Scott MacKay Commentary: The Arrogance Of DeSimone And Malik Write-In Campaigns

Oct 14, 2016

Politicians love to say that elections matter. Except when some of them don’t like the results. RIPR Political analyst Scott MacKay wonders why two veteran Democratic lawmakers won’t accept their primary defeats.

Providence Democratic lawmaker John DeSimone has been at the Statehouse for 26 years. He worked his way up from the back bench to the influential position of House Majority Leader, the second-highest post in the House, after the speaker. 

DeSimone has had a good run at the capitol. He's been powerful as a lawmaker, helping to galvanize support for Nick Mattiello to become House speaker after former Democratic Speaker Gordon Fox of Providence crashed amid a corruption and bribery scandal. Years ago, DeSimone was considered so adept at placing allies on public payrolls that he earned the nickname "Johnny Jobs." 

For a generation he seemed to have one of the safest Democratic districts in Rhode Island in Providence's  North End and parts of the Charles Street, Wanskuk and Elmhurst neighborhoods. Until he didn't. DeSimone lost his primary in September by 21 votes to a political newcomer, Marcia Ranglin-Vassell, a Providence schoolteacher. 

DeSimone asked for a recount, which validated Ranglin-Vassell's victory. Now, he has decided not to accept the verdict of his party's voters. So he is running as a write-in candidate in the November general election. 

His reason: That his opponent was "propped up" as he calls it, by a liberal special interest group, the New York-based Working Families Party. This group lobbies for traditional Democratic and organized labor stances such as raising the minimum wage. Ranglin-Vassell also ran on a need for greater ethical oversight of the Assembly and what she calls "common sense gun control." 

A few miles down the East Side of Narragansett Bay lies the district represented by Democrat Jan Malik of Warren. This district takes in Warren and the southern neighborhoods of Barrington near the Warren River. Malik lost his primary to another newcomer, Democrat, Jason Knight, a young lawyer. 

Malik say he is running as a write-in because he's worried that the Warren side of the district won't be represented. Malik lives in Warren and is the owner of a liquor store in town. He comfortably won the Warren precincts but was drubbed in the Barrington neighborhoods. His race wasn't even close. 

Malik, a 20-year incumbent, also asserts that the district is not as liberal as his opponent. "The Warrenites love me, the conservatives love me, the NRA loves me. People want another choice," he told RIPR. 

DeSimone sings much the same tune, saying he is running to fight "for my neighborhood." He also said that some of his supporters told him they forgot to vote or did not disaffiliate after casting Republican presidential primary ballots for Donald Trump in March. 

So many things are wrong here that it's difficult to know where to start.  Malik and DeSimone are veteran lawmakers and know well what it takes to win. History shows that it is very hard to defeat incumbent lawmakers who run decent campaigns. Incumbents lose because they lose touch with voters, get lazy, or fail to understand demographic changes in their neighborhoods. Lawmakers rarely lose because of issues – can anyone name a rep or senator who was tossed out of office because of his or her vote on, say, 38 Studios? 

The other fallacy here is the way both incumbents describe their districts. DeSimone says it's "his" neighborhood and Malik says some interest groups in his hometown "love me." You would think that two politicians who combined have been at the capitol for nearly 50 years would understand by now that these districts belong to the voters, not to them. I've never seen the Constitutional provision giving these fellows lifetime appointments. 

So far as being a Democrat, it's eye-opening to watch DeSimone court Donald Trump voters and for Malik to say conservatives and the gun lobby are top supporters. Why aren't these two Republicans? 

The ultimate irony is that DeSimone, as majority leader, has long used party loyalty as a lever to keep lawmakers in line. Where's his Democratic loyalty now? 

There is a GOP challenger, Tea Party activist Roland Lavalee, in the DeSimone district. 

And why can't they accept that the voters spoke and decided it was time for change. Rhode Island doesn't  have term limits for lawmakers. But we do have voters. 

There is some good news. Speaker Mattiello and State Democratic Chairman Joe McNamara, a Warwick lawmaker, are both supporting the primary winners. Their reasons are similar –Knight and Ranglin-Vassell won fair and square. 

The other element is that write-in campaigns are nothing new. Every few election cycles one arrogant incumbent or another refuses to accept the primary verdict and mounts a write-in campaign. But  can anyone cite a successful write-in candidate? 

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday at 6:45 and 8:45 on Morning Edition and at 5:44 on All Things Considered. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at our 'On Politics' blog at RIPR.org