A newly expanded Senate District 30 will find three candidates on the ballot this year. Incumbent Democrat William Walaska has been in office 18 years, and is seeking his 10th term. He said his focus is on meeting with the new constituents he has gained in the recent redistricting process. Walaska is facing a challenge from Republican contender Keith Burkitt and independent candidate Arthur “Jack” Groh Jr.
Burkitt and Groh believe it’s time for a change, and both contend that Walaska has been in office for too long. With a sputtering economy, Groh and Burkitt believe that more needs to be done by the General Assembly to make Rhode Island a better working environment. Burkitt is a proponent of aquaculture, and Groh is in favor of easing business regulations to stimulate growth.
Groh and Burkitt also believe that the 38 Studios deal has tainted long-term incumbents’ reputations.
But Walaska said his hands are clean in relationship to the 38 Studios deal. He also has a glass half-full view on the joblessness rate, saying that the majority of Rhode Islanders are still employed, even if they don’t have the career of their choosing.
Despite his Democratic affiliation, Walaska goes against his party platform on the issues of abortion and same-sex marriage, an issue that has previously received resistance in the Senate. Walaska is pro-life and anti-gay marriage, but his Republican challenger, Burkitt, as well as Groh, are both pro-choice and said they would vote to legalize same-sex marriage in the upcoming session.
Despite his 18 years in the Senate, Walaska said he would vote in favor of term limits, should his constituents raise it as an important issue. Burkitt and Groh both believe that career politicians aren’t the answer, and are hoping that voters who are dissatisfied with the current leadership will choose them in November.
KEITH BURKITT, Republican
GOP candidate Keith Burkitt is originally from Illinois where the community was predominantly Republican. Although he’s running as Republican, Burkitt said he doesn’t agree with all of the party’s platform.
Burkitt said he believes the party has chosen to “pick on
women,” citing their views on abortion as another example of why government should not be involved in women’s personal decisions. Burkitt said he is pro-choice and women should be able to decide what to do with their own bodies.
He also said he would “absolutely” vote in favor of the legalization of same-sex marriage, a vote that is expected to take place during the upcoming session.
“Love is love as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “I don’t see how that threatens my marriage.”
In general, Burkitt said voting on things like equality issues and civil rights is “inherently wrong.”
Despite his errant views, Burkitt has chosen to run on the Republican ticket in order to try to shake up the Democratic rule in the state. In his home state of Illinois, Republicans dominated the legislature for more than a century. Burkitt believes that one-party control fosters corruption.
“Without one party checking the other party, they’re a veto-proof majority … It makes the governor’s job basically non-existent,” he said.
Burkitt, a first-time candidate for senator who has never before held an elected office, said it’s time for some change. He believes his incumbent Walaska has had a chance to make changes and hasn’t come through.
“It seems to me that 18 years is a long time,” he said. “Eighteen years seems to be enough time to get the job done, and yet the job hasn’t gotten done.”
Burkitt said the nearly 11 percent unemployment rate is unacceptable, and Rhode Island needs to do a better job at keeping young people here and using our natural resources to create jobs.
“Young people, for the most part, would be silly not to look elsewhere because there aren’t 1,000 opportunities [here],” he said.
Burkitt is an advocate of aquaculture, and said the state could create thousands of jobs by expanding that industry.
“It seems to me we ought to be pursuing this,” he said, noting that the industry would create jobs for those with various skills and education credentials.
“We’re looking all over the place for people to come and save us; we’re not saving ourselves, and I think we can do that.”
Burkitt, who worked in book publishing and most recently in proprietary education at the Katherine Gibbs School, said his experience dealing with diverse people gives him a strong foundation to hold the senate seat. His experience in education has given him a broader understanding of the system, which he thinks needs an overhaul. Burkitt said a collaborative effort between teachers, administrators, school committees and even those from the business world would make for a stronger local education system.
“I think everyone needs to work together to make this happen,” he said.
Though he’s not a native, Burkitt has lived in Rhode Island for 40 years, and spent the last 25 in Warwick. He said it is disheartening to see that Rhode Island is in such rough shape.
“I do feel passionate about Rhode Island,” he said. “This is such a great place.”
Burkitt said he is a “realist” when it comes to his campaign.
“It’s tough in Rhode Island to run as a Republican,” he said, admitting that he is running against a Democratic candidate that has received support from the electorate for 18 years.
“It’s a lot of salesmanship,” he said. “It’s tough to get to people; I started late in the game. Hopefully people feel that change is necessary.”
Burkitt feels that change is necessary. He believes that after a certain number of years – he said about six – those in elected office stop listening to their constituents.
“People should be self-limiting in those jobs,” he said. “Politics isn’t a career in most cases … if you’re successful, it means more than just standing for election; it means you’ve accomplished things.”
Burkitt said he has spent “very little” on his campaign, though he would not be more specific. According to the Rhode Island Board of Elections Campaign Finance website, Burkitt’s last financial report, due on Oct. 9, is past due.
Burkitt said he is self-funding his campaign, and believes accepting donations from lobbyists and PACs sways politicians’ decisions.
“I’m feeling somewhat beholden to you but you’re also feeling as if I’m somewhat obligated to you,” he said of taking donations from special interest groups.
Burkitt said he will continue to make his campaign known to those throughout the district, and is hopeful that those looking for change will support him in November.
“We need people that are out there fighting the good fight, and I think that’s something that I can do,” he said.
JACK GROH, Independent
Arthur “Jack” Groh Jr. has tossed his hat into the ring as an independent, saying he and volunteers have been tirelessly knocking on doors throughout the district.
“I’m discovering a lot of antipathy toward incumbents generally,” he said. “The reasons are pretty obvious.”
Groh said a lot of constituents are miffed about the 38 Studios deal and the general state of the economy.
“People seem rather incensed about that,” he said.
Groh said people have been talking to him a lot about the security of their benefits and environmental issues, as well as getting the city cleaned up. What Groh said he is finding is that people are tired of their incumbent politicians.
“I think this is a good year to be a challenger,” he said.
Groh said the main issue is that those in elected office no longer listen to their constituents. He again cited the 38 Studios deal, asking what constituent would have encouraged their representatives and senators to push for such a deal to go through.
As an independent, Groh has been speaking with voters about their dissatisfaction with current leadership.
“One of the things the Republicans want more than anything is a change,” he said.
Though Groh said he is “more of a Democrat than a Republican,” he said he does agree with the Republican platform about economic development and lightening business regulations. But Groh leans more toward the Democratic platform on issues like same-sex marriage and abortion. Groh said he is pro-choice, though he would like to eliminate the need for abortion through education and outreach. He also notes on his Facebook page that he would vote to legalize same-sex marriage.
His various views led Groh to run as an independent, though he recognizes the challenges and said it would have been easier to run as a party affiliate.
“By being an independent, I think it makes a statement … I’m not bound by their party platforms,” he said. Groh said the state could use more “independent-minded” people who are not expected to fall in step with a party platform.
In addition to running without a party endorsement, Groh is not accepting campaign donations from lobbyists or PACs. Individual donors, “not anyone who is trying to get anything out of it,” he said, are funding his campaign.
Groh said that incumbent Senator William Walaska owes “a lot of people a lot of favors” because of the money they have put into his pocket. He also said that Walaska has been in office for too long.
“Once you’ve been up there for a certain amount of time, eventually you’re going to owe too many people things.”
Groh is against career politicians, and said that he is in favor of a three- to four-term limit. After about six or eight years in office, said Groh, elected officials care less about their constituents and more about themselves.
“We always, always have given our time to help make Warwick a better city,” said Groh of himself and his family. “We do it because we believe in our hearts because we believe what we’re all here for, what we were born for, is to serve others.”
Though Groh has lived in Warwick for about 20 years, he has not held office in Rhode Island. He served as an elected town meeting member in Massachusetts years ago but has not run for office since he moved to the Ocean State.
“Senate is a good place to make a statement about honest government and non-lobbied government,” he said. “The senate is a good place to have an impact.”
Groh said he has budgeted about $3,000 for his campaign, and is hoping that he can win without subscribing to the tactics used by so many candidates in years before.
“Can you be an honest person? Can you not accept money from PACs, can you not accept money from lobbyists … and still get elected to public office by just plain rolling up your sleeves and working on it?” he asked. He hopes so.
Groh received his first official endorsement from Planned Parenthood of Rhode Island earlier this week. He jokingly added that his children and his wife have heartily endorsed him, too.
Should he be unsuccessful, Groh said he would definitely run again in the future. However, he is hopeful that come 2014, he will be seeking re-election.
“As Herman Cain once said, ‘I am in it to win it,’” he said. “Even though he wasn’t.”
WILLIAM WALASKA, Democrat
William Walaska, the Democratic incumbent senator who has held office since 1995, said he has been focused mainly on the new Dist. 30 neighborhoods gained through the recent redistricting.
Walaska said the reaction from constituents has been positive, and he has been hearing a lot about local issues rather than things like the economy.
Still, Walaska said jobs and economic development are on his radar.
“You’ve got to remember, unemployment’s high, but if we have 10 percent unemployment, we have 90 percent employment,” he said. “It’s definitely not good enough, we need to work on that, but what I am saying is the majority of people are working.”
To those who criticize Walaska and other incumbents for their lack of work, Walaska said his record speaks volumes to combat their negative assertions.
“I say look at my record and look at my accomplishments,” he said. “In 18 years I don’t think you’ll find anyone up at the State House or in my district that would say I have not been responsive to my constituent needs or that I have not been active in my community.”
Walaska said he was involved in making fire codes more flexible in recent years, since those enacted in the wake of the Station Nightclub Fire negatively impacted certain businesses across the state.
“It has been onerous to many small businesses,” he said. During his time at the senate, Rhode Island updated their fire codes to align with national fire codes, making it easier for small businesses that couldn’t afford to bring their establishments up to code in the past.
Walaska also serves as co-chair for the Rhode Island Port Study Commission, which examines the Quonset/Davisville and Providence ports. Walaska said more than 1,000 jobs could be created at the ports through things like maintenance dredging in Quonset, keeping a careful eye on zoning regulations in Providence and adding Rhode Island to the short sea shipping map. Walaska said he would continue work on these efforts if re-elected.
“Rhode Island unfortunately does not have many natural resources, but we do have Narragansett Bay,” he said. “And we need to explore that.”
When it comes to economic development, Walaska’s challengers have been keen to bring up the 38 Studios deal, accusing him of voting in favor of it. Walaska said his opponents are wrong, explaining that the legislature did not vote to give 38 Studios the $75 million. Instead, Walaska said the legislature approved the bond to help new businesses, and the Economic Development Corporation (EDC) was solely responsible for the decision to give it to Curt Schilling.
“We didn’t vote on 38 Studios; I don’t think anyone in that legislature, to my knowledge, knew anything about 38 Studios. I know I did not,” he said. “We had no control.”
Walaska said the legislature assumed the EDC, which he called an “intelligent and accomplished board,” would have analyzed the situation in a better fashion.
“I would never have approved that deal,” said Walaska. “So no, I did not vote on it and would never approve it.”
Walaska differs from his opponents on same-sex marriage and abortion. Walaska said he has been, and will continue to be, pro-life, except in the case of incest, rape or the jeopardized health of the mother. He is also against same-sex marriage.
“I believe marriage is between a man and a woman,” he said, noting that he voted in favor of the civil unions bill.
Walaska, who owns several auto parts stores, has received endorsements from organizations including Local 94 and NFIB (National Federation of Independent Businesses). He said he has spent roughly $5,000 on his campaign so far, and plans to spend and additional $5,000 in the final month. According to campaign finance reports, Walaska had just under $80,000 in his coffers as of Oct. 8.
Though he has held office for 18 years, Walaska said he would have no problem voting in favor of term limits should his constituents raise it as an important issue. Still, Walaska said he remembers his first win in 1994 fondly, recalling what he told his constituents back then.
“I told them I would always serve them honestly and with accomplishment, and I believe I’ve done that,” he said.