Incumbent District 29 State Senator Michael McCaffrey has gone unchallenged for many years, but now Laura Pisaturo hopes to uproot the 18-year veteran of the Senate in the Sept. 11 primary.
The winner of the primary will be the next senator, as no other candidates have filed for the position.
Pisaturo, one of eight children, is the daughter of former Providence mayoral candidate Charles Pisaturo, an Italian immigrant. Pisaturo grew up in Providence and went on to attend the University of Rhode Island after graduating from Classical High School in 1985. From URI, she made her way to Suffolk Law School, and soon after joined the practice of Hinckley, Allen and Snyder. In a letter sent to constituents, Pisaturo said she yearned to do more to serve her community, which is she left the practice to work at the Attorney General’s office.
“I took a 50-percent pay cut,” she said in an interview earlier this week. “It was very fulfilling.”
Pisaturo then left the AG’s office and moved again to Day One, an advocacy group that works with victims of sexual assault and abuse.
Now Pisaturo has her own practice on Elmwood Avenue in Providence. She currently lives in Governor Francis Farms with her wife, Maria, whom she married in 2007.
McCaffrey, also an attorney, comes from a political family, too. His father, Eugene McCaffrey, was mayor of Warwick from 1973 to 1977. McCaffrey was born and raised in Warwick, graduating from Bishop Hendricken High School and then going on to Providence College. He also earned his law degree from Suffolk University.
McCaffrey was first elected to the senate seat in 1994. Despite being unchallenged for many years, McCaffrey welcomes Pisaturo’s candidacy.
Pisaturo said her decision to run for senate is “overdue.”
“I’ve wanted to run for a long time,” she said.
Pisaturo said her experience in the Attorney General’s office opened her eyes to the inner workings of politics on Smith Hill.
“I could bring a lot to the legislature,” she said, saying she hopes to bring a voice to those who don’t normally get heard.
McCaffrey, who lives on Twin Oaks Drive off West Shore Road with his wife and four children, said he has been knocking on doors and letting people know what he’s accomplished.
McCaffrey said he has played a crucial role in getting money for Warwick, and is proud of his memorandum that will have Johnson & Wales University make payments in lieu of taxes to the city on the Radisson Hotel. He was also part of getting the state bond referendum to buy Rocky Point on the 2010 state ballot. He said he’s pleased that he sponsored the bill that prevented mandatory sewer tie-ins in Governor Francis Farms.
“The way the Sewer Authority did it they … made a mandatory hookup without letting [residents] know,” said McCaffrey. “They were treating them differently than other people in the city.”
The way the decision was handled, said McCaffrey, treated those residents like a “different class of citizens.”
But Pisaturo isn’t a fan of the legislation McCaffrey sponsored.
“Everyone agrees that we need sewers,” she said. “But no one likes to feel like they’re part of an unfair process … resolving that issue is bigger than just paying or not paying a fine.”
When it comes to McCaffrey’s bill, like most things, Pisaturo said she would have done it differently.
“All the bill did was delay things and made it unfair for the rest of Warwick,” she said. “People thought, all of sudden other people didn’t have to pay what we had to pay.”
Pisaturo said if initial negotiations had been more carefully thought out, the neighborhood and city would not be in the situation they’re in now.
While going from door to door, neither said they were hearing too much about the airport.
“I have not heard a lot about airport expansion … because the decision has already been made,” said McCaffrey. “People now are concerned about the value of their homes.”
Pisaturo said she is hearing some concern about expansion, and that people are hopeful the Rhode Island Airport Corporation will keep quality of life at the top of their list.
In addition to local concerns, Pisaturo said her main focus is job creation.
“[The legislature] is not paying enough attention to [small business,]” she said. “In order to understand something, you have to engage it.”
Pisaturo believes streamlining regulations is one key to improving the business climate in the state.
“They are overwhelmed with regulations,” said Pisaturo of the small business owners she’s spoken with. “There are too many inconsistencies at the state and city levels. They have a lot of difficulty getting credit and access to capital.”
But McCaffrey believes Pisaturo may have another reason for tossing her hat into the ring – uprooting senators opposed to same sex marriage (like McCaffrey) so the bill can pass.
“If you read different blogs, certain organizations are saying the Senate is Ground Zero for the gay marriage bill,” he said. “And one of her positions is that she supports same-sex marriage.”
But Pisaturo insists same-sex marriage isn’t her number one priority.
“It’s not the focus of my campaign,” she said, stating her focus is on “jobs and the economy and putting confidence back in government.”
Still, Pisaturo doesn’t agree with McCaffrey, who, despite voting in favor of civil unions, is adamant that marriage should be between a man and a woman.
“He’s out of focus with core Democratic platforms,” said Pisaturo. “The U.S. Senators all support equal protection under law … His failure to recognize marriage equality is a failure to provide civil protection to all Rhode Island families.”
Although recent polls show 50 percent support of same-sex marriage in Rhode Island, Pisaturo said she thinks it is accurate to say most Rhode Islanders agree with her views.
Data shows 41 percent of Rhode Islanders oppose gay marriage, while 9 percent don’t have an opinion either way.
Another issue that splits the two is their opinion of Rhode Island leadership. During Friday’s filming of WPRI’s “Newsmakers” debate, Pisaturo said she would give senate leadership a “C-.” The original question from WPRI.com blogger Ted Nesi asked for a letter grade for Senate President Paiva-Weed, but in an interview Monday morning, Pisaturo said her grade reflected senate leadership (including McCaffrey) as a whole.
“I don’t think leadership in the senate is consistently proactive,” she said, again citing the lack of attention paid to small businesses.
She also gave Governor Chafee a letter grade of “B” when appearing on “Newsmakers.”
“I think he’s trying, but he can do better,” said Pisaturo.
McCaffrey, however, gave Senate President Paiva-Weed an “A-,” and slapped Chafee with a “C.” McCaffrey said he disagrees with some of Chafee’s proposals, like the meal tax, “among other things” – things he wasn’t eager to elaborate on. McCaffrey said some things were out of Chafee’s control, like the economy, but still feels like the governor could be doing a better job.
“I think there are a lot of issues that split Senator McCaffrey and I,” said Pisaturo, who said people are tired of “business as usual” at the State House.
“A lot of people don’t know who their senator is,” she said. “People want to believe in government again. They love Rhode Island. Today they don’t feel that. I’m running because … I want to put confidence back into government. I want people to believe it’s not who you know, it’s what you know.”
“I don’t know what she means by ‘business as usual,’” said McCaffrey. “Since I’ve been up there, I’ve always fought for the citizens of Warwick.”
McCaffrey said in the last four years he hasn’t missed a single session.
“People should vote for me because they know me, they know my family, my wife, my kids,” he said. “I’ve been getting results for Warwick. I opposed the increase in sales tax and fought for the relief of people in Governor Francis Farms. These are just some of the things I’ve done and will continue to do.”
For Pisaturo, it’s all about advocacy.
“I don’t have a magic wand, but what I do well is listen to people ... and bring people together,” she said.