Bitter primaries brewing in Rhode Island

Photo by Lindsey Lerner

By MICHELLE R. SMITH and JENNIFER McDERMOTT, the Associated Press

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — A contentious and bitter Democratic gubernatorial primary in Rhode Island pits the state’s well-funded incumbent governor against a former secretary of state.

Meanwhile, a Republican supporter of President Donald Trump is favored to win his party’s nomination for a second time after a race where he said little about his positions, walking a tightrope in a state where Trump remains deeply unpopular.

Wednesday’s primary results will set the stage for what is expected to be a close general election race.

Gov. Gina Raimondo, 47, is vying for a second term. She has been running on a record of job creation and an improving economy, as well as her work to repair crumbling schools and roads and to institute a new free college tuition program. She may still be best known for her work when she was general treasurer overhauling the state’s pension system, which cut benefits for retirees to shore up the system.

The former venture capitalist has struggled with low popularity since she was first elected in 2014 with just 41 percent of the vote.

That left an opening for Matt Brown, 48, who served a single term as secretary of state more than a decade ago and who has not been involved in state politics again until this spring, when he made his surprise announcement that he was running. Brown supports instituting single-payer health care, building more affordable housing and raising the minimum wage.

Raimondo has raised nearly $7.7 million for her campaign, more than 20 times Brown’s total.

The campaign has been nasty, with both sides hammering each other for months. Brown has gone after Raimondo’s corporate ties. Raimondo has compared Brown to Trump, calling him a “financial disaster” over how he managed his failed 2006 campaign for U.S. Senate and the nuclear non-proliferation group he co-founded, Global Zero. Brown had a lawyer threaten to sue her for defamation this month. Raimondo refused to debate him.

Brown is backed by Justice Democrats, the political action committee started by organizers of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign, which has also backed come-from behind candidates including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York and Ayanna Pressley in Massachusetts.

Maggie Kain, a Brown supporter and 2016 Sanders delegate, said she believes Brown has a shot. While she wouldn’t compare him to Ocasio-Cortez or Pressley, she said those races showed grassroots support can win against a seemingly “undefeatable” incumbent.

“I was there through the 2016 primary with Bernie, and everyone said the same thing about him, and he won the state by 12 percentage points,” said Kain, 40, of South Kingstown.

There has been scant polling for the primaries.

Republican Allan Fung, 48, is well known for leading Cranston, the state’s second-largest city, and for his second-place finish behind Raimondo in 2014. He faces House Minority Leader Patricia Morgan, who uses the slogan “Make Rhode Island Great Again.”

His campaign this year has been most notable for a dearth of policy proposals and for avoiding questions by most statewide media outlets — even refusing questions at his campaign kickoff, a change from how he conducted himself in 2014. He agreed to a single debate on a small radio station outside of the Providence market.

Fung has said he wants to cut the sales tax from 7 percent to 5 percent, but hasn’t put forward a detailed plan to pay for it.

In one of the few interviews he gave during the primary season, with The Providence Journal this month , Fung said he no longer supports a complete assault weapons ban. He also said he no longer describes himself as pro-choice, as he had in 2014. When asked whether he would support legislation to legalize abortion in the state, his wife, Barbara Ann Fenton, jumped in to answer. Fung agreed with her that it would depend on the bill.

Morgan, 68, has painted Fung as “in hiding.”

Bruce Waidler, a lawyer and Morgan supporter from South Kingstown, questioned why Fung was not willing to discuss issues.

“That, to me, is a warning sign,” he said.

Rick Barry, of Warwick, said he’s a likely vote for Fung. He likes that Fung is the mayor of a large city and said he doesn’t know enough about Morgan. Barry voted for Raimondo last time, but questions whether she has done enough to earn his vote again. He wants to hear what both candidates say in debates leading up to November.

“I lean toward Fung, but that doesn’t mean I won’t vote for her,” he said.

Wednesday’s winners will face independent Joe Trillo, a former Republican state lawmaker who headed Trump’s state campaign in 2016, in November.

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