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As Rhode Islanders go to the polls for a primary election next Tuesday, September 9 — mostly to settle the final match-ups for General Assembly elections in November — there are some key votes to be made for progressive legislators, both incumbents and newcomers.

These primaries take on added importance since they will decide, in most cases, the de facto winners of various House and Senate seats.

Yet with political attention focused on the presidential battle between Barack Obama and John McCain, the electoral action closer to home has not gotten a shred of the same attention.

In another sign of our desiccated political culture, too many General Assembly seats will go unchallenged. For some officeholders, this offers a not-so-subtle message that a complacent and disinterested public will do little — even when Rhode Island faces a serious budgetary crisis, underperforming schools, crumbling infrastructure, and other problems — to hold them accountable.

The perennially anemic Rhode Island Republican Party isn’t faring much better. In an election season when it should be avidly contesting a maximum number of seats on Smith Hill, the RI GOP has mustered a respectable percentage of candidates — but hardly enough. And while we don’t doubt the difficulty of convincing people to run for public office, Republican fumbling over ballot requirements illustrates how the local GOP can be its own worst enemy.

Under normal circumstances, legislative Democrats might see little reason to work cooperatively with Governor Donald L. Carcieri as he approaches the end of his two gubernatorial terms. Clearly, though, these aren’t normal times, and the elected leaders of state government must exhibit more leadership if the state is going to effectively move beyond the budget crises of recent years.

The heightened degree of executive-legislative cooperation in the last year is due mainly to the gravity of the problems facing Rhode Island. As the saying goes, there’s nothing like pain to focus one’s attention. Yet state officials need to do better in dealing with the tasks at hand while simultaneously looking to the future.

With this in mind, the Phoenix makes the following endorsements in selected legislative races.

In District 35, State Senator J. MICHAEL LENIHAN of North Kingstown has a justly deserved reputation as a civic-minded legislator who understands both the big picture and the small details of state government. His Democratic opponent, Steven Campo, a member of the North Kingstown Town Council, touts his business background. Yet considering the high ethical mark set by Lenihan — as evidenced by his plaudits from Operation Clean Government and Common Cause of Rhode Island — he remains both a useful model for other legislators and well-deserving of reelection.

Long before the foreclosure crisis exploded into public view, state Senator JUAN PICHARDO of District 2 had taken up the issue of predatory lending in Providence. Pichardo, who gained distinction as the first Dominican-American state senator in the US, exhibited poor judgment in trying to use his legislative status earlier this year to get into a closed Olneyville wiener joint. Yet he has generally done a good job in the General Assembly, and his experience makes him preferable to his Democratic challenger, Maryelyn Alba-Acevedo.

It’s a measure of the diligence and hard work of Representative DAVID SEGAL that those who scorned him as a too-young carpetbagger when he ran for the Providence City Council in 2002 are now among his biggest supporters. Segal, of House District 2, is a passionate and thoughtful voice for progressive causes, respected across the partisan aisle, who periodically highlights topics broad (renewable energy) and obscure (net-metering) before they gain wider attention. His Democratic challenger, Richard Rodi, might be a welcome presence in any number of other districts. In this case, though, Segal’s record and his advocacy make him the easy choice.

On the surface, Representatives THOMAS C. SLATER of District 10 and GRACE DIAZ of District 11, both in Providence, might seem to have little in common. Slater is more of an old-school social conservative (who nonetheless played a lead role in helping to pass Rhode Island’s medical marijuana law), while Diaz is an unabashed liberal from the Dominican Republic. Each faces a renewed challenge from a previous opponent, Wilbert W. Jennings Jr., (along with John P. Tomasso) in the case of Slater, and Laura Perez for Diaz. Because of the useful role they play in the Democratic presence on Smith Hill, Slater and Diaz merit your vote.

In House District 16, JOHN C. DEGENOVA is emphasizing the issue of affordable health-care, among other core Democratic values, while mounting a challenge to incumbent Peter G. Palumbo of Cranston. Palumbo is among the Democratic legislators who have sounded more like Republicans in their embrace of Governor Carcieri’s rhetoric about illegal immigration. Because of this distinction between the two candidates, we favor DeGenova.

House District 39 offers one of the more compelling legislative races, with a field of four Democrats and two Republicans. We don’t agree with all of his positions, but Democrat ROD DRIVER, a gadfly, former legislator, frequent candidate, and anti-war activist, has the courage of his convictions, and the Richmond resident would bring a much-needed dose of independent thinking to the General Assembly.

House District 43 presents a rematch between two combatants from 2006, Deborah M. Fellela, who won the election, and ANNETTE M. BERADUCCI, who received our endorsement at the time. Beraducci was and remains the more progressive of these two candidates from Johnston.

In House District 51, CHRISTOPHER FIERRO of Woonsocket is the progressive favorite among a busy field of six Democrats — and with good reason. Fierro has a close focus on trying to attract good-paying jobs to northern Rhode Island. More than his competitors, he has the energy and sensibility to make a positive impact in the General Assembly.

  • Endorsements
    Chafee and Whitehouse for us senate; Roberts and de Ramel for state offices; plus, Langevin, the general assembly, and the Providence city council
  • Rebels in the general assembly
    Can progressives change the debate on the issues that matter?
  • Down to the wire
    Will Chafee or Laffey emerge victorious? Plus, Rhode Island’s other top primary races
  • More more >
  Topics: This Just In , David Segal , Thomas Slater , Grace Diaz ,  More more >
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