Lombardi, State Representative Steven Costantino, and lawyer Angel Taveras — is already intense.
But whoever takes control of the panel will face daunting challenges: the city's budget woes persist, there is tension with the school board over education spending, and the council will have to negotiate a relationship with the new mayor.
There will also be opportunity: the relocation of Route 195 means a once-in-a-generation chance to reshape the city's skyline, with biomedical development expected on the freed-up land.
Part of what makes council races enticing for the political junky is the volatility that comes with the small universe of voters that determines the contests. A few hundred votes is all it takes to win, meaning an energetic challenger has a real chance against an incumbent.
Observers say to keep an eye on Gonzalo Cuervo, a Cicilline aide who is taking on Luna. Challengers Hamlet Lopez, Jr. and Wilbert W. Jennings, Jr. are expected to compete with Tejada. And Pedro Espinal, who finished just 15 votes behind Aponte in 2006, is at it again.
The biggest free-for-all, though, may come in Ward 11, where seven Democrats and three independents have declared officially their interest in succeeding the only black member of the panel, Councilwoman Balbina Young, who is retiring.
Observers say Democrat Shawndell Burney, a streetworker with the Institute for the Study & Practice of Nonviolence, is making a good early showing. But members of several well-known South Side families are also seeking the party's nomination. And keep tabs on Carrie Marsh, executive director of Community Works Rhode Island, an economic development organization. After flirting with a mayoral run, she is one of three who put their names in as independent candidates for the seat.
Whoever prevails, it seems, will be one of many fresh faces on a panel transformed.