PROVIDENCE — The Rhode Island Political Cooperative began its campaign for a “governing majority” in the state legislative and executive branches with a bang, declaring in a September 2021 launch video: “We’re gonna win the whole [expletive] State House.”
But now that Election Day has passed, it’s clear the progressive group’s offensive ended in a whimper.
- Thirteen Coop candidates ran for Senate seats, and none of them won. Senator Jeanine Calkin, a Warwick Democrat and Coop co-founder, lost her seat, and Jennifer Rourke, another Warwick Democrat and Coop co-founder, lost to a Republican in the race to replace Senate Majority Leader Michael J. McCaffrey.
- Fourteen Coop candidates ran for House seats, and two of them won: Representative Brianna E. Henries, an East Providence Democrat, and Jennifer A. Stewart, a Pawtucket Democrat.
- Gubernatorial candidate Matt Brown, the leader of the Coop ticket who made that brash prediction in the launch video, finished fourth in the Democratic primary, receiving 7.9 percent of the vote.
- And state Senator Cynthia Mendes finished a distant third in the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor, receiving 19.8 percent of the vote.
Despite the Coop’s poor performance, other progressives report making some progress in the 2022 election cycle. Groups such as the Rhode Island Working Families Party and Reclaim Rhode Island supported many more victors and hailed several key wins.
Critics claim the Coop spread itself too thin, failed to properly vet candidates, and burned bridges rather than working with Democrats who support many, though not all, of their goals. At one point, for example, the Coop was challenging Democrats who’d introduced the Act on Climate and a bill to tax the rich.
Representative Brandon C. Potter, a Cranston Democrat, got booted from the Coop for backing the House leadership team after K. Joseph Shekarchi replaced the more conservative Nicholas A. Mattiello as House speaker. Last year, he wrote a commentary piece saying the Coop is “toxic to Rhode Island’s progressive movement.”
“If you sell that there’s no hope, that everybody is corrupt, and we have to basically uproot the entire political establishment, I think that just misses the mark of what people want to hear,” Potter said this week, claiming the Coop focuses too much on “personal attacks” rather than policy achievements.
In the last two years, he said, the General Assembly has passed significant legislation furthering progressives goals, such “the most progressive cannabis legalization bill in the country,” a pay equity bill, and a bill authorizing “harm reduction centers” where people would use drugs while supervised.
“Obviously it didn’t turn out too well for them,” Potter said of the Coop. “But the work continues, and the Rhode Island Political Coop is not the embodiment of progressive politics in Rhode Island.”
Calkin, a co-director of the Coop, said the outcome was not completely unexpected. “It’s certainly disappointing, but the midterm election years are always difficult for progressives,” she said. “We do expect to do better in 2024.”
Calkin said more conservative Democrats and independent voters turned out in the September primaries to vote for Governor Daniel J. McKee or former CVS executive Helena B. Foulkes. Also, she said Coop candidates refused to take campaign contributions from “corporate lobbyists or PACS,” making it harder to compete. And she noted that independent expenditure groups backed by unions funded campaign mailers attacking Coop candidates.
For example, Progress Rhode Island contributed $10,000 to an independent expenditure group called Real Rhode Island, which sent out mailers attacking Rourke in the race for the Senate District 29 seat. Guy Dufault, a political consultant who served as state Democratic Party chair in the 1990s, said Progress RI consists mostly of union groups concerned that Coop candidates would hike taxes on small businesses. But Rourke and Calkin say Coop candidates actually want to reduce taxes on small businesses while taxing the richest 1 percent.
Calkin said that even if Coop candidates lost, their candidacies helped to push progressive policies forward. She said the Coop has already made changes to its vetting process following revelations about the social media posts of some of its candidates, and it will review its strategies, as it does after any election.
Rourke said 12 mailers attacked her candidacy, and it was tough to counteract the “lies.” She said the state missed chances to have more “working-class progressive voices” in the General Assembly.
“For the Democratic establishment, it’s about maintaining their power,” Rourke said. “Behind the scenes, we are going to reevaluate and reassess, but we are not going away.”
Brown did not return calls seeking comment.
The Rhode Island Working Families Party, a state chapter of a national organization aiming to eventually build a third party focused on workers rights, reported that more than 30 of its endorsed Assembly candidates won while 12 lost.
“It was absolutely not a bad year for progressives,” Rhode Island organizing director Zack Mezera said. “Slow and steady wins the race here. That is how we work — we are built to weather the shifts in climate at the state and national levels by adding two or three seats every cycle to the progressive caucus.”
For example, he said the Working Families Party invested a lot of time in backing Democrat Megan L. Cotter in her campaign against Justin K. Price, a Richmond Republican who acknowledging he marched to the US Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
Cotter’s victory in a deep red district shows “working people can run and win anywhere in the state if they have the right support,” Mezera said. “Our focus is finding people with long community histories and community leadership and going really deep on supporting them. We are not investing everywhere. We are trying to take smart risks.”
The Coop backed Cotter when she ran and lost in 2020, but she said the Working Families Party was “by my side from word go” and the group “respects that you know your district.” She said she found the Coop platform more “rigid and cookie cutter.”
“I consider myself progressive but progressive in rural Rhode Island might not be progressive in Providence,” Cotter said. “There are different ways to be progressive.”
Reclaim RI, a progressive group founded by volunteers for US Senator Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign in Rhode Island, now has 10 endorsed candidates in the House and Senate. “This election wasn’t the progressive wave of 2020, but overall we held our ground and even gained some new territory,“ Reclaim RI co-chair Daniel Denvir said.
For example, he noted Cotter beat Price in House District 39, and Democrat Cherie L. Cruz, a Pawtucket Democrat, won a close four-way Democratic primary to win the open House District 58 seat.
In the last legislative session, Reclaim RI and other progressive groups worked with Shekarchi on “big wins” such as “the most socially just cannabis legislation in the nation” and “historical investment in new public housing,” Denvir said. “This coming session, we look forward to working with leadership and our legislative allies on the Create Homes Act to finally address the state’s out of control housing crisis.”