It’s a sweltering morning in early August, and a hazy Narragansett Bay is visible from Sarah Morgenthau’s Saunderstown home. Past the oyster cages off Fox Island, a sailboat idly tacks back and forth. In an ordinary summer, Morgenthau and her family might be out there on their Hobie Cat, or swimming from the sandy beach that sits at the bottom of their sprawling property.

Morgenthau hasn’t had time for any of that lately: She’s vying to succeed U.S. Rep. Jim Langevin in Congress. Over the weekend, amid a crushing heat wave, she went from shaking hands at the Dominican parade in Providence to singing karaoke at the Charlestown Seafood Festival to chatting up voters at a meet-and-greet in a Johnston backyard. 

Now, as the humidity bears down, she’s giving a tour to a nosy reporter who has far too many questions about the sheep that are grazing near the tennis court. (There are four of them, and 13 more on the way — but that’s her husband’s domain.) 

It’s hard not to wonder why she’s putting herself through this. The front-runner in the Democratic primary, state General Treasurer Seth Magaziner, seems poised to cruise to victory on Sept. 13. He’s raised the most moneymaintained a roughly 30-point lead in polls, and collected the most endorsements — including one from Langevin, who said in June that it was time to “unite behind the strongest candidate in the race.”

Yet despite the steep odds, rival Democrats have steadfastly refused to bow out. 

Along with Morgenthau, who’s held high-powered jobs in Washington, D.C., but only recently registered to vote at her family’s home in Rhode Island, the field includes David Segal, a cerebral populist focused on reining in corporate special interests; Joy Fox, who has served as communications director for both Langevin and Gov. Gina Raimondo and claims the deepest ties to the district; and Omar Bah, an African refugee with a compelling personal story.

Until recently, Spencer Dickinson, a former lawmaker with conservative views, was also in the race. His friend John Carlevale said on Tuesday that Dickinson was experiencing serious health issues and was “suspending the active part of his campaign.”

If you’re just tuning in, a quick recap: Back in February, Langevin unexpectedly announced that he would not seek reelection. It briefly felt like every politician who’d ever set foot in Rhode Island’s 2nd Congressional District, which covers the western half of the state, was floating the idea of running for the open seat. One week later, Magaziner announced that he would be exiting the crowded governor’s race in order to run for Congress.

To observers, it seemed clear that Democratic insiders were worried about losing the seat and wanted a nominee who was already a known quantity with strong name recognition. But if the goal was to clear the field, that didn’t happen: After Magaziner entered the race, other candidates continued to join.  

Political forecasters believe that Republicans have a chance of winning the seat in November’s general election for the first time in decades. While Magaziner has focused on campaigning against Allan Fung, the Republican nominee, his rivals within his own party are trying to make the case that they’re better-positioned to keep the seat in Democratic hands. 

“I think I’m the strongest candidate to go against Allan Fung,” Morgenthau says. “I think I draw the greatest contrast.” 

Says Fox: “I’m only in this race. It’s not like I was running for governor and decided to jump in because it looked easier, and maybe the powers that be convinced me to change my mind. … I’m in this because I believe that I can make a difference.”

Fox: A lifelong resident tuned in to local concerns

Joy Fox has just arrived at Bagel Express in Pawtuxet Village when she overhears two women talking about the congressional race. 

Stopping to introduce herself, she quickly discovers that she knows one woman’s niece from elementary school. Over the next hour, as she sits for an interview, she spots her aunt and uncle on their morning walk, trades greetings with a family friend (“How’s Kirsten doing?”), and pauses to chat with an acquaintance who happens to be the brother of Cranston’s mayor.

The constant interruptions aren’t exactly surprising: Fox, 44, grew up less than half a mile from here. She now lives only a short distance down the road, in Warwick’s Gaspee neighborhood. Even when she was working for Langevin, she lived in Rhode Island full-time, and commuted to Washington, D.C., for important events like the State of the Union. 

Now, her local roots are a central theme of her campaign.

“My opponents could be running for Congress anywhere, if you listen to how they position themselves and talk about these issues,” she says. “And I am running in the 2nd District — where I grew up, where my family is, where I will always be.”

Like the other candidates, Fox cites gun violence, climate change and the erosion of abortion rights as major concerns. But she’s just as likely to bring up a hyperlocal issue like the decrepit state of Cranston’s Budlong Pool. A strong focus on constituent services, she says, is critical “for people to feel like the government is working for them.”

Fox, 44, grew up in the Edgewood section of Cranston. Her grandfather was the founder of the P.J. Fox Paper Co., which sold toilet paper, among other things, and counted the PawSox and Rhode Island Hospital as two of its biggest clients.

Fox’s father took over the business, but eventually was forced to close it in the early 2000s “because bigger corporations would come in, and it just wasn’t competitive anymore,” she said. He now suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, and her mother, a physical therapist, is his primary caregiver. (One of Fox’s main priorities is increasing the amount of support available for family caregivers.)

The oldest of five children, Fox attended St. Mary Academy – Bay View and Rhode Island College. During summers in high school and college, she taught sailing at the Edgewood Yacht Club, waitressed at a restaurant in Narragansett, and worked for the Block Island Ferry. 

Today, she retains the briskly methodical and relentlessly upbeat demeanor of a sailing camp counselor. Even after several hours of greeting voters in 93-degree heat, she refuses to complain. “Some of the issues that people face, they don’t get a day off from,” she says. 

After RIC, Fox became a reporter and editor for the Cranston Herald, then worked full-time at the Providence Business News while simultaneously spending weekends as an assignment editor for Channel 10. 

She left journalism to work as a spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections. Ashbel T. Wall, the prison system’s widely respected chief, “recognized that he needed to help inform the community” about what happens behind the walls and fences at the Adult Correctional Institutions, she said. 

Her work there attracted the attention of Langevin’s office, and in 2005, she was hired as the congressman’s press secretary. She worked her way up to director of communications and community relations before leaving in 2011 to handle communications for then-General Treasurer Gina Raimondo, whom she would later follow to the governor’s office.

Fox is currently the CEO of the Clarendon Group, a public relations agency. Although she has the résumé of a political insider, she’s an underdog in the race and has trailed behind Magaziner, Morgenthau and Segal in fundraising and polling.  

“I didn’t grow up with a trust fund,” she often reminds people. 

Fox argues that her deep local ties give her the best understanding of what the district needs, and also make her the best candidate to keep the seat in Democratic hands.

“It’s no secret that Allan Fung will likely use that ‘I’m from here’ line frequently and often,” she said. “You don’t have that with me. You can take that right off the table.”

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