WOONSOCKET – After a stormy night forecasters were calling for sunny, dry weather today – perfect for voters heading to the polls to cast ballots in the citywide primary for mayor and City Council.
It’s a four-way contest for the top spot at City Hall as incumbent Mayor Leo T. Fontaine squares off against State Rep. Lisa Baldelli-Hunt (D-Dist. 49), newcomer Dave Fisher and Michael E. Moniz.
Fifteen candidates will appear on the ballot for City Council, including seven incumbents, Christopher Beauchamp, Albert G. Brien, Marc A. Dubois, Daniel M. Gendron, Roger G. Jalette Sr., Robert R. Moreau, and Council President John F. Ward. The others include Eric Cartier, Kathryn M. Dumais, Richard J. Fagnant, Garrett Mancieri, Anita Ann McGuire Forcier, Melissa A. Murray and Christopher Roberts. Jeffrey Belknap’s name is also on the ballot, but he withdrew – too late to stop the primary but soon enough to render the process moot. More on that later.
At least for the primary, the council races have been largely overshadowed by one of the liveliest mayoral contests in a generation, as two of the city’s most recognizable political brands point fingers at each other as the cause of the city’s woebegone financial shape.
Though Fontaine rolled out a detailed, if belated, economic development plan last week, Baldelli-Hunt says the mayor has done too little to keep retail stores from exiting the city or to change its image as a hostile place to do business.
Saddled with the yoke of a state-appointed Budget Commission that has sharply raised property taxes as part of a plan to avoid municipal bankruptcy, Fontaine has blamed most of the city’s problems on the state, including the legislature, arguing that dramatic cuts in aid caused the financial crisis.
Though Fisher has criticized the administration’s record on economic development, he says the state and the city both share some of the blame for causing the city’s economic woes.
Woonsocket’s elections are non-partisan, but political affiliation and grassroots organization may be factors in how today’s mayoral primary plays out. Woonsocket is widely regarded, perhaps unjustifiably so, as a bastion of blue-collar Democrats. The only Democrat in the race is Baldelli-Hunt, a name with Democratic bones in the city that go back nearly three decades. Fisher, meanwhile, is unaffiliated, though he says he most identifies with the Green Party, the progressive wing of the Democratic party.
Despite the city’s reputation as a Democratic stronghold, Fontaine, the only Republican in the mayoral race, has enjoyed significant political longevity here. He was on the City Council for 16 years before he was elected mayor in 2009 for the first time, and he’s also a former state GOP chairman.
Anyone reading this story who isn’t from Woonsocket is probably wondering why so little space has been devoted to Moniz. A former custodian for McDonald’s, the 65-year-old resident of Crepeau Court has become certified as a candidate for one political office or another in virutally every election cycle for well over a decade. He does not campaign and has never been elected to anything. He declined at least a half-dozen invitations from various media outlets to appear in debates with the other candidates.
The whole point of today’s mayoral primary will be to narrow the field down to two candidates who will do final battle in the general election on Nov. 5.
As voters head into the polls, there are a couple of simple rules they might want to remember to avoid mistakes and wasting their votes. In the mayoral contest, voters may cast a ballot for just one candidate, according to Linda Fontaine, an aide in the Board of Canvassers.
If a ballot is dropped into the automated tabulating machine with more than one name checked off for mayor, the ballot will be ejected by the machine. The voter who filled out the ballot will be asked if he or she wants a new ballot to correct the mistake. There’s no requirement for the voter to do so, but it will be offered as an option. If the offer is declined, none of the ballots cast for mayor will be counted, according to Fontaine.
The same principle applies to votes for City Council, where voters may cast ballots for a total of seven candidates, one for each vacancy on the panel. If the limit is surpassed, all of the votes for council candidates will be disqualified unless the voter opts for a do-over.
Because of Belknap’s belated decision to withdraw, the council primary is an exercise that may benefit the candidates more than voters this season, largely because 15 names are appearing on the ballot, including his, which should not be there. A custodial employee of the school department, Belknap notified the panel that he does not intend to run in the general election because it might cost him his job if he wins. Belknap has apparently been unable to receive clear legal guidance on the City Charter’s rules about city employees serving on the council, so he decided not to run, according to Estelle Corriveau, manager of the Board of Canvassers.
The trouble is that Belknap informed the board of his intentions after the blank ballot sheets were already printed by the secretary of state. That means no matter the outcome of today’s primary, there will still be 14 people left standing.
For the contenders, there may be little to do with the results but read them as a barometer of the success of their campaigns. Candidates checking in near the bottom of the pack, for example, may decide to pick up the pace to improve their chances of winning in November.
The results will be far less ambiguous for the mayoral contests. For two contenders, it will be the end of the road. The only question is, who will they be?
For the two winners, the outcome will probably mark the beginning of a battle that will make the skirmishing that preceded the primary look tame by comparison. But they, too – and the voters who supported them – will look at the margin that separates them and wonder if it is not a harbinger of how the final battle for City Hall will play out on Nov. 5.
Follow Russ Olivo on Twitter @russolivo