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Last week, the Rhode Island Political Cooperative (RIPC) announced a primary challenge against Senator Dawn Euer, someone I have watched champion progressive causes for many years. A longstanding community organizer, Euer helped overcome years of conflict between the environmental and labor movements in our state to build a coalition of unions and climate advocates in support of Act on Climate, legislation she introduced and passed this year requiring Rhode Island to achieve (legally enforceable) emissions reductions and a transition to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050.

Many members of Rhode Island’s progressive movement have expressed concerns about RIPC’s choice to target a highly effective ally like Euer. But the story became even darker this week, when The Boston Globe reported that RIPC’s handpicked candidate against Euer, Jennifer Jackson, has a history of appallingly rightwing views and statements.

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As reported by the Globe, Jackson, who RIPC co-chair Jennifer Rourke just this week described as “absolutely amazing,” has publicly supported a protest against the state’s vaccine mandate for healthcare workers. She has made dehumanizing comments expressing opposition to helping refugees and people suffering from substance abuse. She has decried “[taking] God out of schools.” She even implied that prohibitions on corporal punishment have turned young people “into selfish, entitled brats.”

After initially trying to defend Jackson’s social media posts, RIPC was forced to sever ties with their recruit just a week after announcing her run. But Rhode Island’s progressive movement deserves to know exactly how the decision to recruit someone with such disturbing views was made in the first place. Was it a choice by a few leaders at the top of the organization — meaning RIPC does not, in actuality, function as a co-operative? Or was each member of the group involved in the decision? Either way, it strikes me as particularly concerning coming from an organization whose leadership is so adamant that they, and only they, are the arbiters of what is and isn’t progressive in Rhode Island — a question that, according to their analysis, turns not on values or ideology, and not on policy goals or legislative record, but solely on whether or not you agree with their specific approach to politics.

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By RIPC’s definition, anyone who is committed to reflexively opposing the leadership of the General Assembly is a progressive champion, while anyone who engages in bringing people together to win concrete progressive change — or who even questions RIPC’s choice to target a longtime progressive ally — is a “fauxgressive,” a defender of the status quo, or any number of less polite ad hominem attacks I know will be hurled my way on Twitter once this piece is published.

This rigidly narrow perspective misses the reality that the best progressive strategies combine both of these approaches. Advocates pursuing a more militant model can play a key role in shifting the center of gravity on critical issues, creating more space for progressive possibilities than could have existed without such aggressive pressure. And advocates willing to work within the system are needed to capitalize on those possibilities, using effective legislative tactics to get actual policy wins over the finish line. Our strongest champions in Congress — Representatives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senators like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren — are all masters at connecting these outside and inside strategies to maximize progressive leverage over policy outcomes.

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But to the leaders of the RIPC, none of that seems to matter. The only criterion that appears to count is whether or not you agree with their approach — even when their approach is as horrifying as recruiting a candidate who has insulted refugees, dismissed the humanity of people suffering from addiction, questioned vaccines, and who knows what else.

I don’t like the “progressive civil war” narrative that is developing in the media. I wish I didn’t have to contribute to it, both for my own personal mental health, and because I think there’s great value RIPC has brought to a number of fights in our state. Indeed, in 2020 I supported many RIPC candidates, knocking on hundreds of doors, raising thousands of dollars, and putting in dozens of hours advising several RIPC campaigns. And it must be said that the targets they announced last week do include a number of actual conservatives who progressives should be challenging.

But we simply cannot build the effective, majoritarian movement necessary to win a livable future for working families in our state if we allow “progressive” to be defined by a handful of politicians whose priorities are so skewed they recruited a certifiably rightwing candidate against a legislator who’s actually been doing the tough work of bringing people together to win real, ambitious change.

That’s not a recipe for progress. And rather than lashing out at those of us willing to say so, I implore members of RIPC who, like me, support a Green New Deal for our state, and believe in Medicare for All, and are fighting to tax the rich, to consider whether Rhode Island’s progressive movement would be stronger if our advocates, organizations, and elected officials could utilize diverse progressive organizing strategies and work together across tactical differences, rather than mire ourselves in scorched earth campaigns against fellow progressives who use different approaches to fight for the very same ends.

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Aaron Regunberg served in the Rhode Island House of Representatives from 2015 to 2018 and was a candidate for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor of Rhode Island in 2018. He is currently is a third-year student at Harvard Law School.