When voters take to the polls in November, those in the 38th Senate District will be tasked with finding the right candidate to replace longtime Sen. Dennis Algiere, who will retire after three decades in office. For Democrats, that will mean determining which of the three candidates will best represent the party on the ticket.
Those voting in the Democratic primary on Tuesday will be tasked with choosing between a Westerly Town Council member, a Harvard-educated Charlestown resident and a Westerly resident associated with the R.I. Political Cooperative to represent the party in the upcoming election.
Candidates Sharon Ahern, Victoria Gu and Michael Niemeyer are each on the ticket this November, and each said they bring a unique set of skills and goals that would make them the right replacement to take over for Algiere, a Republican, representing the shoreline communities of Westerly, Charlestown and South Kingstown.
“We have seen the cost of living go up and the housing market become more and more volatile, especially in Westerly, Charlestown, and South Kingstown. There are fewer families and more out-of-towners who only come in during the summertime,” Gu said in a press release. “We must make it easier for people who have roots here to stay here.”
For Gu, earning the Democratic nomination will involve outpolling two Westerly residents who have each carved their own paths in politics.
The winner of the primary will enter another crowded race this fall as they seek to earn the seat over Republican Westin Place and independent candidates Caswell Cooke Jr., a member of the Westerly Town Council, and Robert Devillers, a longtime business owner in the community.
Running as a Democrat, Ahern is president of the Westerly Town Council, serving in the final months of her second consecutive term. She is prohibited from running for council this election cycle due to a term limit provision in the town charter, which gave her a chance to seek the Democratic nomination for state office.
Ahern is a graduate of Wellesley College and Tulane University Law School. She has served as chief of staff to former Westerly Town Manager Joseph Turo, was the executive director of the former Westerly-Pawcatuck Joint Development Task Force and has served as executive director of the Watch Hill Conservancy.
In a July interview, Ahern said that if elected,she would work to ensure the district receives as much assistance as possible, financial and otherwise, from the state government.
“I do not feel we get enough rate of return on our tax dollars,” Ahern said.
To achieve this, Ahern said she would push for state economic officials to market the towns and help bring businesses to the area. She noted that beach access, increasing hotel and meal tax shares, addressing affordable housing and climate change resiliency, and creating a state animal advocate position are also additional priorities.
For Niemeyer, the desire to run was motivated in large part by his own experiences. Despite having what he thought was a solid private insurance plan, Niemeyer said his family faced $20,000 in uncovered expenses related to his infant daughter’s care after she was diagnosed with a rare brain disease.
A husband and father of two, Niemeyer is a corporate and foundation partnerships associate at Plan International USA, a girls’ rights organization working in 50 countries to clear barriers for girls, protect them from violence and enhance access to education.
Niemeyer said climate change and the state’s opportunity in the “green economy” should also remain a priority, as well as providing more support for small businesses and addressing access issues along the shoreline.
He said he would also focus on helping Rhode Island and local communities obtain additional federal funding.
“The amount of money we are missing out on is easily in the millions each year, if not more,” Niemeyer said.
The only non-Westerly Democrat involved in the primary, Gu emigrated from China and is a South Kingstown native who now lives in Charlestown. She is Harvard-educated with a degree in economics and works as a senior software engineer for LunaYou, a maternal well-being platform that is working in partnership with Neighborhood Health Plan of Rhode Island and aspires to provide services to women in multiple states. In Charlestown, she serves as chair of the Charlestown Climate Resiliency Commission.
Gu pointed to the escalating cost of home ownership in the district and shoreline access as issues she would focus on if elected.
Although the state House of Representatives passed a significant shoreline access bill during the recently ended legislative session, Gu noted that the bill is languishing without a champion in the Senate.
“That’s a priority for me, I want to see it passed,” Gu said.