2016-08-04 / Front Page

Incumbents Face 'Indy' Challenges

By Tom Walsh

Two unaffiliated, or “independent,” candidates seeking local General Assembly seats in November offer different reasons for challenging two formidable Democratic incumbents without being aligned with the Republican or Democratic parties.

“I’ve become a little disillusioned with the state Republican Party,” said Michael W. Smith of Newport who, as a Republican, ran a closer-than-expected race two years ago against Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, D-Newport. “What I see with the state party is a lot of disorganization and not a lot of emphasis on local races.”

This time, Smith will be without party affiliation in his challenge to first-term House District 75 Rep. Lauren Carson, D-Newport, who declared, “I don’t know him personally, but I will just focus on what I’ve done for the district in my first two years and what I want to do going forward.”

District 75 encompasses most of Newport south of where traffic on the Claiborne Pell Bridge enters the city.

Meanwhile, in Senate District 13, which includes most of Newport and all of Jamestown, Sav Rebecchi, a longtime political activist in Jamestown who has previously run for local offices as a Republican, has a different reason for making an unaffiliated challenge to the politically strong Paiva Weed.

Rebecchi can’t tolerate seeing politicians returned to office without facing an opponent on Election Day.

“I’ve always felt that we’ve had some good people serving, but I also think that the election process is important and it’s good to keep them on their toes,” he said.

For years, Rebecchi had, as he describes it, “no exposure to local government at all.” But then, in 2001, he found himself on the Jamestown Charter Review Commission. “The next thing you know, I began to attend town council, zoning and planning meetings – I was hooked,” he said.

Both Smith and Rebecchi insisted they plan to wage vigorous campaigns against their incumbent opponents. While both refer to themselves as political “independents,” Rhode Island has no actual independent political party.

“I want to try to have an impact,” Smith said. In 2014, he gave Paiva Weed the closest race she’s had in her more than 20 years of Senate service. As it turned out, she secured just under 55 percent of the vote, but it was also the first time in all those years that she failed to get at least 60 percent of the vote in her district.

Paiva Weed said she will proudly run on her record and that she will remain committed to the state’s human services needs and to Rhode Island’s children, including their education. “Of course, the economy is always a big issue,” she added.

Both Paiva Weed and Carson said they will tour their districts to ask voters directly for their continued support.

Political followers may have thought that Smith, buoyed by his showing in 2014, would challenge Paiva Weed again. But with a growing family and as a small business owner, he felt that running in the more compact House District 75 against Carson made more sense.

And, he said, “I thought I could have more impact in the House.” As he spoke with others who have been politically active in the district, he became increasingly convinced that running as an independent would be a smart way to make this race. “People didn’t feel that the party system helped with local and state elections.” He described the statewide Republican Party as “very shallow and weak.”

The Democratic Party, Smith said, seemed to be “more of a large controlling group that continues to make sure that it stays in power.”

Asked whether the nomination of business mogul Donald J. Trump as the Republican Party’s presidential candidate had any bearing on his thinking, Smith replied, “It was a piece of the pie – not a big factor, but maybe the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

He elaborated that the rise of Trump and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side was evidence of “huge sentiment against the establishment and country club politics. These tentacles have spread out all over at all levels.” He added, “I’m not a fan of the Clintons either.”

As for his November opponent, Smith described Carson as “totally out of touch. I don’t feel as though I’m running against a person. Rather, I feel like I’m running against a way of life in Rhode Island. She’s part of a group that’s just keeping things going the way they are. It’s time for some new blood.”

Reached for comment about that assertion, Carson replied, “I am new blood. I’m just finishing my first term. I think I’ve brought a fresh perspective to the Statehouse.” She said she has hosted 11 constituent meetings and will hold three more before Election Day. “I’m proud to say that I’m completely in touch with Newport voters.”

Rebecchi said that he, too, is disgruntled with local politics. “There was always a lot of infighting,” the independent Senate candidate said. He added that in years past he often found himself “begging people to run,” and lamented that it is difficult for anyone to seek office today since many are always juggling a long list of things to do.

When he heard that Smith would not mount a second campaign against Paiva Weed, Rebecchi decided to take on the Senate president himself. He said he understands that either as an independent or a partisan candidate, toppling the most powerful Rhode Island senator will be a daunting task.

“It’s an uphill battle,” the challenger said. “But I’ve decided to stand behind my long-time idealism and not let somebody get in unopposed.”

Running against the politically powerful Paiva Weed as an independent is a matter of “fighting the legislative cartel at the Statehouse,” Rebecchi said, but he hopes to raise enough campaign funds to make the race interesting.

“I hope to develop a master plan,” Rebecchi said. And, he promised, “It will be an exciting battle.”

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