Ready, set, signatures: CD1 candidates turn in nomination forms to qualify for ballot

By: - July 14, 2023 4:38 pm

Democrat Stephanie Beauté and Republican Terri Flynn sign each other’s nomination forms during a 1st Congressional District race signing party on July 10 at Gaudet Middle School in Middletown. Beauté was among 11 Democratic candidates represented that evening out of 21 running. Flynn was the only Republican to attend. One of the nine independent candidates also attended. (Janine L. Weisman/Rhode Island Current)

With the starting gun fired, candidates are sprinting toward the finish line in the upcoming special election for Rhode Island’s 1st Congressional District.

The first hurdle to clear is gathering a minimum 500 signatures from district voters to make it on the ballot. Which is why CD1 contenders and their supporters have spent the last 12 days knocking on doors, hosting signing parties and even bringing an ice cream truck to area neighborhoods alongside the nomination forms.

Political hopefuls had until 4 p.m. Friday to turn in the 19 sheets of paper (one for each city or town within the congressional district) to the appropriate local boards of canvassers. The boards then check each signature, confirming the voter’s identity and personal information – including whether they actually live in the district – before turning the lists over to Rhode Island Secretary of State’s office for final certification.

A few overachievers hit the 500-mark early, at least in terms of validated signatures, though more will trickle in the coming days. As of 4 p.m. Friday, candidates crossing the 500 signature threshold of validated signatures included:

  • Former White House staffer Gabe Amo (D)
  • Nick Autiello, a former economic development aide to then-Gov. Gina Raimondo (D)
  • Stephanie Beauté, who ran for Secretary of State in 2022 (D)
  • Walter Berbrick, former Naval War College professor (D)
  • State Sen. Sandra Cano (D)
  • Don Carlson, a law professor and renewable energy investor (D)
  • State Rep. Stephen Casey (D)
  • Spencer Dickinson, a former state representative who ran for governor in 2018 and filed paperwork for the 2nd Congressional District seat in 2022 (D)
  • Former Middletown Town Council member Terri Flynn (R)
  • Providence City Councilman John Goncalves (D)
  • Gerry Leonard Jr., a former U.S. Marine Corps officer (R)
  • Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos (D)
  • State Sen. Ana Quezada (D)
  • Former State Rep. J. Aaron Regunberg (D)
  • Allen Waters, a perennial candidate and Republican turned Democrat (D)

None of the contenders have had the full 500 names certified by the Secretary of State, a process expected to be completed by July 18, according to Faith Chybowski, a spokesperson for the Secretary of State’s office.

Between the signature requirements and second-quarter campaign financial disclosures, which are due to the Federal Elections Commission on Saturday, next week will be an important one for clarifying who are the top contenders in the crowded race. 

The record 35-person list, based on declaration paperwork filed by the June 30 deadline, has already lost a few contenders. Democrat Paul LeBon tweeted on July 10 that he was withdrawing after having suffered a mini-stroke days before. Independent Paul Rianna announced on July 12 he was also dropping out and backing Republican Gerry Leonard Jr., a Jamestown resident and former U.S. Marine Corps officer. Leonard also won the Rhode Island GOP’s endorsement.

Wendy Schiller, a political science professor with Brown University, expected the field to be winnowed further by the signature requirements, weeding out candidates who aren’t serious or don’t have the resources and name recognition to stand a chance. 

Candidates have until July 19 to submit paperwork to the state signaling their intent to withdraw from the race. Also on the docket that same day: a lottery almost as high stakes as the ballooning Powerball jackpot, at least to the candidates. This lottery, planned for 5 p.m. at the state Elections Division offices, will determine candidates’ placement on the ballot. It might not seem like a big deal, but in a vast field, something as arbitrary as where your name falls in the lineup can play a role, Schiller said.

As candidates race toward the rapidly-approaching primary and general election, election administrators, too, have their work cut out for them. The first task, already underway among local boards of canvassers, is combing over the sheets of signatures: one for each candidate, and one for each municipality within the district.

State Rep. Marvin Abney, a Newport Democrat running for the 1st Congressional District seat, signs the nomination form of independent John Vitkevich, a Portsmouth businessman, during the July 10 signing party at Gaudet Middle School in Middletown. (Janine L. Weisman/Rhode Island Current)

Democratic candidate Stephanie Beauté of North Smithfield said she initially had no clue there were separate nomination forms for each municipality when she ran for Secretary of State in 2022. 

“Sounds very inefficient and cumbersome. Sounds like an unnecessary hurdle especially when we’re in the 21st century,” said Beauté, a digital technical product for GE Digital who lost to Gregg Amore in the 2022 Democratic primary. 

I mean if Siri can tell you where to go, I think we should be able to scan our document and it tells you where the address is. But that’s just me. It might be my tech background. It might be my more problem solving thinking.”

Independent John Vitkevich, who ran unsuccessfully for the Rhode Island Senate District 11 seat in 2008, also pointed out the hassle of hand-delivering each paper to its respective municipal board of canvassers.

“Don’t forget each one of these has to go back to the registrar of voters by 4 o’clock,” Vitkevich said. “I don’t want to be driving to Woonsocket with two signatures. Right now, I’m going for the low-hanging fruit. It would be easy if they were all on one sheet.”

But paper copies also offer protections that the digital world cannot, which is perhaps why elections remain more analog than most modern-day practices, according to John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island.

Most candidates aim to get far more than 500 signatures, since names can get crossed off for a host of reasons, including not living in the district or not living in the municipality of the form they signed.

‘Standing in front of supermarkets’

Democrat Walter Berbrick of Middletown said at a signing party in Middletown on July 10 he had already collected over 800 signatures before the event but wanted to keep going.

“I got over 500 just standing in front of supermarkets,” Berbrick said. “To me the more people I meet, the better it is.”

Terry Flynn, a Republican and former Middletown Town Council member, saw it differently.

“This is a very grassroots campaign,” Flynn said at the July 10 event. “We just don’t have the time to get a thousand or even 750. I think the professional signature gatherers that get paid, they go 2-to-1. Philosophically I’m opposed to that nor do I have a war chest, so that was not going to be in the cards for me.”

More signatures could, ostensibly translate to more votes on Election Day. Unlike an election ballot, however, in which voters choose a single contender, people can sign as many candidates’ nomination papers as they want.

Indeed, the July 10 signature event, hosted by Sen. Lou DiPalma, a Middletown  Democrat, featured many candidates signing each other’s forms. How long that spirit of camaraderie endures, particularly as campaign ads roll out and debate schedules are announced, remains to be seen.

Already, candidates have gotten into a few dustups over perceived snubs in endorsements, which was unsurprising to Schiller given the extra weight these backings play in crowded races.

The special primary is Sept. 5 with a Nov. 7 general election.

Editor-in-chief Janine L. Weisman contributed to this story.


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Nancy Lavin
Nancy Lavin

Nancy Lavin is senior reporter covering state politics, energy and environmental issues for the Rhode Island Current.