PROVIDENCE — The Rhode Island Political Cooperative has touched off a civil war among Rhode Island progressives, not only by launching Matt Brown’s candidacy for governor but also by taking aim at Democratic state legislators in primaries.
For instance, the co-op’s Jennifer Jackson is challenging Senator Dawn Euer, a Newport Democrat who sponsored the Act on Climate, which makes the state’s goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions mandatory and enforceable.
The decision to primary Euer drew a sharp reaction from former state Representative Aaron Regunberg, a progressive Providence Democrat who ran for lieutenant governor.
“As someone who’s dedicating my career to climate action, I find it wild that an ostensibly climate-focused group is primarying @DawnEuer, the senator most instrumental in passing the strongest climate statute we’ve ever had, while leaving actual anti-climate Dems unchallenged,” he tweeted.
As someone who’s dedicating my career to climate action, I find it wild that an ostensibly climate-focused group is primarying @DawnEuer, the senator most instrumental in passing the strongest climate statute we’ve ever had, while leaving actual anti-climate Dems unchallenged. https://t.co/KzZM4gtQ59— Aaron Regunberg (@AaronRegunberg) September 22, 2021
“What an absurd waste of resources,” Regunberg wrote. “Real progressives don’t let petty egos and personal bulls--- derail movement-building like this.”
But the Rhode Island Political Cooperative didn’t back down amid the backlash, instead piling more fuel on the fire.
Jennifer Rourke – who co-chairs the co-op along with Brown and state Senator Jeanine Calkin – tweeted: “Boy, are the Fauxgressives upset today.”
Boy, are the Fauxgressives upset today.— Jennifer Rourke (@JenRourke29) September 22, 2021
When asked why they were challenging Euer, the three co-op co-founders issued a written statement listing four reasons:
- They said Euer has voted to keep Dominick J. Ruggerio as Senate president, describing the North Providence Democrat as “a deeply corrupt politician funded by the fossil fuel industry.”
- They said Euer, as chair of the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee, blocked “Green New Deal” legislation aimed at shutting down polluting industries near South Providence, where many working-class people of color have elevated asthma rates. “In fact, she refused to even meet with South Providence community members who wanted to tell her about their experiences living next to giant polluters,” they said.
- They said Euer voted to confirm three “deeply conservative” appointees to the Coastal Resources Management Council.
- They said Euer voted to keep a bill, which would provide Medicaid coverage for abortions, in the Senate Judiciary Committee rather than shifting it to a committee where it was more likely to pass.
“We have been clear since the beginning that our mission is to oust the political establishment and win a governing majority that will work for all Rhode Islanders,” the co-op co-chairs said. “That cannot happen as long as legislators like Euer continue to empower corrupt, conservative politicians like Ruggerio.”
In response, Euer told the Globe, “I am proud of my history of accomplishments in the Senate passing major legislation. The Act on Climate was landmark legislation that finally enshrined environmental climate standards in state law in a way that has already affected agency decision making.”
For example, the Energy Facility Siting Board and the Coastal Resources Management Council have already factored the law into their decisions, she said.
“I am also proud of the role I played in codifying Roe v. Wade in 2019, especially in light of the national conversation on abortion right now,” Euer said of the Reproductive Privacy Act.
Also, she said was ready to meet with “Green New Deal” advocates but they canceled.
“At the end of the day, we need bills that are going to make it to the governor’s desk and be signed,” Euer said. “I’m focusing on doing the work representing my constituents and making positive change on their behalf, including sharing information about available rent and mortgage relief funds and advocating for aggressive solutions to the state’s housing crisis.”
The attempt to oust Euer is just one of the flash points in a rapidly intensifying progressive civil war.
Representative Brandon Potter, a Cranston Democrat, fired a shot heard around the Twittersphere on Friday when he wrote a commentary piece in Globe Rhode Island, blasting the co-op as “toxic to Rhode Island’s progressive movement.”
In that piece, Potter said he ran for the House in 2020 as a co-op member, but the group booted him out because he voted for K. Joseph Shekarchi, a Warwick Democrat, for House speaker. He claimed co-op members don’t have a say in key decisions and must pay “membership dues” for campaign services that are “for the most part never delivered.”
In an interview, Potter said he campaigned against then-House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello, a Cranston Democrat, but after Mattiello lost his district seat, he joined “almost every other progressive legislator” in backing the leadership team of Shekarchi, House Majority Leader Christopher R. Blazejewski and House Majority Whip Katherine S. Kazarian.
Potter said he wanted to give the leadership team a chance to follow through on commitments, and he was pleased the House passed the Act on Climate, boosted the minimum wage to $15 an hour over four years, banned housing discrimination based on source of income, and authorized “harm reduction centers” where people can use drugs under supervision.
“How are you going to say these things are not progressive?” Potter asked. “Young and impressionable people have been made to believe the legislation we passed is not truly impactful. As someone personally affected by source of income discrimination as a teenager, being able to see that bill pass hit home and shows how much of a difference we can make.”
The co-op’s co-chairs issued a statement Monday, calling Potter’s commentary “full of lies and willful mischaracterizations.”
“Brandon is lying because the co-op’s slate is an unprecedented threat to the corrupt political establishment that he has aligned himself with, ever since he violated his campaign pledge to oppose the ‘Mattiello machine’ by voting for Joe Shekarchi — Mattiello’s hand-picked successor,” the co-chairs said.
They said co-op candidates collectively make key decisions, including the development of a shared policy platform, and “supports campaigns and candidates from the moment they launch all the way through the election by providing a broad and comprehensive set of services.” Those services, listed in the FAQ section of the group’s website, include producing candidate videos, maintaining a website, and a providing bulk email service.
While Potter points to progress being made, co-op leaders say their goal is a “governing majority” controlling the House, the Senate, and the governor’s office.
“We have done some good things this year, but we need to go further,” Calkin said in an interview last week. “It’s been weak tea.”
For example, she said the state must act with more urgency to combat climate change by, for example, passing her bill to require carbon-emissions-reduction goals be considered in energy plant siting proceedings.
And Brown called for increasing the minimum wage to $19 an hour. “Fifteen dollars an hour was a good idea when it came out 15 years ago,” he said. “But the cost of housing has gone through the roof, the cost of health care has gone through the roof. That is not a living wage.”
The battle of the progressives also will play out in the Oct. 5 primary for the state Senate District 3 seat that Gayle L. Goldin vacated to join President Joe Biden’s administration. In a five-way Democratic primary, the co-op is backing Geena Pham while the Rhode Island Working Families Party is backing Bret Jacob, and that splinter in progressive forces might help catapult another candidate to victory, Providence College political science professor Adam S. Myers said.
Myers said it’s unclear if the progressive schism reflects deep policy differences or simply “competing egos and personality clashes,” but it does reveal a clear difference in political strategy.
“The co-op wants to be more assertive and aggressive in taking on the leadership in the General Assembly,” Myers said. “Whereas on the other side of the progressive camp, they are taking a more consensus-driven approach, trying to get buy-in from the existing leadership and folks already serving in the Assembly for progress policy goals.”
In this battle of pragmatism vs. revolution, the stakes are high.
“If the co-op wins all these primary races next year, then this will probably be the biggest shift in Rhode Island politics since the Bloodless Revolution in 1935,” Myers said. But if their slate of candidates bombs, he said, “their whole political theory will have been proven completely wrong.”
Of course, the end result might fall between total victory and abject failure.
“We will likely see middle ground where the co-op wins some seats,” he said. “If that happens, the next General Assembly will have a few more progressives, but still plenty of conservative Democrats, and the intra-party war will continue.”