2014-10-09 / Around Town

Senate Campaign Heats Up

By Tom Walsh

Conceding that his bid to unseat veteran state Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed remains a “long shot,” Republican Mike Smith nevertheless believes that as he makes the rounds in Newport and Jamestown seeking District 13 votes, his candidacy has begun to gain momentum.

“I’m finding a huge amount of interest among business owners,” Smith said.

After 22 years in the Senate and three terms as Senate president, Paiva Weed seems to relish the contest and enjoys talking with constituents.

“I’m campaigning in the traditional way, knocking on doors and getting out to a lot of events. I have a radio spot on WADK. I still love campaigning,” she said.

Lurking over this race is the ballot question of whether to enable operators of the Newport Grand slots parlor to offer table games. Newport voters rejected a similar question two years ago.

Late last month, Paiva Weed, who had supported such a venture in the past, announced that she was opposed to this year’s casino question because the Newport City Council had rejected a proposed host community agreement that would offer the city expanded guarantees.

At the time, Smith, a foe of the casino question, fired the first sharp volley of the campaign, accusing Paiva Weed of “a deceitful election season about-face” and of “trying to play both sides knowing she’s losing the election.” And, he asked, “Does Paiva Weed really think she can fool her constituents into believing that she hasn’t been a chief proponent of the casino expansion?”

Paiva Weed, in an interview with Newport This Week, said, “I’ve been very consistent on this issue. The council rejected the host agreement and I support the council. At the same time,” she said, “I continue to be concerned about the people who work at Newport Grand.”

Campaigning through the Senate district that includes both Newport and Jamestown has demonstrated to her just how divided voters are on the casino question. “Ultimately, they want to hear from both sides. A lot of folks are still weighing the benefits and the detriments.” And, she said, she has learned from stumping on the trail that the way someone voted on this issue in 2012 does not necessarily predict how they will vote this year.

Smith decided at the last minute to mount a race against Paiva Weed. While he is running under the Republican banner, his campaign website does not emphasize that partisan connection. “I didn’t want my campaign to be about whether I am a Republican or a Democrat,” Smith said when asked whether he purposely downplayed the GOP affiliation. “I wanted my campaign to be about independent thinking and about creating open minds, not about political parties.” Smith said the recent announcement that the former Sheffield School will be trans- into a technology incubator exemplifies that type of thinking.

Never before a candidate for political office, Smith said he decided to run because “I just felt we’re not being represented properly.”

To back up that statement, Smith, 46, who grew up in East Greenwich and lived in New Orleans and Atlanta before returning to Rhode Island as a Newport resident, recites a litany of the state’s long struggles with high unemployment, an unfriendly business climate, high taxes, and the 38 Studios fiasco.

Reminded that two of the state’s most recent governors, Lincoln Almond and Donald Carcieri, were also Republicans (and that current Governor Lincoln Chafee started out with the GOP before becoming an independent and then a Democrat), Smith replied, “I’m saying that I don’t think that Carcieri did a good job.”

Smith, who is divorced and has two sons and a daughter, said he likes the sound of Newport Grand eventually becoming an entertainment center that could host musical and other performances—provided that this happens without expanded gambling. “A convention center is a viable reality,” he said. “I can only imagine how many organizations would like to have a meeting in Newport. It would be a prime area for a convention center.”

J. Clement (Bud) Cicilline, Newport Democratic city chairman, believes that Paiva Weed has had an exemplary career in the legislature and is an energetic advocate for her district at the Statehouse. “She is very responsible,” he said. “She’s listened carefully to her constituency.”

Paiva Weed, who will celebrate her 55th birthday the day after Election Day, is quick to list other non-casino issues that she is deeply involved with as Senate president. They include such broad concerns as pension reform, health care benefits and education, and more local issues such as keeping a Division of Motor Vehicles office on Aquidneck Island and ensuring needed improvements at Fort Adams and the Cliff Walk.

“I grew up in Newport and went to Rogers High School,” the Senate president said. “It’s a city that I love, and I’m honored to represent Newport in the state Senate. One of the benefits I bring Newport is that, based in part on my seniority, I can advocate for the city’s needs.”

If Victor Profughi of Quest Research is correct, Paiva Weed will return to the Senate. Profughi, who has been conducting Rhode Island political polls for decades, was asked about Smith’s chances to defeat his entrenched Democratic foe.

“Everybody always has a chance,” Profughi said. “But I think I would say that they are very slim unless there is some local issue—such as the casino— that would make him a viable candidate. But Paiva Weed has come out on the right side of that one.”

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