Thoughts on the Senate District 3 Democratic Primary

In late July, I moved back the East Side, not far from where I grew up and similarly close to where I lived after returning from college. Then, on August 17, state Senator Gayle Goldin resigned, touching off what eventually became a five-way primary to replace her (yes, there’s a Republican candidate in the general election, but his platform seems terribly misaligned with the district, so the Democratic primary will likely be the hardest-fought, highest-turnout election this special election will see).

It has been intriguing to see how the race has played out. I’ll be casting my vote on election day, in large part because I haven’t quite been able to make up my mind (I’m like 70% certain I know who I’ll vote for). In large part, each candidate makes their own sort of sense: Friedman if you want a liberal, professionally-accomplished woman; Jacob for the city-oriented progressive; Pham for a forceful progressive opposition; Zurier if you like your politicians deliberative and a little less progressive; and Rickman for those whose primary policy goal is education.

With a weekend left before Primary Day, I want to walk through each candidate’s fundraising and expenditures a bit, given that they’ve filed their final campaign finance reports before the primary. I think this gives us a bit of insight about financial support for each candidate, where it’s coming from, and what they’re spending it on.

As a note: anomalies or things I can’t explain in the financial data should not be interpreted as malfeasance without proper investigation, and I don’t make any such claims here.

Hilary Levey Friedman

Total Raised (since 4/26/21): $70,536.58

Total Spent (since 4/26/21): $42,314.89

Total $1000 Donors: 36

Median Donor Amount: $206.70

Total Unique Donors: 191

Percent of Donors from Providence: 30% (57 total)

Friedman has been in the race since before it was even officially a race. She’s won the support of some of the state’s major labor organizations (the RI AFL-CIO, the Providence Firefight, SEIU), a number of other politicians (Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea and State Senators Sandra Cano, Cindy Coyne, Alana DiMario, and Melissa Murray) and the RI Coalition Against Gun Violence. Her biography is impressive, and she comes across as the most ready-for-primetime politician of the five (even more so than two previously-elected politicians).

Much of that money is from outside of Providence; indeed, only 30% of her donors even reside in Providence itself, and only a little over half are even from RI (it’s 50.3%). That said, despite a small loan (less than $300) she gave herself before filing for office, almost all of that is from individuals.

In terms of expenditures, Friedman reports spending more than any other candidate, and the bulk of that has been on printing: Regine Printing took in over $23,000 of her business, 55% of her spending in total. The second largest item she’s spent on has been on Statecraft Strategies LLC, the political consulting firm run by Erich Haslehurst and Jamie Rhodes; Rhodes’ legal firm has also picked up some business. Other expenditures include Precision Communications Strategies out of Maryland, design firm She Moves Forward, photography by Brittany Taylor, and basic campaign infrastructure tools like ActBlue and NGP. Friedman’s campaign has bought food from L’Artisan and Flatbread Pizza. Her campaign donated $1,700 to the RI Democratic Party (likely for the cost of NGP VAN). She lists Laura Costa, Kristina Fox, Jakub Lis, and Eileen Sweeney as campaign consultants.

Big Question: Does having money, lots of donors, experienced consultants, powerful supporters and a lot of lit help her overcome any weakness she might have within the district?

Bret Jacob

Total Raised (since 8/25/21): $18,596.42

Total Spent (since 8/25/21): $6,260.32

Total $1000 Donors: 8

Median Donor Amount: $175

Total Unique Donors: 59

Percent of Donors from Providence: 68% (40 total)

Jacob had a significantly later start, he didn’t file until over a week after Goldin had announced her resignation. He notably picked up the endorsement of the Senate District Committee (most notably three-time Democratic nominee for governor Myrth York and Goldin’s husband Jeff Levy). His most significant outside group support came from the Working Families Party, and from his campaign contributions, they appear to be his campaign. State Representative Leonela Felix has also endorsed him. His biography is compelling, coming out of homelessness to rise to being a Deputy Director of Policy at the City of Providence, which means he has good command of the issues the city is facing. In debates and interviews, I think he generally is the second-most polished, but I do think his campaign branding is pretty dull.

However, his fundraising is not great. He has the second fewest donors, and has the least money available. His campaign spending appears to be entirely on printing and office supplies and he’s spent the least; like Friedman, he relies heavily on Regine Printing. They took nearly $5,500 of his spending, or 87% of the total amount. However these numbers don’t reflect that he owes himself for spending on things like NGP VAN, Antonio’s Pizza, and Facebook advertising; though this isn’t showing up in the Board of Elections expenditures data, but it does show up on his campaign finance reports.

Big Question: Is having the official endorsement of the district committee and the backing of the WFP enough to overcome lackluster finances and a first-time candidate?

Geena Pham

Total Raised (since 8/17/21): $20,931.92

Total Spent (since 8/17/21): $8,878.35

Total $1000 Donors: 5

Median Donor Amount: $50

Total Unique Donors: 214

Percent of Donors from Providence: 39% (83 total)

Pham announced only a few hours after Goldin resigned. Pham started as the official candidate of the RI Political Cooperative. She was almost immediately endorsed by state Senators Sam Bell and Tiara Mack, and then picked up further endorsements from Reclaim RI, the RI Democratic Women’s Caucus, Sunrise Providence, BLM RI PAC, Climate Action RI, and the national organization Run For Something. Pham is a relatively recent arrival who works outside of the state, and seems to lack command of a number of issues the city is facing. For example, in her Pulse of Providence interview she begs off a couple of questions on the Fane Tower and Mayor Elorza’s proposed pension bond for lack of information. She would be the first Asian-American elected to the General Assembly, and has made her opposition to Senate leadership and her support of the Sunrise Providence version of the Green New Deal the central pillars of her campaign.

She doesn’t have very good fundraising, but she does have a lot of small donors, and indeed has the most donors of any candidate. They’re incredibly spread out, too; even 83 donors in Providence don’t add up to more than two-fifths of her donors (though they make up more than half of her haul). In terms of spending, Pham is like Friedman and Jacob: slightly more than half (over $4,460) to printing, though in her case it goes to Park Press in Saugus, Mass (north of Boston). Her campaign manager, Michael Kearney, takes up $2,560 (29%) of her spending. Other expenditures include payment processors like WePay and Vantiv, website hosting through DreamHost, and banking with Harland Clarke. She also has (by far) the best spread of food expenditures: Eastside Marketplace, Dunkin’ Donuts, Like No Udder, and Poco Loco Tacos.

Big Question: Can the people power of the Cooperative and small dollar donors make up for a lack of financial resources and a nervous, first-time candidate?

Ray Rickman

Total Raised (since 8/26/21): $46,577.00 ($17,900 in personal loans)

Total Spent (since 8/26/21): $25,905.39

Total $1000 Donors: 14

Median Donor Amount: $100

Total Unique Donors: 105

Percent of Donors from Providence: 40% (42 total)

Ray Rickman was one of the last candidates to enter and had to reactivate his campaign account; he was elected to the RI House of Representatives in 1986 before leaving in 1992 to run for Secretary of State (he lost the Democratic primary to Kathleen O’Connell who in turn lost to Republican Barbara Leonard). I am reasonably certain this occurred before two of his opponents were even born. He is endorsed by Patrick Kennedy, who served as US Representative for RI’s Congressional District 1 from 1995 to 2011 (Kennedy was last in office before three of Rickman’s opponents even lived in Senate District 3). He has made education, specifically addressing Providence Public Schools, the centerpiece of his campaign. In interviews and debates, Rickman has a tendency to go off on tangents about the history of a particular policy debate that often contain a wee bit of braggadocio about his involvement in it.

Rickman’s fundraising is a little less impressive when you realize that 38% of it is loans he gave himself, but even without it, he’s raised the second-most behind Friedman (Zurier has also loaned himself money). He’s also spent the second-most, though $12,500 (48%) of that has gone to Winning Campaign Strategies, which is a campaign shop in Hudson, Mass. Another $7,500 (29%) has gone to Nexus Partners Group, which as far as I can tell is a communications firm in Bridgewater, MA. Rickman also has the most people listed on his campaign expenditures, naming at least 18 people. He reported no spending on food.

Big Question: Does being the candidate with a clear policy goal overcome three decades of being out of the public eye?

Sam Zurier

Total Raised (since 8/30/21): $28,900.00 ($15,000 in personal loans)

Total Spent (since 8/30/21): $23,337.75

Total $1000 Donors: 5

Median Donor Amount: $250

Total Unique Donors: 37

Percent of Donors from Providence: 97% (36 total) – 87% from 02906 alone

Zurier was the last of the five to announce, also reactivating his account. He served as a Providence City Councilor for two terms before declining to seek reelection in 2018 (a baffling move at the time that looks more baffling now that he’s decided to seek a senate seat). He was endorsed by Representative Edith Ajello and Councilors Helen Anthony and Pedro Espinal. In a group of policy wonks, Zurier often feels like the wonkiest (and can be a bit dull, if I’m being honest – listening to his interviews I know I learned some things, but my attention also wandered).

More than half of Zurier’s contributions are his own, the greatest proportion anyone in the race has loaned themselves (indeed, without that loan, Zurier has raised the least). However, almost all of his donors live in Providence, and almost 90% of them actually live in the district (because Zurier gave ZIP codes for every donor, I was able to break down Providence further). The vast majority of his expenditures, nearly $22,000 or 94%, went to Rob Horowitz Associates, LLC, with the rest going to printing, Paypal, bank fees, Staples and Amazon. He has purchased food from Eastside Marketplace.

Big Question: Is having a solid base within the district enough to win with, and will Rob Horowitz alone be able to win an election?

I do not think there’s a clear frontrunner here, though I think Friedman is probably best-positioned, with Pham probably second-best positioned. I do wonder how the progressive in-fighting over the Cooperative has affected support for Pham; voters who cast their ballots early may be more supportive than voters who cast their ballots on Tuesday. Zurier might be in the third best position; if everyone splits the vote too much, it could be possible his fairly recent history as an elected official gives him enough of a base to win it.

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