A summer of contentious campaigning will come to an end for two Republicans vying for District 32’s seat in the General Assembly on Tuesday as voters hit the polls for the 2012 Primary Elections. On the ticket for District 32, State Rep. Laurence “Larry” Ehrhardt looks to hold his seat and pursue a fifth term against newcomer Sharon Gamba.
Ehrhardt was first elected to the General Assembly in 2004 after getting involved in politics during the Quonset container port debate in the early 2000s, which he vocally opposed. Ehrhardt, who formerly worked in the shipping industry, moved to Wickford from Connecticut in 2000. For his fifth term, he looks to focus on more economic development, municipal reform and job creation.
“I have about 650 unemployed people in my district,” said Ehrhardt. “What I need to focus on is how I can help those 650 people.”
Though Ehrhardt has been a familiar face in state politics for more than a decade, his challenger is a newcomer to the political scene. Owner of antique shop Once in a Blue Moon and co-owner of an auto repair shop in Cranston, Gamba has been working in small business for the past 35 years. In the 1970s, she and her husband started Cranston Collision Center with “nothing but a $17 toolbox from K-Mart.” Like Ehrhardt, Gamba is focused on improving employment and making Rhode Island more business friendly.
“Larry has been retired a long time,” said Gamba. “He has no idea what it’s like to run a business now in this state. No idea.”
With similar platforms, the two have worked to differentiate themselves with experience. Gamba touts her understanding of the current small business environment in the state and promises to bring a new energy to the General Assembly. She said she has found support with local business owners and with those who “want to see a change.” Ehrhardt, a graduate of Harvard Business School, sits on the House Finance Committee, House Environmental & Natural Resources Committee, House Small Business Committee, Joint Port Facilities Study Committee and is also the Senior Deputy Minor Leader.
The sight of “Gamba” and “Ehrhardt” signs both dotting the roadside throughout North Kingstown was not part of the plan, however. According to Gamba, the North Kingstown Town Republican Committee approached her as a potential successor to Ehrhardt earlier this year after the four-term incumbent considered retirement from office. Gamba said she was being mentored by the state representative for three months, starting in April 2012. On her website, Gamba displays copies of emails between herself and Rep. Ehrhardt, reportedly showing correspondence between the two.
According to Ehrhardt, their conversations were not as extensive as Gamba asserts. Ehrhardt said that the two only met three times before the June 26 candidate filing date and denies mentoring the newcomer. Though he admits to “seriously considering” retiring, Ehrhardt chose to run for re-election after a discussion with his wife and deciding he could “still give back” with four more years of public service. Another factor in his decision, he said, was Gamba.
Ehrhardt said a “red flag” went up at the end of this past legislative session when the auto body bill came up for a vote. Gamba and her husband, who own Cranston Collision Center, lobbied for the .
“It was an extremely self-serving piece of legislation,” said Ehrhardt.
Another key piece to race for District 32 is redistricting. The shifting of district lines caused assumed Democratic challenger Richard Welch (who ran two unsuccessful campaigns against Ehrhardt) into District 31. Gamba believes the prospect of running unopposed for a fifth term was a major influence in Ehrhardt's decision to run again. Ehrhardt admitted that it was a factor, but not the only one.
The winner of Tuesday’s primary will go on to face . Craven was picked by the Rhode Island Democratic Party within 24 hours after the June 26 filing date. Per state law, both political parties had 24 hours to plug in candidates for unchallenged seats.
Polls open Tuesday, Sept. 11 from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Check back to North Kingstown Patch for more information on the primaries and polling locations.