PROVIDENCE — On the Rhode Island Report podcast, Rhode Island Political Cooperative co-founder Jennifer Rourke talked about why the progressive group formed, and she responded to recent criticism of the organization.
Rourke – a state Senate candidate who co-chairs the co-op with gubernatorial candidate Matt Brown and state Senator Jeanine Calkin – played down the divisions that have been evident since the co-op announced a slate of up to 50 state and local candidates and launched challenges to some Democratic incumbents.
“I am not in some sort of progressive civil war,” Rourke said. “I am not in a war with anyone. If they are going to fight, that’s between them and themselves.”
On Sept. 22, when the co-op announcement drew criticism, Rourke tweeted: “Boy, are the Fauxgressives upset today.”
When asked who she was referring to, Rourke said, “I received a lot of nasty personal attacks, lots of messages. I was told that as a Black woman, I was too stupid to see that Matt (Brown) was using me.”
Those attacks came from “some people from the other camp,” she said. “If you want to attack me on policy, that’s fine, but to attack me on my education and the fact that I am a Black woman – it’s just it was unnecessary.”
In its initial announcement and in subsequent messages, the co-op has blasted the “corrupt political machine” that it says has been running Rhode Island for decades.
When asked what the co-op means when it uses the word “corrupt,” Rourke said, “It’s the fact that the legislation that is needed is sitting there and that the bills that these lobbyists, these corporate lobbyists want, they’re getting pushed through quickly.”
For example, she cited opposition to legislation that passed this year, making doula services eligible for reimbursement through private insurance plans. “You can’t tell me that you are actually supporting the people when you sit on the committee and you say: ‘How does this affect the insurance company?’ That means to me that you don’t give a damn about the people that are dying when they’re giving birth.”
Rourke defended the co-op’s decision to challenge incumbent Democrats such as 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.
“Sometimes it’s not enough,” Rourke said. “We are at a point where we can’t just take these incremental steps. It’s time to make some serious change. Act on Climate was a start, but we have a lot more work to do that should have been done years ago.”
The co-op ended up cutting ties with Jennifer Jackson, the candidate it had backed to challenge Euer, amid scrutiny of Facebook posts in which Jackson shared anti-vaccine and anti-refugee sentiments. Another co-op candidate, Tarshire Battle, dropped out following scrutiny of her Facebook posts, and the co-op has said it’s evaluating its process of vetting prospective candidates’ backgrounds.
Rourke said Jackson told her she’s not “an anti-vaxxer” but supports religious exemptions to the COVID-19 vaccine. Jackson also shared a post picturing a homeless man and the message: “Share if you think homeless veterans should be housed before any refugees!”
“I think that was just something that was missed,” Rourke said. “People have gone back years and looking through someone’s Facebook from 2021 going back until whenever they first started. It is a lot of work, and those three posts for Jennifer were missed and it’s a sad situation.”
Senator Cynthia Mendes, who is running for lieutenant governor with co-op backing, has faced criticism for sharing anti-abortion Facebook posts in 2014 and 2015.
Rourke noted Mendes now supports abortion rights, saying, “I say people can grow. Her father was a pastor of a church, and I think it’s also a cultural thing as a Spanish woman. We have a tendency to listen to our families, especially the patriarch of our family. But she had those conversations, those very difficult conversations that our legislators are not having, and she learned and she’s grown as a person.”
In 2018, Rourke challenged Senate Majority Leader Michael J. McCaffrey, a Warwick Democrat who won the primary with 65.6 percent of the vote, and she plans to run against McCaffrey again next year.
Rourke said she contacted the Democratic Party in 2018, asking for help. “And I was told that I was not part of this and I didn’t belong,” she said. “So I learned everything on my own.”
But then, she said, she got together with Calkin, Brown, and Melanie DuPont to form the co-op in 2019. “We just got together and we said, ‘Well, if the party can do it, we can do it too,’” she said. “So what we do is provide consulting services, which is like your campaign plan, your messaging, research.”
The co-op is not a political party, it’s not a political action committee, and it’s not a social club, she said. “We are technically a nonprofit corporation, so we have no shareholders,” she said.
In response to calls for greater transparency for co-op finances, Rourke said, “I think when other organizations start releasing their tax documents, I will feel better. I don’t think we should be the first one in the state of Rhode Island to do it. No other consulting agency has been asked to release their forms, and it just makes me slightly uncomfortable.”
Hear more by downloading the latest episode of Rhode Island Report, available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon Music, iHeartRadio, Google Podcasts, and other podcasting platforms, or listen in the player below:
Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.