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Who will fill new mayor’s rep seat?

November 6, 2013

WOONSOCKET – Voters may be suffering from battle fatigue after enduring a long and grueling mayoral contest, but it’s too soon to climb out of the foxhole just yet.

There’s going to be more political flak flying around the race for the soon-to-be vacant House seat of the mayor-elect, state Rep. Lisa Baldelli-Hunt (D-Dist. 49). Her resounding victory over two-term incumbent Mayor Leo T. Fontaine Tuesday means she must resign from the House so the secretary of state can schedule a special election to identify her successor.

Early signs suggest the field of candidates could be a crowded one: At least four individuals are considering a run to claim the political turf Baldelli-Hunt has ruled since 2006 – including two she defeated in the general election last November. They were psychiatrist Stuart Gitlow and Michael Morin, a captain on the Woonsocket Fire Department who is also president of Local 732 of the International Association of Fire Fighters.

Former state representative Jon D. Brien is also considering a run for the spot, and so is Dave Fisher, the newcomer who was eliminated in the mayoral primary just weeks ago.

“There may be a more official announcement by the end of the week,” Fisher told The Call Wednesday. “There is a group of people who told me they’d support me in a run for state representative if Baldelli-Hunt won the mayoral election, which she did, soundly.”

Fisher said the old calculus of financing the cost of city government is defunct in Woonsocket, because there’s no room left to raise property taxes or cut costs. He said elected officials have to come up with fresh ideas.

Despite his status as a political newcomer, the freelance journalist from Fairmount could benefit from his recent exposure in the mayoral contest before he was eliminated in the primary. He finished in third place with 466 votes, but that was more than half those amassed by Fontaine in that preliminary.

Brien, who served three terms as a member of the House in Woonsocket’s District 50, said he would consider moving into District 49 to qualify for a spot on the ballot.

“I’ve had a really positive year of self-assessment and reflection and I’ve always had a desire to serve the community in which I grew up in and live, and that desire has never gone away,” said Brien. “If I felt that my participation in the leadership of this city would further the agenda of this new administration and get this city back on track then of course, I’m interested. But I’ve made no formal decision.”

Gitlow, who has run unsuccessfully against Baldelli-Hunt twice in the past, says there should be a doctor in the House.

“I’ve been involved in policy for many years on the medical side of the fence,” Gitlow said. “I’ve spent weeks down at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., working on medical policy issues. We don’t have anybody in our legislature who is familiar with medical issues despite the fact that health care is one of the leading costs we incur. The legislature is largely made up of teachers, attorneys and union members. We need at least one person in the legislature whose eye is on the right place on health care issues.”

Morin said, “Yes, I’m thinking about it,” when asked whether he would toss his hat into the ring. But he stopped short of making a position statement, saying he wants to give the dust around the mayor’s and council races a little time to settle.

The timing of the special election is still sketchy, but it all revolves around when Baldelli-Hunt resigns her House seat, which isn’t clear yet.

“We spoke to her this morning and she said she’d probably be getting back to us tomorrow with a tentative date,” said Raina Smith, spokeswoman for Secretary of State Ralph Mollis.

“She could resign any time up until she is inaugurated on Dec. 3,” Smith added.

Once the seat is officially vacant, the secretary of state would have 70 to 90 days to schedule a special election to fill the vacancy. If a primary is necessary, it would have to take place at least 30 days before the date of the election.

Richard Lepine, her campaign manager, said Baldelli-Hunt was scheduled to meet with advisers yesterday to discuss putting together a transition team and other near-term issues. The question of when she will officially vacate the House seat would be among the first items on the agenda, Lepine said.

If anything, Lepine said Baldelli-Hunt is leaning toward vacating the seat sooner rather than later. No matter how the math is worked, Lepine said, the timing of the special election will leave the House seat vacant for a portion of the 2014 legislative session, but Baldelli-Hunt wants to limit that period of time as much as possible.
“I believe that’s probably going to be item No. 1 on the agenda today,” said Lepine.

Other issues on the table for the first meeting after her resounding victory include the appointment of members of the School Committee. Because of an amendment to the City Charter approved by voters in 2012, members of the School Committee will no longer be elected.
After Dec. 3 – the date set by charter for the swearing in of newly elected officials – the School Committee will still exist, but its five seats will be vacant until they are filled by the mayor, with the consent of the City Council. But Lepine said there are some preliminary issues which must be addressed, including the question of whether members of the School Committee will be paid a stipend or if the position is strictly voluntary.

The transition team is still researching positions which Baldelli-Hunt, as mayor, has the power to fill at her discretion. Among those are the director of economic development, director of human services (both of which are now filled by Matthew Wojcik), Public Works Director Sheila McGauvran, and the city solicitor, now held by lawyer Joseph Carroll. But Lepine dismissed the notion that all would be summarily dispatched by Baldelli-Hunt.

“It wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility that she asks everybody to submit a resume” before making any decisions about appointees, said Lepine.

Though Fontaine survived the primary as a distant second-place finisher in a field of four, Baldelli-Hunt cemented her victory by defeating Fontaine by a margin of better than 2-1 on election night. She has pledged to reverse the city’s image as a fiscally distressed haven of the poor that’s hostile to business, bring in new investment and sever ties with the Budget Commission.

The state Department of Revenue seated the Budget Commission to take over the city’s finances in May 2012 to develop a plan to keep the city from going bankrupt. Fontaine, who serves on the panel as a matter of law, blamed his loss on the commission’s imposition of supplemental taxes in 2013.

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