SOUTH KINGSTOWN — A seasoned Town Councilor with deep local political connections squares off against a veteran legislator, unendorsed by his own party but enjoying financial support from unions.

The Democratic primary for House District 35 has drawn statewide attention, and for good reason. On Sept. 11, voters will choose between incumbent Spencer Dickinson and challenger Kathleen Fogarty. One of them will face off against Republican James Haldeman in the general election to represent the district, which represents much of South Kingstown.

“I understand where the problems lie, and I have a plan for changing them,” said Dickinson in an interview. “The problems are in every category, but probably the most severe is the economy in the state of Rhode Island.”

The home builder points to his voting record in the General Assembly, where he has voted as an individual and spoken against major pieces of legislation, including pension reform and a vote to create an 11-member Board of Education to replace the Board of Regents for Elementary and Secondary Education and the Board of Governors for Higher Education.

“I don’t think you can find anyone that says they know anybody who can tell me what to do,” said Dickinson. It may be this line of thinking that has led Dickinson to fall out of favor with Speaker of the House Gordon M. Fox, a Providence Democrat.

“I think they think they can control the Democratic Party process, which is a very bad thing to do,” he said. “If you won your primary two years ago, if there’s going to be an endorsement, you ought to have that person get the endorsement.”

Instead, Fogarty, in her tenth year on the Town Council, received the endorsement.

“I got involved in politics back in 2002 because they wanted a young mother who cared about the schools. That’s why I got involved,” said Fogarty. “You need someone who is a fighter up there, and that’s me. I think you need a big strong voice supporting what we’ve done right in this town.”

Fogarty, too, points to her record as an elected official, most recently a zero increase in property taxes.  In 2008, she fought against a referendum to cut $1.3 million from the school budget.

“There was no one at the polls that day longer than I was to make sure that did not go through,” said Fogarty.

The two candidates disagree on the sweeping pension overhaul approved by the General Assembly during the last legislative session. Dickinson voted against the proposal, which helped the town avoid a $4.1 million increase in pension obligations this year.

“We had a huge problem, and 75 representatives wanted to vote for a solution. Instead we got a stop gap that’s going to lead to litigation,” said Dickinson, in defense of his vote against reform.

Fogarty said if the proposal failed, taxpayers would have been on the hook to help fund the increase. “That’s not taxpayer friendly,” she said.

The two sides have sparred over Fogarty’s decision to enter the race. Dickinson suggests Fogarty was handpicked by Fox’s office, where her husband, Brendan, the former Democratic Town Committee Chairman, has a $73,762 a year job as a constituent liaison for the speaker’s office. 

She disputes this.

“I’ve been in the trenches for 10 years. I’ve seen what the votes up there do down here. This move is a natural progression for someone like me,” Fogarty said.

“She has to do something to draw away from the real issue; her vote in the General Assembly is owned by the Speaker of the House and his Chief of Staff,” said Dickinson.

“Absolutely not. It doesn’t go that way. That’s not how I fly,” said Fogarty.

Fogarty herself has noted significant contributions to Dickinson’s campaign war chest from labor-friendly political action committees.

During the last fund-raising period, unions based in Providence and Cranston provided major financial boosts to Dickinson, who relied on union money in 2010 to unseat incumbent Michael Rice during the primary election.

In the latest report, Dickinson collected $1,000 from the R.I. National Education Association PAC and $500 each from the R.I. Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals, the Cranston Teachers Alliance and the NEA-RI Retired PAC.

Fogarty has $9,862.42 in her campaign war chest, but reported modest fundraising during the latest period, including $50 in aggregate individual donations, $435 from individuals and $200 from the R.I. Laborers PAC.

While the economy remains the focal point, marriage equality promises to be the pre-eminent social issue during the next legislative session.

“I support marriage equality,” said Fogarty. “How can you legislate who somebody cares for? I think it touches almost every family.”

Dickinson was less direct in his answer.

“There are some facts that go into this. In my own life experience, I would not prevent someone from finding happiness in this world. That is hard enough to find, and for sharing that happiness with other people,” he said. “But, at the same time, we as legislators have to make decisions.”

Reporter Iain Wilson can be reached at sk@scindependent.com.

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