After making two credible challenges to state Senator Frank Caprio, Jeff Toste of the Green Party has developed his name recognition among the voters of Providence’s District 5, which encompasses much of the West Side. But even though Caprio is yielding the seat while pursuing an unopposed bid for state general treasurer, a third-party candidate like Toste can still expect to face an uphill battle.
Craig O’Connor, 31, a left-of-center Democrat, recently unveiled his campaign for the state Senate post, and a similar effort by the more mainstream Paul Jabour, a lawyer and former Democratic state representative, is expected imminently. O’Connor, the director of organizing for Ocean State Action, has won the backing of a broad swath of local activists, nonprofits, and progressive Democrats. Like Toste, he is an advocate for civil rights, environmental protection, universal health-care, and same-sex marriage.
Toste suggests that disenchantment with the two-party system resulted in only 4000 of District 5’s 19,000 eligible voters casting ballots in 2004. “We’re giving people a reason to vote,” he says of his latest campaign. If O’Connor becomes the Democratic nominee, the challenge for Toste will be convincing District 5’s left-leaning voters that he is worthy of their support, given his opponent’s progressive message, solid organizing credentials, and membership in the state’s ruling party.
Toste argues that progressive Democrats, regardless of their intentions or policy statements, are ultimately compromised. “Their effect is limited by their leadership,” he says. “You’ve got a corporate stranglehold on the two-party system.” Toste touts ground-level support as the key to his election bid. “I’ve got my neighbors working on my campaign,” he says, emphasizing his backing from individuals within the district. The Green candidate also points to his eight years of political and organizational experience, including work on the Help America Vote Act Committee convened by Secretary of State Matt Brown. “I know how to work inside and outside the system,” he says.
The Green Party candidate (www.votetoste.com) kicked off his campaign March 29 at the Blue Grotto, the Federal Hill restaurant where he once worked as a waiter. Toste, who is co-chair of the Rhode Island Green Party, received a respectable 29 percent of the vote during his 2004 run for the state Senate seat. Providence city councilor David Segal of Ward One, who is considering a legislative run, is the only Green to have won election in Rhode Island.
Toste, 41, lives on Carpenter Street with his fiancee and her 77-year-old mother. While many associate the Green Party with environmental advocacy, Toste, a freelance artist and US Census Bureau employee, lists local job creation as a high priority. “We need a new industrial revolution,” he argues, citing companies involved in producing renewable energy as potential sources of high-paying jobs. He dismisses the idea that his candidacy is limited to offering progressive solutions to District 5’s problems, rather than actually being able to implement such initiatives as an elected senator. “My goal,” he says, “is to win.”
The Democrats control more than 80 percent of the seats in the General Assembly, rendering even the Republicans a virtual fringe party. The District 5 race bears watching, as it will be interesting to see how the Democrats respond to a continued challenge from the left in a changing district.