The only thing holding back Jennifer Rourke is her shoes. They’re falling apart at the seams, a testament to a long summer of walking city streets, meeting neighbors, getting signatures, putting in signs, and the million and one other things needed to win elected office.
Rourke is just one of the six candidates who have primary contests for a spot in the General Assembly to represent Warwick. This primer covers the races – in Rep. District 21, Senate District 29, and Senate District 30 – that will culminate in the Republican and Democratic primaries on Wednesday, Sept. 12. The winner will go on to the General Election on Nov. 6.
Rep. K. Joseph Shekarchi, Rep. David Bennett, Rep. Joseph Solomon Jr., Rep. Evan Shanley and Sen. Lynch Prata don’t have primary challengers this year.
In discussions with the candidates common themes emerged – fixing Warwick schools, fiscal responsibility, pro-business policies, corporate influence at the State House, and the desire for new blood in politics.
REP DISTRICT 21 – Republican
Michael Underwood and Ron Loparto
Rep. District 21, comprising the area around the airport, Warwick Pond, and stretching west to Conimicut Point, is the site of one of the few Republican primaries in the state, with the winner earning the right to face Rep. Camille Vella-Wilkinson, the Democratic incumbent, in the General Election.
While District 21 has traditionally elected Democrats to the General Assembly, in 2016 Kent County voted for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, showing that the area does have a high level of Republican support.
The two Republican candidates, retired Coast Guard veteran Michael Underwood and former Lincoln District 4 Councilman Ron Loparto, both agree the state is heading in the wrong direction, and that Republicans are needed to reverse poor Democratic leadership at the State House.
“I’m frustrated with the direction the state is heading in as a whole from top to bottom,” said Underwood. “It’s time to consider a real change and vote different. Even if it doesn’t feel right, it’s time to vote something different.”
Underwood was born and raised in Warwick, graduated from Pilgrim High School in 1985, and joined the Coast Guard the summer after, serving for 23 years all over the United States. He’s also the owner of a small business, M & L Home Improvement and Landscaping. Underwood ran in 2016 as an independent against Vella-Wilkinson and Penta for District 21 State Rep.
“I feel like I’m the exact kind of person we need in the State House to stand up against Dem leadership,” said Loparto, Underwood’s opponent in the Republican primary. “I get results.”
Loparto was born and raised in Pawtucket, but served on the City Council and as Chairman of Public Safety in Lincoln. He worked as a real estate broker and investor, and has since moved to Warwick. He’s also a Gold Palm Eagle Scout and a member of St. Mark’s Church. Loparto ran in 2016 as an independent in District 29 against Sen. Michael McCaffery.
Both candidates expressed frustration with truck tolls, which they claim will make Rhode Island more expensive and less appealing to businesses, as well as with community and legislative grants, two controversial programs that give lawmakers the power to dole money out to various projects, without much oversight.
“The grants should be part of the budget,” said Underwood. “I’m not opposed to soup kitchens, but it needs to be managed and not in the hands of the Good Ol’ Boys.”
“There should be no tolls,” said Loparto. “That’s not the quality of life we should be striving for in Rhode Island.”
Underwood touted experience in command level positions in the Coast Guard, where he was responsible for a $180,000 budget and 45 people, as one of the reasons to vote for him.
“I’m used to being a public servant and being responsible for public money in a responsible manner,” said Underwood. “It’s one thing to do the right thing when people are watching, another when no one is watching.”
As for Loparto, he was adamant that his aggressive and outspoken style will pay off in the legislature, where “no one will get in my way. Not like Vella-Wilkinson.”
“I want to give voters the ability to participate in their government,” said Loparto. “What the people want I will support.”
While both candidates are disappointed that the PawSox are leaving, they’re also glad that the Rhode Island taxpayer is not on the hook.
“I’m disappointed because in the end picture it's another business leaving the state and taking jobs with it,” said Underwood. “The plus is we don’t have another 38 Studios debacle.”
“I’m positive there was a deal to be made, but Democratic state leadership is not able to make deals like this,” said Loparto. “Something could’ve been worked out, but they used it strictly as a political ball.”
SEN DISTRICT 29 – Democrat
Michael McCaffery and Jennifer Rourke
Senate District 29, comprising the area around the airport and the coast of Warwick from Conimicut to Rocky Point, is the site of an unlikely primary fight between the long-standing incumbent, Sen. Michael McCaffery, and an upstart progressive Democrat, Jennifer Rourke.
“I just think when you get to a certain point you get complacent, you get comfortable,” said Rourke, talking about McCaffrey's over 20 years of service in government. “You kind of forget what the people you’re supposed to represent, what they need, and it’s time for fresh faces and fresh ideas.”
McCaffrey has served since 1994 in the Rhode Island Senate, and became Democratic Majority Leader last year. He’s a graduate of Bishop Hendricken High School, Providence College and started work as a lawyer in 1989 in Warwick. His wife, Deidre, works as a nurse, and his four kids all went to school in Warwick.
“I’ve been in the Senate for a number of years,” said McCaffery, responding to Rourke’s comment. “I want to continue doing what I’ve been doing for the last couple of years, which is trying to do what’s best for the citizens of Warwick, the people of Warwick, and the constituents of the state of Rhode Island.”
Rourke is a new resident of the Ocean State, moving to Warwick in April 2015. Originally born and raised in Springfield, Mass., she said she’s “just a mom on a mission trying to make change.” She has four kids, with the oldest ones attending Warwick public schools, and lists her biggest objective if she were to win office as protecting Roe v. Wade, the landmark abortion law that might come under pressure in the Supreme Court.
“The first thing I have to do when I get into office is protect a woman’s right to choose,” said Rourke. “I have to. Everything falls next in line.”
By “protecting a woman’s right to choose” Rourke means passing the Rhode Island Reproductive Health Care Act, a bill that would codify the federal Roe v. Wade into local Rhode Island law.
“I’m frustrated that the General Assembly didn’t reconvene on the Reproductive Health Care Act, especially with what’s going on with the administration in the White House today,” said Rourke.
Asked about Roe v. Wade, McCaffrey said, “I support codifying Roe. v. Wade. It’s the law of the land.”
When asked about a piece of legislation he was most proud of, McCaffrey mentioned the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a series of six bills that Governor Gina Raimondo signed in 2017 that helped to reform the justice system by improving mental health counseling, addiction programs and changing the parole system to keep more people out of jail.
“If somebody has an addiction, if it’s mental health, and we’re able to get them counseling and we’re able to get them into a program and on whatever medications they need and they stay out of the system, that’s money well spent,” said McCaffrey. “The cost to send someone to prison is extremely, extremely high.”
McCaffrey also pointed to the phased elimination of the car tax, the passage of the Good Samaritan Act and a new school bond package as other examples of doing good for his district.
But Rourke doesn’t agree. She thinks new blood is needed at the State House.
“I think that what helps me is I don’t have that extensive experience where being a politician is my life or my career,” said Rourke. “I’m an outsider. I know how it works but I don’t have that true, true experience.”
Aside from Roe v. Wade, Rourke is also passionate about fighting for equal pay for equal work, LGBTQ rights and affordable housing for seniors and veterans. She’s also concerned about sewers in her area, as well as the way money is distributed from the State House to school districts. She thinks Warwick deserves more of that money.
“We need to see where the need is and then send the funding there,” said Rourke. “We pay a tremendous amount in taxes, and the schools are just closing around us.”
When asked about the PawSox McCaffrey said, “I think it’s a shame that the PawSox left, because it was a venue that a family could go to and it wasn’t going to cost them two arms and a leg to go a see a baseball game.”
McCaffrey mentioned that the Senate passed a version of the PawSox financing deal, which had the House agreed to, probably would have kept the team in Rhode Island.
“They’re multi-millionaires, they have the money,” said Rourke, who thought the funding should go towards helping schools instead. “Why would they be coming to the state?”
The winner of the primary will run unopposed in the General Election.
SEN DISTRICT 30 – Democrat
Jeanine Calkin and Mark McKenney
The primary race in Senate District 30 between incumbent Sen. Jeanine Calkin and Mark McKenney is marked by controversy surrounding the endorsement handed out by the Democratic district committee. The committee, a group of five elected party officials, chose to endorse McKenney, a trial lawyer, over Sen. Calkin, who entered office in 2016.
“Three of the five...are friends with my opponent,” said Calkin, referring to the district committee and the process for endorsement. “So of course I went in there with the understanding that I wasn’t going to receive it. I think that the endorsement process needs to change, and if re-elected, that’s something I’m going to look at.”
Calkin is a proud progressive Democrat who won her primary election in 2016, the same year that Sen. Bernie Sanders won the state during his presidential campaign. A trained information technology specialist, Calkin has the endorsement of progressive groups such as the Democrats Women Caucus, the Working Families Party, and the Young Democrats of Rhode Island. She said she ran in 2016 because she believed the General Assembly needed a greater level of diversity and difference of backgrounds.
“I think that we need people who are going to listen to the people in the district and not corporate interests,” said Calkin.
McKenney sees the district endorsement process differently. While unable to pinpoint why exactly the committee endorsed him over Calkin, he made clear that his ability to work with people and compromise would be an important factor if elected to the Senate.
“According to the district committee they gave both the incumbent and me the same opportunity to make a pitch first and then they asked us both the same questions,” said McKenny. “To me it's important we first look at issues from the standpoint, are things alright in Rhode Island, before we look into more global concerns.”
McKenny grew up in Warwick, attended Boston College, and spent a year at the University of Kent in Canterbury, England during his time as an undergraduate. Next he headed to Catholic University Law School before passing the bar exam in 1981. He’s been a practicing trial lawyer for over 35 years at a firm he co-owns, McKenney, Quigley & Clarkin, but he’s also been involved in work with the Providence Community Library, Literacy Volunteers of Rhode Island, and helped to reform Rhode Island’s workers’ compensation system in the 90s. Aside from the district committee, he is also endorsed by the Warwick Teachers’ Union, AFL CIO and Building Trades.
“I think we need to start with Rhode Island first,” said McKenney. “We need to clean up Rhode Island, and I mean figuratively and literally. I’m a little tired of the ‘I know a guy’ state.”
In terms of policy, the two candidates differ as to how far they’re willing to go on some progressive issues. In campaign literature Calkin vows to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour and institute a single-payer Medicare-for-All style system, while McKenney wants to focus on supporting small businesses, improving the DMV and instituting line-item veto, a change that would give the governor more power to cut wasteful spending out of the budget.
“It’s not enough to put in a bill. Did you get it passed, is the question,” said McKenney. “I think one of my strengths is being able to work with people to get things accomplished.”
Asked about a bill she was most proud of from her first term in office Calkin said, “I was very proud last year that my bill for the All Students Count Act passed, which would allow a better look into making sure that students get the help that they need in order to succeed.”
As for their position on the PawSox deal, and the recent announcement that the team would be leaving for Worcester, Calkin said, “the owners, who are billionaires, did not want to invest their own money, and wanted to place that risk onto the taxpayer.”
Calkin did not vote for the Senate version of the financing deal offered to the team.
“I think we should have made the best deal and we should have kept them here,” said McKenney. “I think it’s a sad day for Rhode Island that we lost them.”
One issue Calkin attacked McKenney on is his lobbying in the State House. According to McKenney he’s paid to lobby for two different organizations, the Interlocal Trust and the Associated Builders and Contractors of Rhode Island, to a tune of $5,500 per year and $3,000 per year respectively.
“I really see doing as on behalf of small-business,” said McKenney about his lobbying, which he’ll have to stop if elected. “I would go up on workers’ comp issues for small business and the cities and towns.”
He said he’s been lobbying for over 10 years for both organizations.
“I feel as though I can step in and hit the ground running and make an impact,” said McKenney about his candidacy. “I’m not doing this as a 30-year-old. I’m doing this as a 61-year-old, so I’m not looking for a long career here.”
The winner of the primary, like Senate District 29, will run unopposed in the General Election.