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Rhode Island weighs a succesions drama of its own

Political Watch
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  September 3, 2009

The death of Senator Edward M. Kennedy has Massachusetts' political class speculating, in not-so-hushed tones, about the odds of a next-generation Kennedy running for and winning the seat.

But here in Rhode Island, we have our own tale of legacy and succession.

The death last month of State Representative Thomas C. Slater — like Kennedy, a voice for the disenfranchised — has created a vacancy, an abbreviated campaign, and plenty of chatter about the value of a family name.

Scott Slater, a budget analyst for the city of Providence who ran his father's campaigns for the last 15 years, declared for the elder Slater's seat just weeks after the long-serving Assemblyman lost a lengthy battle with cancer.

And while political operatives in Massachusetts expect any Kennedy candidacy to scare away at least some potential competitors, Scott Slater faces a large slate of rivals in what has long been a fractious district in the West End of Providence.

Twelve candidates — eight Democrats, three Republicans, and an independent — filed for the seat last week and have until September 8 to collect 50 signatures from voters if they hope to land on the ballot.

Several of the potential candidates could pose a real threat to Slater in what is expected to be a low turnout race. Indeed, observers say some 200 votes should be enough to win.

John M. Kelly, president and CEO of Meeting Street School and ally of Mayor David N. Cicilline, raised a bundle of cash in anticipation of a mayoral run that fizzled when Cicilline decided to stay put this election cycle.

Paul Doughty, president of the Providence firefighters union, is expected to garner at least some labor support. Raymond Tomasso once held a City Council seat in the area. Observers say candidates Jenny L. Jourdain and Ana Quezada could be wildcards.

And those are just the leading Democrats.

Tomasso's son John is gearing up for an independent run. Maryelyn Alba-Acevedo and Wilbur Jennings, both independents, have both run for office before and have some name recognition. In a topsy-turvy field, even Republican Maurice Green could have a shot.

But with a compressed election schedule in place — the primaries are set for October 6 and the general election is slated for November 10 — most observers say Slater's name recognition makes him the odds-on favorite.

"He's almost running as an incumbent," said Jennifer Lawless, a former political science professor at Brown University who is now the director of the Women in Politics Institute at American University in Washington, DC.

While the prospect of a Kennedy hold on the Massachusetts Senate seat has at least some concerned about the perils of political dynasty — see Mary Ann Sorrentino's piece on this page — there is little such worry when it comes to lower profile office.

And Rhode Island's appetite for family politics seems rather bottomless, anyhow. Just ask anyone who has run against a Kennedy, Lynch, Caprio or Roberts in this state.

Slater, for his part, says he will have to stand on his own two feet. But he is not shy about wrapping his arms around his father's legacy. "My father always believed that those of us who made it . . . into the middle class had a duty to help those who hadn't," he said.

That mantra sounds something like a Kennedy family creed oft-repeated in recent weeks: "much is expected of those to whom much has been given."

But it is far from clear that a Kennedy will be given the Senate seat in Massachusetts. And there is at least some doubt about how Rhode Island's own succession drama will play out.

There is some money in this race. A key endorsement from a coalition of progressive groups is yet to come. Insiders say a dissident coalition in the House of Representatives is expected to weigh in with hopes of winning a new ally.

The family mantle, it turns out, is a fragile object.

Related: Shooting from the lip, A force, The annunciations, More more >
  Topics: This Just In , U.S. Government, U.S. State Government, Election Campaigns,  More more >
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 See all articles by: DAVID SCHARFENBERG

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