The 11 top families of Rhode Island politics

Sep 29, 2012

When Barack Obama was inaugurated in 2009, it marked the first time in about 20 years that a Bush or Clinton didn’t occupy the White House. Obama’s rival in this year’s presidential race, Mitt Romney, is another member of the political dynasty club.

Perhaps in light of this, The Fix, the great Washington Post political site, is compiling a national list of political dynasties. That got us thinking about an all-Rhode Island list of top political families. Our criteria includes 1) RI residence (sorry, Patrick Kennedy); and 2) political activity or office-holding within the last election cycle.

Without further ado, here’s our list:

CHAFEES: Lincoln Chafee has faced low approval ratings as Rhode Island still struggles with high unemployment and a lackluster economy. Although Chafee looks good for opposing the 38 Studios deal as a candidate, the 2014 gubernatorial race looms on the horizon. The independent governor nonetheless boasts a high-caliber political pedigree as a member of one of Rhode Island’s founding “Five Families.” Chafee’s ancestors include the likes of great great grandfather Henry Lippitt, who served as governor from 1875 to 1877. The governor’s late father, John Chafee, remains highly respected and an icon of a bygone era of GOP moderation. And Chafee remains in the White House Rolodex, as evidenced by his speaking spot during the recent Democratic National Convention.

LYNCHES: Former AG Patrick Lynch took himself out of the 2010 gubernatorial fight well before the end of the race; the normally competitive prosecutor, a son of the late Pawtucket mayor Dennis Lynch, seemed a bit off his game. Lynch has since formed his own law firm – making headlines for a legal fight with Google — and his large campaign war chest leaves open a possible return to politics. Sibling William Lynch, the former state Democratic Party chairman and 2010 CD1 candidate, is now ensconsed with Adler, Pollock & Sheehan.

CAPRIOS: A lot has changed since 2006 when the Caprios were challenging the Lynchs for bragging rights among local political dynasties. Frank Caprio’s gubernatorial campaign blew up in 2010, and his brother David got upset in a House race by Teresa Tanzi. The Caprio clan nonetheless retains a high profile: patriarch Frank Caprio remains the chief municipal judge in RI’s capital; his younger namesake heads the Providence office of Chatham Capital and is pursuing entertainment/business management on a national level. Another Caprio sibling, John, has attracted attention for his romance with Paula Abdul.

CARUOLOS: Former House majority leader George Caruolo has re-emerged as a powerful inside player since Chafee won the governor’s office. Caruolo heads the Board of Regents of Elementary and Secondary Education, is a big wheel in East Providence, and is still sitting on that $125,000 war chest. Caruolo’s relationship with Providence Mayor Angel Taveras goes back to when they worked together at the same law firm a dozen years ago. Meanwhile, Caruolo’s son, Andrew, is heading the ballot question campaign for Twin River.

LICHTS: You know how they say politics makes strange bedfellows? Frank Licht, the uncle of Richard Licht, beat John Chafee in the 1968 gubernatorial race and then broke a campaign vow by raising the taxes that Chafee said would be necessary. Richard Licht went on to lose to fellow Democrat Robert Weygand, who squared off against Lincoln Chafee in a 2000 Senate race. Licht, after being picked by Chafee not long after taking office as governor, now heads the state Department of Administration.

ROBERTS: Although Lieutenant Governor Elizabeth Roberts has suggested she’ll head away from elective politics when her second term ends in January 2015, she remains part of a family (husband Tom Roberts is a professor at RISD) with an impressive political legacy. Her late father-in-law, Thomas Roberts, was a chief justice of the state Supreme Court. Her husband’s uncle, Dennis J. Roberts, was the last Providence mayor to win election as governor (in 1950). Roberts herself became the first woman to claim the LG’s office when she handily won in 2006. And though it’s not hard to imagine her returning to her health policy-wonk roots, the Cranston resident could one day be a potential candidate in CD2 or some other office.

SOLOMONS: Providence City Council president Michael Solomon bridges the old and new worlds of Providence politics like few others. Solomon has proved an effective partner for Mayor Taveras, and he’s on the short list of hopefuls with the best shot of moving up if Taveras seeks a different office in 2014. The council president’s father, Anthony Solomon, was a longtime state rep, treasurer, and gubernatorial candidate. Warwick Councilor Joseph Solomon is a cousin.

COSTANTINOS: Former House Finance chairman Steven Costantino oversees a swath of government services and bureacracy as head of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services. His brother, Gregory Costantino, upset Peter Petrarca to win the Democratic primary in House District 44. (Kathy Gregg wrote more in one of her All in the Family installments.)

FOGARTYS: Former LG Charles Fogarty came very close to beating Republican Don Carcieri in the 2006 gubernatorial race. After a hiatus at Johnson & Wales, he now heads the state Deparment of Labor and Training. His uncle, John Fogarty, was a congressman for almost 30 years, his father was a state legislator, and his brother, Paul Fogarty, remains a state senator.

LOMBARDIS: John Lombardi, a mainstay on the Providence City Council and the number 2 finisher in the 2010 mayoral race, is headed to the Statehouse after emerging from a three-way field for the state rep seat currently held by Michael Tarro. Lombardi’s brother, Frank, won a primary in Cranston in the race to succeed Bea Lanzi, but faces a stiff general election race with Republican Sean Gately.

BALDELLIS: State Representative Lisa Baldelli-Hunt raised her profile this year as a leading opponent to adding a supplemental tax in Woonsocket. Speculation continues about whether she’ll run next year for mayor, a position once held by her uncle, Charles Baldelli.