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RI POLITICS

Group chaired by former state Democratic Party chairman is opposing progressive Democrats

Union-backed Progress RI donated $10,000 to an independent expenditure group called Real Rhode Island, which put out mailers blasting Democratic candidates for state Senate

The Rhode Island State House.Edward Fitzpatrick

PROVIDENCE — A union-backed group chaired by a former state Democratic Party chairman is pouring thousands of dollars into campaign mailers opposing progressive Democratic General Assembly candidates such as Rhode Island Political Cooperative co-founder Jennifer Rourke.

Progress Rhode Island contributed $10,000 to an independent expenditure group called Real Rhode Island, which sent out mailers attacking Rourke, a candidate for the state Senate District 29 seat that Senate Majority Leader Michael J. McCaffrey, a Warwick Democrat, is vacating after 28 years in office.

“Coming soon to a Warwick business near you: The Rourke Tax,” the mailer says, showing photos of Iggy’s Doughboys & Chowder House and Ocean State Job Lot. “Jennifer Rourke and her friends in the RI Political Cooperative have some radical ideas for Warwick. A new 10% tax imposed on our local businesses just might be the worst idea yet.”

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The mailer was paid for by Real Rhode Island, a group that reported receiving a $10,000 donation from Progress RI and spending $9,880 in opposition to Rourke and others.

Guy Dufault, a longtime Rhode Island political consultant who served a Democratic Party chair in the 1990s, said he is chair of Progress RI, which he described as a 501(c)4 organization that consists mostly of union groups such the Rhode Island Brotherhood of Correctional Officers, the United Nurses & Allied Professionals, and the RI Building & Construction Trades Council.

Dufault said the union groups are concerned about what tax policies would be pursued by members of the Rhode Island Political Cooperative, whose co-chairs include Rourke, state Senator Jeanine Calkin, and former gubernatorial candidate Matt Brown.

“The concern is that if you have a buildup of Coop members in the General Assembly – if you get to a tipping point – they would have control over taxation,” he said. “Matt Brown was anathema to labor unions because they thought he would tax the businesses into oblivion, and with that goes the jobs.”

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Dufault cited a tax proposal made by Lenny Cioe, a Coop candidate who in September lost a Democratic primary against Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio, a North Providence Democrat who was an administrator of the New England Laborers Labor Management Coop Trust.

But Rourke said Cioe’s proposal has been misrepresented, and she said she wants to cut tax for small businesses – not raise them. “I have never said those words,” she said. “I have never said that I want to raise taxes for small businesses.”

Rourke said the mailer indicates that members of her own party are working against her even as she faces Republican Anthony Phillip Deluca II in Tuesday’s general election. “It is disheartening to know the party that I represent, the party that I identify with, is working so hard against me,” she said.

In September’s Democratic primary, Rourke beat Warwick firefighters union president Michael C. Carreiro, who faced questions about his residency and apologized for wearing blackface during a 2009 event when he dressed as the singer James Brown.

“I wasn’t expecting them to do this in the general election,” Rourke said of the mailer. “They really don’t want people like me in office – a regular working-class person fighting for the everyday Rhode Islander.”

Calkin, a Warwick Democrat who lost a September primary to Mark P. McKenney, said the Coop does not support raising taxes on small businesses. “We want to make things easier for small businesses, not more difficult,” she said.

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The Coop does support proposals, made in the House and Senate last session, to raise the top tax rate to 8.99 percent on income of more than $475,000, essentially the top 1 percent of taxpayers, Calkin said. But Ruggerio has said he opposes that measure, fearing that the richest Rhode Islanders would move elsewhere.

Calkin said she was “shocked” by the mailer attacking Rourke. “It is unusual,” she said. “You expect this stuff in the primaries, but usually Democrats and unions and other groups coalesce after the primaries and try to get the Democratic candidate elected.”

Cameron J. Deutsch, a Democrat running for the state Senate District 17 seat said the independent expenditure groups are also attacking him.

“It’s not just Jen Rourke they’re targeting,” Deutsch tweeted. “Real RI sent a negative mailer in my race this week propping up independent Jack Lyle, who was handpicked by leadership to run even though I, the (Democratic) candidate and Lincoln Dems co-chair, had been running for months.”

The mailer includes a photo of Lincoln High School yearbook and superlatives for the three candidates in the Senate District 17 race: It describes Deutsch as “most likely to raise your taxes” and a “graduate class of 2019,” Republican Senator Thomas J. Paolino as “most unethical,” and independent candidate Jack W. “Jack” Lyle Jr. as “most likely to succeed.”

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Lyle is a former Republican state representative from Lincoln who left the GOP in 2020, saying that he doesn’t respect former President Donald Trump and that “the Republican Party has left me.”

Progress RI believes Deutsch is “very young and lacks the experience needed in these difficult times,” Dufault said. “My group is primarily labor, and they think there will be problems ahead once the federal COVID money goes away. With structural deficits, we need experienced hands at the wheel.”

Deutsch, who is not part of the Rhode Island Political Cooperative, said it is “very disingenuous” for the mailer to suggest he supports raising taxes. “I have never said I would raise taxes on small businesses,” he said. “My mantra is that we need to go after the big companies that have not been paying much in taxes such as Amazon, Target, and Dunkin Donuts.”

Deutsch, who is 22, said he actually graduated from Lincoln High in 2018 – not 2019 – and he has since graduated from Clark University and begun working as a teaching assistant. He called the Real RI campaign mailer “disheartening.”

“I don’t think we should be running negative campaigns,” Deutsch said. “I don’t think dark money belongs in politics.”


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him @FitzProv.