WOONSOCKET – Call it the Lisa Landslide.
Backed by an angry electorate demanding change, State Rep. Lisa Baldelli-Hunt (D-Dist. 49) finished far ahead of the pack in a four-way primary for mayor last night, outdistancing incumbent Mayor Leo T. Fontaine by a margin of better than 3-1.
Fontaine’s collection of 881 votes gave him a distant second-place finish next to Hunt’s 2,746 – good enough to keep him alive for a general election showdown against Hunt on Nov. 5. But it was the kind of good that had jaws gaping and heads shaking in disbelief as the results were clocked at Ciro’s Tavern.
“I can see the numbers just like anybody else,” Fontaine told a subdued crowd of supporters at the restaurant. “People are angry out there.”
Fontaine vowed to press on, saying, “We’re going to start bringing this back...We’ve got to change these numbers.”
In stark contrast to the downbeat feel at Ciro’s, the mood was practically giddy just a couple of blocks away, where Hunt gathered with supporters in a spartan ground-floor office that’s usually vacant at One Social Street. As the poll results were being tallied on a wall-mounted placard, a crush of familiar political faces, city employees and Baldelli-Hunt’s family members packed the room, chanting “Lisa! Lisa! Lisa!”
Even Baldelli-Hunt seemed surprised by the margin of victory.
“I’m overwhelmed and very appreciative,” she said. “The people of Woonsocket have spoken. They’re looking for a strong and effective leader and I will be that strong and effective leader.”
There were two other challengers on the mayoral ballot last night, Green Party progressive Dave Fisher, who had never sought political office before, and perennial candidate Michael E. Moniz, who was nowhere in sight during the campaign. Fisher, who participated in every debate and threw out ideas that were hard to pigeonhole on the political spectrum, finished with 466 votes. Moniz managed to scrape together 34 from 11 polling places.
Fisher, a blogger and professional chef who has experience as a behind-the-scenes political strategist, did not seem disappointed by his performance.
“I really wasn’t running against Leo and Lisa,” Fisher said. “I was running against the status quo and the sometimes prehistoric thinking that sometimes goes on in this city.”
In a refrain that reverberated throughout the rival political camps, Fisher, too, said he was surprised by the punishment Fontaine endured at the polls. He said it’s clear people are looking for change, but he said, “It remains to be seen whether Lisa is going to be that change.”
Back at Ciro’s, Fontaine’s team of council candidates preceded him on the stage, including Council President John Ward, who finished ninth in the 15-way council primary. Like Fontaine, Ward sits on the state-appointed Budget Commission, which both candidates cited as a factor in alienating their supporters.
Seated in May 2012 under a state mandate applicable to communities facing insolvency, the commission raised property taxes over 20 percent on single-family homeowners in July as part of a comprehensive plan to rebuild the city’s financial health.
Fontaine acknowledged his membership on the panel, albeit required by state law, has hurt him politically.
“You end up sitting on this board that has to do the impossible,” he said. “Unfortunately, every decision you make you ends up upsetting somebody.”
Fontaine resurrected a central theme of his campaign so far, which has been to blame the state for bringing the city to its financial knees. He said lawmakers, Baldelli-Hunt included, had helped usher in the bad times by approving budgets that cut aid to Woonsocket by $55 million since 2008, leaving local politicians to work in the trenches to clean up the mess.
The barb was quickly returned by Baldelli-Hunt, who said the mayor of a small city deserves the blame for what goes wrong at the local level, not one lawmaker in a two-chamber legislature acting on fiscal proposals that originate with the governor.
“I am one of 75,” she said, referring to the membership of the House. “I am zero of 38 (in the Senate). The mayor is one of one. He’s the CEO of this city. You need to be a decisive leader and I don’t think he’s been that.”
Baldelli-Hunt said she thinks Fontaine’s historically deep support eroded because “he wasn’t listening to the people of Woonsocket.”
Baldelli-Hunt, 51, a mother of three, has been a state lawmaker since 2006. She is a former postal worker who served as president of the American Postal Workers Union for four years, and is the niece of former Mayor Charles Baldelli. She and her husband, Ed, a retired Lincoln High School math teacher, have three sons, two of whom attend Woonsocket High School.
Fontaine’s loss to Baldelli-Hunt is, without question, his most devastating political blow in a career that dates back two decades.
The 44-year-old mayor served 16 years on the City Council before he was elected mayor for the first time in 2009. For much of that time, he served as council president and was frequently among the top vote-getters in biennial elections. He defeated former Woonsocket policeman Todd Brien, 3,928-2,917 during his first outing for mayor and won a second term in 2011 after running without opposition.
Councilman Chris Beauchamp, one of the top finishers in the council runoff, said he expected Fontaine to poll behind Baldelli-Hunt, but not as far as he did.
“People didn’t want to see the same old stuff happening again and it showed in the results.” he said. “I thought it was going to be a little closer.”
Despite the rout, Baldelli-Hunt said she doesn’t take the win for granted and pledged to hit the stump again hard for the general election on Nov. 5.
“I’m going to work just as hard in the next 28 days,” she said. “Hopefully I’ll have the same results in the November election.”