And as it stands, Harsch — who has a much smaller war chest, and who remains far less well known than Lynch — has a lot of ground to make up, as demonstrated by a Brown University poll, conducted before the plea bargain became public, which showed Lynch with a commanding 57 percent-24 percent lead (the results were almost identical to the findings of a June poll).
The wild card in all this is the relatives of those who died and of the hundreds more who were injured in the West Warwick nightclub fire. Yet while many of these people have made clear their anger with Lynch and Judge Francis Darigan in particular, and the criminal justice system in general, there doesn’t appear to be an organized response.
Speaking last week on RI-PBS’s A Lively Experiment, David Kane, who lost his 18-year-old-son, Nicholas O’Neill, in the Station fire, and who threw his support to Harsch after contemplating a run against Lynch, said the family members of those who perished remain so devastated that they haven’t been able to get together, politically or otherwise.
From bad to worse
Considering the magnitude of the devastation, there was bound to be some severe dissatisfaction with the outcome of the criminal charges in the Station case. Yet the development of a pervading public sense in the aftermath of the plea bargain — of a lack of official straight dealing — managed to make a bad situation worse.
Harsch had avoided comment in the run-up to the apparent trial, “[but] the situation changed when the whole thing went off the rails with the plea bargain fiasco,” the challenger says, in rolling out his message. “I am the alternative to Patrick Lynch and I want the people of Rhode Island to know that they have an alternative.”
Four years ago, as a late-entry to the fight for the open AG’s seat, Harsch ran against Lynch as an independent, and he got badly beat. This time around, the 67-year-old Jamestown resident is campaigning as a Republican, trying to muster a Carcieri-like message — about the perils of entrenched Democrats — to oust the 41-year-old attorney general.
In this respect, the resolution of the criminal charges in the Station disaster presents a benefit for Harsch, who cites the enormous frustration “with the apparent finality of what’s going on — let’s get this over, let’s get it swept under the rug,” one month before the election. The challenger, who asserts that he would have taken the case against the Derderians to trial, pledges, if he wins office, to see that “this whole matter is looked at, from start to finish, all over again.”
Although unwilling to discuss specifics on how he will handle the Station issue going forward, Harsch vows to shed more light on the case. He expresses any number of criticisms about the plea bargain, from the narrow restrictions placed on the relatives of Station victims during their impact statements in court, to Lynch’s apparent lack of interest in probing how word of the plea deal may have leaked from his office.
Political analyst Joseph Fleming says the Station controversy “could put the attorney general’s race into play . . . It might raise some questions in people’s minds and make the race a lot more competitive than people thought it was going to be.”