Candidates reflect on Statehouse races that upended status quo

Candidates reflect on Statehouse races that upended status quo

PAWTUCKET – It was a primary election that saw every established incumbent with an opponent ousted in Pawtucket, and the candidates this week are reflecting on how it all went down.

In Senate District 15, covering parts of Pawtucket and North Providence, Pawtucket City Councilor Meghan Kallman exceeded the vote totals of both of her opponents, Herbert Weiss and Robert Morris, combined.

“I am so, so pleased to share that we’ve won the Democratic primary with nearly 61 percent of the vote,” said Kallman. “Huge thanks to so many people and groups who helped along the way, building a shared vision for a just future, together.”

Kallman was very strong on the Pawtucket side of the district, securing 1,607 votes or 63.5 percent of the total, to 604 percent or 23.9 percent of the total for Weiss and 320 votes and 12.6 percent for Morris.

Morris, a North Providence resident, actually won the much smaller North Providence section of the district, with 111 votes or 56.6 percent of the total, to 54 votes and 27.6 percent of the total for Kallman and 15.8 percent for Weiss.

“I congratulate Meghan Kallman on her impressive victory and Robert Morris on the good campaign that he ran,” said Weiss. “Although I clearly would have preferred a different result, this campaign was an enriching experience. I thank all the residents of Pawtucket and North Providence that shared their ideas and concerns with me and took the time to listen to my views. I thank all the people that helped my campaign along the way.”

Morris could not be reached.

In Senate District 18, covering East Providence and a small section of Pawtucket, progressive candidate Cynthia Mendes defeated incumbent and Senate Finance Committee Chairman William Conley, who was seeking re-election for a fifth term, by securing 61.5 percent of the vote in last week’s Democratic primary election.

After final results were tallied, Mendes had 1,716 votes to Conley’s 1,073 votes, or 38.5 percent. Mendes, who gathered more votes in both Pawtucket and East Providence, effectively wins the seat as there are no challengers in the Nov. 3 general election.

“I’m really excited, not just for our district but across the state,” Mendes, a political newcomer and member of the new progressive Rhode Island Political Cooperative, told The Breeze. “We’ve seen a number of candidates win who were considered outsiders.” She said her landslide win against Conley makes it clear that insiders are not going to get a free pass, she said.

Mendes’ campaign platform included supporting a $15 minimum wage, affordable housing for all and a Green New Deal, and her support of the Keep Metacomet Green movement, where some residents are opposed to proposed development at the Metacomet Golf Course in East Providence, appeared to help her win in that city.

Conley, a lawyer, had received backlash in East Providence for representing the developer behind the proposed plans at the golf course.

Mendes said she attributes her win to spending time talking with voters, which she started doing last fall in Pawtucket where residents had been neglected by the Statehouse, as well as her dedicated team and the fact that she didn’t accept money from corporations or corporate PACs. “I think that actually excited voters,” she said, “having someone who didn’t feel entitled to a seat but felt beholden to voters.”

She said she’s looking forward to doing the things she said she would do once she assumes office, including addressing fair wages and the climate crisis. She said the message from voters has been clear: they expect braver, bolder legislators who listen to working families.

Conley did not respond to requests for comment.

In Senate District 16, where two candidates challenged incumbent Sen. Betty Crowley, first elected in 2008, during the Democratic primary last week, progressive Jonathon Acosta won the seat with 956 votes, or 50.3 percent.

Crowley came in second with 757 votes, or 39.9 percent, while challenger Leslie Estrada received 186 votes, or 9.8 percent, according to final election results.

Acosta said he has made history, as he will be the first Latino to serve District 16, which represents parts of Central Falls and the Woodlawn section of Pawtucket.

“I’m really excited for our district (and) for what it means around the state,” said Acosta, who’s serving his second term on the Central Falls City Council and is part of the progressive Rhode Island Political Cooperative. He campaigned in support of fair wages, affordable housing, and an equitable education funding formula among other items. “Rhode Islanders are yearning for this type of legislative reform,” he said.

In the Pawtucket part of the district, Crowley was the top vote-getter with 215 votes, or 55.1, percent while Acosta had 137 votes, or 35.1 percent. In Central Falls, Acosta had 54.3 percent of the vote while Crowley had 35.9 percent. Estrada came in last in both communities.

While Crowley said she’s disappointed to have lost, she said it was a true honor to represent the residents of District 16 for more than a decade, calling it “an experience I will never forget.”

The lifelong Central Falls resident said she loves her community and thanked everyone who voted for her. She said she congratulates Acosta, wishes him the best, and hopes his work will be effective.

The 68-year-old said she’s taking the loss as a sign to retire. “This is my final hurrah.”

Acosta said he’s proud to be representing Central Falls and Pawtucket and thanked voters for their support. “This race wasn’t really about me,” he said, but it was about the ideas and being part of a group of people working together for the same causes.

Because he doesn’t have a general election opponent, Acosta said he will take the time from now until January to work on what he’s campaigned for. “I just want to hit the ground running.”

Leonela Felix easily dispatched incumbent House District 61 Rep. Raymond Johnston, securing nearly 59 percent of the vote for the right to take on Republican Robert Wheeler III.

“I said it hundreds and hundreds of times over these last months: ‘Hello, my name is Leonela Felix, and I’m running for state representative because I believe the Statehouse is not working for real people like us,’” she said in a statement after the victory. “And people kept nodding their heads. People in Pawtucket didn’t just nod, they voted. I am so honored to be the Democratic nominee for state representative from proud House District 61.

“From the very beginning, we said this would be a people-powered campaign, and we did it,” she added.

Johnston has given a decade of service to the state and even longer service to local neighborhoods, she said, “and it was an honor to campaign against him. You can’t win a tough race against someone like Ray without a team, and I am grateful to the bottom of my very tired feet to have had an incredible team with me every step of the way.”