- Associated Press - Sunday, September 21, 2014

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - Republican Mike Smith tells voters he wants to get Newport and Jamestown “out of the weeds.”

It’s a play on the name of his opponent - Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed - to get at his message of improving the economy.

The 46-year-old first-time candidate and business owner is something of an unlikely challenger to one of the most powerful figures in the Rhode Island legislature - a Democrat with more than two decades in the Senate who has had little trouble brushing aside her recent opponents.

“Probably a week before I filed, I had no clue I was going to be running for office,” said Smith, who has a small electrical supply company in Newport.

He said he decided to step forward, almost on an impulse, when he realized no one else was going to. He estimates he has knocked on 2,000 doors. He held a fundraiser last week that brought in a few thousand dollars but said he doesn’t expect too much support from the state GOP because it’s “pretty broke.”

Still, he said, “We’re getting support from all sides. It’s definitely more than I expected a few months ago. … I just happen to be the person running against her. I have to be realistic about that.”

Paiva Weed, who has served in the Senate since 1993 and been president for five years, comfortably won in 2012 and 2010, pulling in 72 percent and 68 percent of the vote. She reported having about $125,000 in her campaign account as of the end of June and is going door-to-door herself to hear from residents and talk up her time in the Senate.

Smith, who grew up in East Greenwich and has children ages 21, 19 and 14, has made the economy his top issue. He claims Paiva Weed hasn’t done enough or acted with enough urgency to improve it. He has also come out against the expansion of gambling in Newport. He attended a recent anti-casino rally and got cheers when he was acknowledged in the crowd.

“Casinos are not a good way to boost the economy,” he said in an interview. “The casino to me is small ball, and why Teresa Paiva Weed has spent so much effort on this when we’re the 50th worst state to do business in, why is this being given so much attention?”

City residents are being asked again in November to weigh in on table games at Newport Grand, which they rejected two years ago even as voters statewide approved. Paiva Weed said she supports a revote because the Newport City Council asked the legislature to OK putting it to another referendum.

Paiva Weed hasn’t announced her position this time but in 2012 backed the addition of table games. She helped draft and shepherd through a bill that set out the financial terms of a deal: Newport stands to get $1.5 million annually from the state’s share of video lottery revenues for the first six years, then $1 million per year after that. The investors poised to buy Newport Grand, including ex-Providence Mayor Joseph Paolino, have agreed to a $40 million makeover of the facility first.

Paiva Weed calls Newport Grand “very much a part of our tourism economy” and says she’s concerned about the impact of Massachusetts casinos both on the struggling slots hall, and on Rhode Island’s third-largest revenue source.

“That being said, I think that it’s important that we diversify our economy,” she said, noting her support for the arts, marine defense and broader tourism sectors.

Paiva Weed hasn’t yet met her opponent but expects to face him eventually at a campaign forum. Of his catch phrase about the weeds, she said, “It’s a little silly.”

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