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
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
"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
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
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
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
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 email@example.com..
Issue Date: January 25 - 31, 2002