PROVIDENCE — During an August 2020 state Senate candidate forum, Cynthia Mendes spoke out strongly in support of providing Medicaid and state insurance plan coverage for abortions.
“A women’s choice is really important. If you can’t afford a choice, you don’t have a choice,” Mendes said during a forum in the Senate District 18 Democratic primary in East Providence. “It’s really important that we have someone that is championing for women. I’ve done that. I’ve been doing that my whole life.”
In 2014 and 2015, however, Mendes was sharing Facebook posts by groups opposing abortion rights. For example, in December 2014 she shared a post about how Serrin Foster, president of Feminists for Life, had delivered a speech about “The Feminist Case Against Abortion.”
Those posts are drawing criticism now that Mendes is a state Senator running for lieutenant governor alongside gubernatorial candidate Matt Brown and a slate of up to 50 members of the Rhode Island Political Cooperative, a progressive group aiming to install a “new governing majority” in the House, Senate, and governor’s office.
Mendes is the latest in a series of candidates affiliated with the Rhode Island Political Cooperative to face scrutiny over past social media posts expressing far-from-progressive viewpoints.
On Sept. 30, the co-op cut ties with state Senate candidate Jennifer Jackson following criticism of posts in which she shared anti-vaccine and anti-refugee sentiments, and the co-op is sticking with state representative candidate Tarshire Battle, despite posts appearing to defend religious exemptions for COVID-19 vaccines and a “One Nation Under God” ad by Hobby Lobby.
On Oct. 7, Mendes, tweeted, “I’m not ashamed of my past. I had a journey into this movement. We need to celebrate how people learn and grow, not shame BIPOC candidates, working class candidates, or women for their histories!!!”
I'm not ashamed of my past.— Cynthia Mendes (@Cynthia_Mendes_) October 7, 2021
I had a journey into this movement.
We need to celebrate how people learn and grow, not shame BIPOC candidates, working class candidates, or women for their histories!!! #erasure https://t.co/XHp7hAZOk5 pic.twitter.com/OOkqY1JG0J
“Like many other working-class candidates, I never planned or expected to run for office,” Mendes said in a written statement. “We didn’t get to attend Ivy League schools, and we haven’t all lived our entire lives as perfect progressives with all the right positions. We’re first and foremost human, and we got to this place by actually living, and learning, and struggling.”
Mendes said she grew up in “a very conservative Christian environment” and attended a “conservative Christian college” — the Word of Life Bible Institute.
“Today I am proudly, and strongly, pro-choice,” she wrote. “But it was a journey, one that involved expanding my world and challenging myself with new ideas — and relearning and unlearning many of the ideas I grew up with. That includes going back to school in my 30s, and having deep conversations with feminists who helped me to understand how these patriarchal, oppressive narratives hurt women.”
Mendes pushed back on the criticism of the social media posts, saying, “I think these kinds of attacks, and knowing that well-funded opposition researchers will try to pick apart everything we’ve ever said or done, are part of the reason why more regular working-class people don’t run for office.”
Mendes, 41, spent much of her career in health care as a clinical supervisor and treatment coordinator in the dental field. She is now a project manager at Renew New England, a coalition of progressive groups.
Mendes was registered as a Republican in East Providence until 2016, according to the East Providence canvassing officials. She then switched to unaffiliated, writing in “libertarian,” and she registered as a Democrat in 2019, city officials said. While Mendes voted in the November 2018 general election, she did not vote in the September 2018 Democratic primary, in which Brown lost to then-Governor Gina M. Raimondo, according to city officials.
Mendes, who was previously married and used the last name Buono, had also been registered as a Republican in Bristol but she did not vote there, Bristol Town Clerk Melissa Cordeiro said.
Running with co-op support in 2020, Mendes upset then-Senate Finance Chairman William J. Conley Jr., an East Providence Democrat, in a Democratic primary.
Emily Ward Crowell, interim president of the Rhode Island chapter of the National Organization for Women, issued a statement criticizing Mendes’ social media posts from 2014-15, saying, “This is dangerous and harmful rhetoric against decades of reproductive justice work.”
She said it took years of work to pass the Reproductive Privacy Act in 2019 — state legislation aimed at codifying abortion rights in case the US Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade.
“It required a coalition of our community to come together for a common cause: to protect these services and their providers,” Crowell said. “This is work that did not happen overnight; it required winning the hearts and minds of Rhode Islanders and correcting misinformation about the life-saving services that these providers deliver to all patients.”
Crowell, a University of Rhode Island graduate, added that, “There are plenty of people who were part of the reproductive justice movement who were also working class and went to state schools. Go Rams.”
Amanda Skinner, president of Planned Parenthood Votes! Rhode Island, issued a statement, saying, “We are thankful to see more elected officials whose positions on abortion and reproductive rights evolve over time. Reproductive rights and access to abortion are on the line across the country.”
While abortion is legal in Rhode Island, Skinner said, “We have more work to do to reduce barriers to health care, including abortion. We need more champions who will fight to protect reproductive rights and ensure access to health care for all.”
Diane Barense — a Planned Parenthood Votes! Rhode Island board member who was speaking as an individual and not for the board — said she found the Facebook posts by Mendes “profoundly offensive.” “I was nauseated,” she said.
Barense, 72, of Barrington, said she had an illegal abortion in Mexico in 1968, before the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. “This is very raw for me,” she said.
She said Mendes was sharing posts from groups opposing abortion rights in 2015 and 2016, at a time when attention was focused on US Supreme Court appointments and the fate of Roe v. Wade.
“It’s disingenuous to me because in 2016 she is posting propaganda against Planned Parenthood,” Barense said. “Then she just emerges, like Venus on the half shell, as a proudly progressive candidate in every way. What happened in between? How did you get from A to B?”
Barense also took issue with Mendes’ reference to Ivy League graduates, saying Roe v. Wade is imperiled in part because of Ivy League-educated Supreme Court justices such as Neil M. Gorsuch, Clarence Thomas, and Brett M. Kavanaugh.
Lieutenant Governor Sabina Matos, who will face Mendes in a 2022 Democratic primary, said, “I have always been pro-choice, first as a City Councilor and now as Lieutenant Governor. In 2015 and 2016, I was working very hard to make sure that we didn’t elect someone that would make appointments to the Supreme Court that would put the health and rights of women in danger.”
Matos, a former Providence City Council president, said, “I hope this conversation sparks further dialogue about women and our reproductive rights because they are under siege in the United States. In Rhode Island, we are lucky to have a state that has codified Roe v. Wade, yet falsehoods and misinformation shared on social media now or in the past are dangerous to women everywhere.”