Election 2020

Rhode Island Progressive Democrats Threaten to Topple Party Leadership

Rhode Island Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo delivers her State of the State address to lawmakers and guests in the House Chamber at the Statehouse on Jan. 16, 2018, in Providence, R.I. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Assuming she wins the Democratic Party’s nomination for a second term, Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo faces a tight race in November against GOP challenger Allan Fung. But Republican Fung can wait.

Events during the first week of July showed Raimondo that to earn a spot on the November ballot, she and other Democrats have to first stamp out an intraparty insurgency.

A GoLocal/Harvard Kennedy School poll released in June showed Raimondo and Fung were locked in a dead heat. Each had 33 percent of the vote. Sixteen percent of the voters surveyed said they’d vote for independent candidate Joe Trillo. Eighteen percent were undecided.

Raimondo’s campaign team breathed a sigh of relief when they heard former Secretary of State Matt Brown’s April announcement that he would run for her job not as an independent, as the governor’s re-election team feared, but as a Democrat.

“I’m running for governor because we have big problems in our state and in our country and I’m convinced that we need change,” he told supporters in an email, adding: “I will run as a Democrat.”

Contained in Brown’s announcement, though, was a warning many Democrats missed. Brown said that all was not right within the Rhode Island Democratic Party camp.

“There is growing energy and eagerness within the Democratic Party for change,” Brown added in his campaign statement. “I’ve seen it all across the state. I look forward to joining forces with people in every city and town in Rhode Island to push for change that better reflects our values, to create an economy that works for everyone — not just big corporations, big banks and the wealthiest few — and to be bold in the face of big problems.”

What Brown warned of in April is coming true in July. Those left-wing independents and progressives Raimondo will be counting on in November have broken out against establishment Democrats in large part because of political fumbles by the Rhode Island Democratic Party leadership.

Raimondo, who instructed her staff to refer to her as “Gina” in all press releases during the tumultuous first week of July rather than the stuffy title of “Gov. Raimondo,” finds herself plagued by political problems within her party.

The Rhode Island Democratic Party hasn’t done its incumbent governor any favors. Somehow an incumbent Democratic woman was missed when the state party handed out its endorsements for the November election. Instead, the Rhode Island Democratic Party endorsed Michael Earnheart, who voted for President Trump in 2016.

The Rhode Island Democratic Party decided it had made a mistake and rescinded the endorsement.

However, rather than backing Democratic Rep. Moria Walsh’s re-election over Earnheart, the Democratic Party chose to endorse no one.

“The party does not earn any brownie points from me. The only reason that I believe they rescinded the endorsement is probably because of the amount of national outrage that followed it,” Walsh told the Associated Press. “This is something that the party does pretty regularly.”

Walsh also said the Democratic Party was out to get her because of her stand on issues like equal pay and Kristen’s Law, which slapped a penalty of life in prison on drug pushers whose clients die of narcotics overdoses.

However, Earnheart also took a shot at the state’s Democratic Party bosses as he vowed to make his case to the voters.

“With a strong focus on improving the economy and the business climate of our state, I feel strongly that I am the most qualified candidate to represent the people of District 3 in Providence,” Earnheart said. “However, I do not wish to be a distraction.”

Wait. There’s more.

The Rhode Island Democratic Party also endorsed former state Rep. John Carnevale, who faces three felony charges. Greg Acciardo, another former state lawmaker, received the party’s backing, too, even though he was convicted of vehicular manslaughter.

And then there was the endorsement of Holly Taylor Coolman. She is a Democrat, and obviously a woman with no criminal record. But Coolman has described herself as pro-life.

“Among other things, that means that I am opposed to abortion-on-demand. In fact, one of my primary commitments as a candidate is a refusal of ideology in favor of principle, and a refusal of culture wars in favor of reasoned conversation,” Coolman told GoLocal.

Brown used the party establishment’s dysfunction as a lever to push open his window of opportunity even wider, firing off press release after press release the first week of July while Raimondo stayed quiet.

“Governor Raimondo’s extreme establishment position that she supports all incumbent Democrats means that she would support corrupt, anti-choice, anti-union, anti-immigrant and anti-gun control incumbents against Democratic candidates who reflect core Democratic values,” said Brown. “This is a betrayal of core Democratic values and demonstrates her inability to lead.”

Rhode Island Progressive Democrats of America spokeswoman Jennifer Siciliano said the endorsement snafus are a sign that Democrats have “lost touch with what is going on in the party.”

“Leadership seems to believe that Rhode Island Democrats are conservative, but Bernie won the primary by a considerable margin. Is it better to win a seat or are they going to stick with the good old boys’ network?” Siciliano said. “Women and people of color will not be silenced.”

“Having a D by your name isn’t an automatic vote anymore,” Siciliano warned.

Darrell West, vice president at the Brookings Institution, told GoLocal Prov.com that all Democratic incumbents need to learn the lesson Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez taught Crowley in New York’s Democratic Party primary earlier this month.

“[Progressives] don’t want mild opposition, but leaders who will confront the president and fight against his initiatives. Any established Democrat who doesn’t take primary challenges seriously is at risk in a primary,” said West. “The grassroots is riled up over Trump and his various policies and they want party candidates who will stand up to Republican policies.”