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The contender
The same thing that Myrth York's detractors might see as a weakness -- two losses in previous gubernatorial bids -- make her a formidable candidate in 2002
BY IAN DONNIS

Heads turned and curiosity was in the air as Myrth York walked into a Newport Creamery in Providence's Elmhurst section last week. Even before going public with her latest campaign, she had the familiar presence of a perennial candidate, pausing to chat with a few diners before settling down to breakfast. With the start this week of a cross-state tour to launch her third run for governor, York's appearances in such settings will become only more frequent.

The statewide name recognition that she built while coming close to beating Lincoln Almond in 1994, and running a competitive race in 1998, is one of the obvious strengths of York's nascent campaign. She can also boast a motivated base of support and the ability to raise large amounts of money. At the same time, York hasn't won an election since creaming then-governor Bruce Sundlun in the 1994 Democratic primary, and although she received ample attention as the party's standard-bearer in 1998, four years is a long time in politics.

Meanwhile, Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse seems well positioned to end the richly deserved reputation of the AG's office as a dead end for political ambitions. Although his tenure has certainly had its share of controversy, Whitehouse can tout an impressive resume, considerable establishment support, and he scored an impressive victory during his first run for office in 1998. State Representative Antonio J. Pires (D-Pawtucket), although decidedly less well known than York or Almond, is also in the Democratic race for governor, and, at the very least, he's likely to exercise a strong influence on the outcome of the three-way Democratic primary on September 10.

York, 55, dismisses questions about her ability to compete after two high-profile losses, citing the way in which Abraham Lincoln lost five elections before winning the presidency. "The fact that I'm out here again is because my commitment to Rhode Islanders, my conviction that we can move the state forward, is as strong as ever," she says. "The strategists and that kind of political analysis, that's not something I'm going to focus on. I'm going to run my race, letting the people know who I am and what I want to do for the state, and I'll let the political pundits handicap it."

Citing her experience as a state senator, parent, investment adviser, and community activist, York says, "I have the ability to look for new solutions to the challenges we face, because the old ways that we've done things haven't worked."

Certainly, many candidates have racked up multiple losses before ultimately winning a prominent office. Sundlun, for example, was defeated twice before winning the governor's office on third run. Still, Bill Fischer, Whitehouse's campaign manager, isn't entirely alone in questioning whether there's genuine enthusiasm for York's latest candidacy. Providence Journal political columnist M. Charles Bakst, for one, sounded a somewhat skeptical tone in using his column of Sunday, January 20 to assess York's prospects

Campaign spending in the Democratic primary is expected to smash records, and the prospect of a blowout heavy on television commercials has Fischer trying to nip the potentially bruising battle in the bud. "If polling down the stretch shows that there is not [enthusiastic support for York], how is she going to conduct herself -- in a manner that elects another Republican governor," he asks, "or in a manner that tries to promote an issues-driven campaign?"

York puts such questions in the realm of the hypothetical. "I'm going to take my campaign to the people of the state," she says. "I'm not going to go negative for the sake of going negative. I'm going to take what I want to do -- the programs, the plans I have, who I am -- to the people of the state."

For his part, Fischer suggests York's chance may have passed, saying, "In politics, it's timing, timing, timing. Timing isn't always fair." True enough, but there are plenty of observers who don't rule out the possibility that York's time has come. Put another way, the same thing that her opponents might try to define as a liability -- consecutive losses in the high-profile governor's contest -- have made her into one of the state's best-known political figures.

"Any time you have a two-time nominee, you are going to have a formidable candidate," says Marc Genest, a political science professor at the University of Rhode Island. "Myrth York, by every definition of the word, is a formidable candidate. She's a proven fundraiser, an articulate and intelligent candidate, and a good debater."

Although Whitehouse's campaign got off to an early stage in fundraising and organizing, certain aspects of the primary could prove beneficial to York. As Genest says, "Myrth's strongest advantage is that despite the fact that she's a two-time nominee of the Democratic Party, she can run as an outsider because, clearly, Whitehouse is the choice of the establishment. Historically, the ant-establishment candidate in the primary has done better than the chosen candidate of the party."

York was the leader in a poll conducted by Brown University's Taubman Center for Public Policy in September, with support from 15 percent of respondents, followed closely by Whitehouse (14 percent), Lieutenant Governor Charles Fogarty (11 percent), and Pires (four percent). Whitehouse is seen by some as the beneficiary of Fogarty's decision not to run in the race, but Darrell West, a political science professor at Brown, doesn't detect a front-runner at this point, and the fact that 56 percent of respondents were undecided suggests the degree to which the contest remains up for grabs.

"I see the Democratic primary as very competitive because York has high name recognition and an ability to raise money, and Whitehouse is an incumbent who has done several good things," West says. "I think it will be very competitive."

York and Whitehouse are affluent residents of Providence's East Side, and not surprisingly, each is unwilling to commit to the voluntary spending limits adopted by the state in 1992, which, by Fischer's estimate, would fund each campaign to the tune of $2.4 million. In 1994, Almond dropped $1.6 million and York $1.5 million as they ran for the state's first four-year gubernatorial term -- a 65 percent reduction from the $4.2 million expenditure that Sundlun used to finally get elected in 1990 -- and they remained within a $1.62 million spending cap in their 1998 rematch, according to Common Cause of Rhode Island. This time, York won't specify how much she plans to spend, and it's clear that all bets are off when it comes to campaign costs.

Although some observers view Pires, Whitehouse, and York as an unusually good crop of Democratic gubernatorial candidates, it remains to be seen whether this campaign will be the stuff of issues and ideas. With GOP aspirants Jim Bennett, Donald Carcieri, and Bernard Jackvony set to square off on the Republican side, fears abound of a bipartisan slate of damaging primaries. When it comes to the Democrats, "This has the potential to get really messy, because both of them [Whitehouse and York] have access to a tremendous amount of money," says one State House insider. "It's going to be a wild year."

YORK GAINED a wave of favorable publicity with her attempt to buy bankrupt Newport Creamery with a group of partners late last year. Kate Coyne-McCoy, who served as political director for York's 1994 campaign, cites her interest in saving the Rhode Island institution as typical of the candidate's interest in serving as a voice for people who are usually unable to influence government. "Everyone was ready to give up," says Coyne-McCoy. "All those people were going to lose their jobs. She stepped in and said, `We could make a go of this.' " Although another bidder ultimately bought the company, "I really give her a lot of credit for getting that thing going. I really think it was her who got in rolling and created the interest."

Although skeptics dismissed York's upstart campaign against in 1994, she crushed Sundlun, an unpopular incumbent, before losing to Almond in the general election on a 47-44 percent margin -- a difference of about 14,000 votes. Robert Healey of the Cool Moose Party attracted nine percent of vote, or almost 33,000 tallies, a fragment of which would have put York over the top. Facing the difficult task of challenging Almond during the strong economy of 1998, she moved to the center and attracted 42 percent of the vote to the incumbent's 51 percent.

York was the original sponsor of RIteCare, the state's health insurance program for poor children, and she's widely seen as a champion of liberal and progressive causes. Coyne-McCoy, who unsuccessfully challenged US Representative Jim Langevin in 2000, says York "has the ability to excite people who are not normally excited by a political candidate." Her campaigns, with a paucity of Italian-American men, for example, have struck some observers, though, as being better suited to the green politics of Vermont than the ethnic hurly-burly of Rhode Island.

Growing up in Maplewood, New Jersey, York says, she was influenced by her father's entrepreneurial success in manufacturing a device used in the process of separating chemicals and her mother's volunteer service with the Red Cross. She studied international relations at the University of Denver, graduated from Boston University Law School, married David B. Green, a lawyer, and the couple spent time in Tennessee before settling in Rhode Island in the mid-'70s, taking jobs at Rhode Island Legal Services.

Serving two terms in the state Senate, from 1991-94, York opposed Sundlun's efforts to cut public assistance to the poor and she won a reputation as an outspoken reformer. H. Philip West Jr., executive director of Common Cause, recalls when there was a steamroller of legislative support for a bailout bill for American Power Conversion of South Kingstown. "I remember Myrth standing up on the floor of the Senate and saying with wonderful clarity, `This is a conflict of interest -- to create a special advantage for the senior management employees of this firm, and to allow them to have this benefit that wouldn't occur for the stockholders -- is wrong,' " says West. "She said it with a clarity that I think is quite stunning."

York directs York Resources, a multi-million dollar investment company owned by her family, the resources of which came from her father's manufacturing company. She owns and operates Neath's, a South Water Street restaurant launched by Neath Pal, who was adopted as a foster child by York and her husband after his family fled from Cambodia. She has also been active with nonprofit groups, including Amos House, Goodwill, the Providence Public Library, the American Lung Association of Rhode Island, and the Statewide Housing Action Coalition. With former AG Jeffrey Pine, she co-chaired an effort by Common Cause to involve citizens in improving their municipal government.

Like Pires and Whitehouse, York remains in the early stage of fine-tuning her message, promising a focus on education, the economy and health-care, while offering mostly boilerplate in the interim ("We have to move the state forward, not backward."). She laments "missed opportunities" of the Almond years, citing a desire to find more efficiency in the purchasing of prescription drugs, for example, and to build a more active relationship with legislative leaders.

With other Democratic and Republican candidates, York supports efforts to strengthen the balance between the state's three branches of government. She backs the continued phase-out of the auto excise tax. York opposes the expansion of gambling, but believes voters should decide when it comes to a Narragansett casino. Like Pires, she opposes Almond's allocation of $1.5 million for an environmental impact study for a proposed container port at Quonset (Whitehouse backs the EIS, says Fischer.).

Although Whitehouse tends to be labeled as a moderate, York as a liberal, and Pires perhaps somewhere in between, there aren't too many obvious differences between the three candidates. "To be honest, I think they're all pretty liberal," says Guy Dufault, an unaligned Democratic consultant and former head of the state Democratic Party. "I think they all understand the Democratic philosophy of helping those who can't help themselves."

York was unwilling to sketch the differences between herself and her two Democratic opponents, saying, "We'll let the voters make the comparisons."

ALTHOUGH YORK this week became the first Democratic candidate to publicly announce for governor, Whitehouse has been forward looking in preparing for his campaign. Bill Fischer, who ran Whitehouse's 1998 highly effective campaign before becoming his chief of staff, left the AG's office last March to work from an inconspicuous second-floor office, next to the XO Café, on North Main Street. "I think he'll have an official announcement somewhere in the realm of four-to-six weeks," says Fischer. "Certainly, the foundation has been laid."

Look for Whitehouse, 46, to tout his experience as executive counsel to Sundlun, director of the state Department of Business Regulation, US attorney, and attorney general. One of the signal issues of the campaign will be a focus on youth at "the middle-school level," Fischer says, "where we start losing some of our students to truancy and other problems."

The unpredictability of events that fall within the AG's mandate has made the office a famous hot seat, of course, and more than 50 years have passed since an attorney general was able to move on to the governor's office in Rhode Island. Whitehouse has faced stormy periods on his watch, most notably the aftermath of the shooting death of Providence police Officer Cornel Young in January 2000 and the slaying a few months later of Jennifer Rivera, a 15-year-old witness in a murder case.

But although Whitehouse became a target of anger from activist ministers and other critics, his stance against appointing an independent prosecutor in the Young case certainly bolstered his standing with law enforcement. Whitehouse, who is said to have attracted a number of Sundlun's prominent supporters, also has a fair share of labor support because of his early '90s role in devising a reform of the workers' compensation system in Rhode Island.

Pires, 57, was seen as a close ally of House Speaker John B. Harwood until a falling out last summer that led to the loss of his chairmanship of the House Finance Committee. A first-generation American whose parents came to Rhode Island from Portugal, Pires can be expected, like York and Whitehouse, to focus on education and the economy, while touting himself as an embodiment of the American dream. An insurance broker, he has served in the House since 1986 and expects to make a formal campaign announcement within 30 days.

"Fortunately, it's not just a matter of who's the wealthiest or best known," Pires says, referring to the higher profiles and deeper pockets of York and Whitehouse. Gearing up a campaign office on Pawtucket's Main Street, the long-time legislator believes he'll be able to run a competitive primary race by raising $500,000 -- an amount that he believes to be within easy reach -- while focusing heavily on grassroots organizing.

Whitehouse raised more than $400,000 in the last nine months of 2001. But despite her late start, York won't lack for bucks. One of her key allies is Providence lawyer Jack McConnell, a leading fund-raiser for Rhode Island Democrats.

Even with his early disadvantage, Pires is poised to play an important role. Considering how Healey, the Cool Moose candidate, attracted nine percent of the general election vote in 1994, Pires might be able to more than double that in the primary. "Pires is an interesting situation," says Darrell West, the Brown political scientist, "because he can position himself either as Mr. Car Tax, who cut [auto excise] taxes for working people across the state, or he can talk about education and human services . . . I think Pires is the kingmaker in that race. Depending on where he draws his vote, he's going to siphon votes either from York or Whitehouse."

Dufault believes that a surge by Pires could provide York's best hope, and that turnout is likely to be fairly strong in a year with legislative downsizing and heightened economic uncertainty. While York has a motivated core of support in the party's liberal wing, "The question, is does that core group give her enough to get where she has to get to?" he says. If Pires pulls 22 percent or 25 percent of the primary vote, "then Myrth's winning number is 40 or 39 [percent]. At the point, the base of the party can get you there."

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis@phx.com..

Issue Date: January 25 - 31, 2002