It’s not typical for opponents in a political race to have their post-election parties at the same venue and in the same room, but Bill Walaska and Arthur “Jack” Groh shook things up on Tuesday night and broke all the rules.
Though it was Walaska that came out on top in Senate Dist. 30 for the 10th consecutive time, it was hard to tell who was the victor and who had been defeated. Supporters for both of the candidates packed into Picasso’s Pizza to ride out the poll closures and await the results. Though Groh was there early in the evening, Walaska didn’t show up until close to 9 p.m. There were cheers as the incumbent Democrat entered the restaurant, but there wasn’t a sharp divide between his supporters and Groh’s.
The unusual circumstance resulted when the restaurant became double-booked. Groh said he found out over the weekend that Walaska had also inquired about having his celebration there, but after being assured he could still have the same number of tables, he agreed to share the space.
“What do I care?” he said with a smile.
The two shook hands upon Walaska’s entrance, Groh extending his congratulations and Walaska commending the independent candidate on a race well run.
“I feel great,” said Walaska, wearing a huge smile and holding a cigar. “This is one of my biggest victories.”
Walaska said both Groh and his Republican challenger, Keith Burkitt, ran strong races.
“I’m nervous every single two years,” he said.
Walaska welcomed the competition, saying it’s good that people chose to put their names on the ballot. He commended Groh for running a good, clean campaign. And how did he feel about sharing a party space?
“I think it’s great,” he said. “We didn’t have to call each other.”
Walaska is grateful to those who came out to support him, and said he will continue to work hard in the senate for his constituents.
For Groh and Burkitt, the night didn’t turn out as they had hoped, but neither seemed surprised.
Groh said the presidential election didn’t help him as an independent, since many people likely voted a straight Democratic or Republican ticket. Though Groh said he would definitely run again, he’s not sure he will run as an independent. Still, he said, his principles will remain the same: serving the people, not the parties, and keeping money out of politics.
Ironically, Groh’s own daughter, 23-year-old Sarah, works as a lobbyist for a non-profit in Massachusetts. Her father’s pledge to keep lobbyist money out of his campaign earned her a bit of ribbing at work. Still, Sarah said on Tuesday night that she was proud of her dad.
“It’s exciting,” she said. “I’m proud of him for doing it.”
Coming from Massachusetts earlier in the day to work the polls for her father, Sarah said she noticed that competitors in Rhode Island races were friendlier than those in Mass. Her father’s shared party with Walaska was just another example of that, she said, calling it the “pizza summit.”
Though Walaska and Groh had fun at Picasso’s, Keith Burkitt, a first-time candidate, chose to stay home on Tuesday night.
In an interview yesterday, Burkitt outlined the reason he believed he lost: “Well, I think I was 5,000 votes short and I think the incumbent was to blame.”
With a hearty laugh, Burkitt said he recognizes how hard it is to unseat an incumbent.
Burkitt said more Republicans need to step up to challenge their Democratic counterparts. He said the number of seats that went unchallenged this year was disappointing, and the two-party system isn’t functioning in Rhode Island.
“Democrats generally haven’t served the people well,” he said.
He said the Beacon did its readers a disservice by endorsing Walaska, a senator that Burkitt believes has been in office too long and has accomplished too little.
“We’re not any better than we were 18 years ago,” he said.
Burkitt is also introspective about his own party, and thinks Rhode Island Republicans need to do a better job of adjusting to what Rhode Islanders want and need.
“The Republican party needs to take a look at itself, too” he said. “We can’t seem monolithic. We need to be more welcoming … and draw more people into the party.”
Burkitt said he’s not sure if he’ll run again, but if he does, he will take more time than he did this year to focus on the race.