PROVIDENCE — When a group of progressives launched a political “cooperative” and introduced a slate of state legislative candidates recently, the response from Rhode Island’s Democratic Party couldn’t have been much harsher.
In a statement, former Democratic Party Chairman William J. Lynch took aim at one of the co-chairs, former Secretary of State Matt Brown, blasting the group’s fundraising plans as a “Ponzi scheme” involving “quid-pro-quo political favors.”
“There’s no place for Matt Brown and his antics in the Democratic Party or Rhode Island politics,” Lynch declared.
While Rhode Island is home to one of the nation’s most Democratic legislatures, the clash over the Rhode Island Political Cooperative reveals a rift in the party ranks, observers say.
“What it tells me is that there is an emerging schism within the party,” Providence College political science Professor Adam S. Myers said Monday. “The party establishment has been significantly more conservative than many in the party’s grass-roots base.”
The ideological distance between the median Democrat and the median Republican in Rhode Island’s General Assembly has been very narrow, Myers said. For years, the legislature contained Democrats who were socially conservative and Republicans who were socially liberal, but those dynamics are changing, he said.
And now, the Rhode Island Political Cooperative has introduced 15 candidates, with plans to add more, and it’s setting an ambitious goal: to win enough legislative seats to “form a new governing majority” and install a new House speaker and new Senate president.
“Resentment is pent up and kind of boiling over,” Myers said. “What’s happening is as the Democratic Party has moved leftward nationally, local progressive activists have been energized, and they are seeking to make their mark on Rhode Island politics.”
But some say the group is unlikely to make a mark if it’s going to target incumbents such as Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Erin Lynch Prata, a Warwick Democrat who was a key to passage of abortion rights legislation last session.
“If they are presenting themselves as a progressive group, why the heck are they running someone against Erin Lynch Prata?” asked Robert A. Walsh Jr., a labor leader with a long history of involvement in Rhode Island politics. “Right off the bat, their credibility is lost with a large swath of the Democratic constituency they theoretically need to win a primary.”
Walsh, executive director of the National Education Association Rhode Island, said, “A lot of the names being challenged are not only good on labor issues but also good on progressive issues, as well. So I don’t get it.”
The Rhode Island Political Cooperative says its goal is to “make government work for the people — not for corporations or the connected.” Candidates backed by the group support a policy agenda that includes a $15 minimum wage, “affordable housing for all,” and a “Green New Deal.” Candidates pledge not to accept from corporate political action committees or the fossil fuel industry.
The co-chairs are former state Senator Jeanine Calkin, former state Senate candidate Jennifer Rourke and Brown, who waged an unsuccessful Democratic primary challenge against Governor Gina M. Raimondo in 2018.
Brown said the initiative grew out of conversations about the need to not just elect one or two candidates but a full slate that could change the legislative leadership.
Voters across the state support the group’s policy agenda, he said. For example: “The failure to address the affordable housing crisis while giving tax cuts to luxury condo developers -- everyone can agree that is wrong,” he said, referencing the Hope Point Tower proposal and other projects.
Brown said Kendra Anderson — the candidate challenging Lynch Prata in Senate District 31 — was among the activists who spent hundreds of hours protesting and pressing for a state law preserving abortion rights in Rhode Island in case the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade. And he said the group’s candidates will take on a range of other issues.
The Democratic Party backlash shows that “the establishment is very nervous about this effort,” Brown said. “They sense that their long hold on power is coming to an end.”
Lynch, who served as party chairman for 12 years and is now a volunteer adviser, rejected the idea that there’s a schism in the party.
Rhode Island Democrats have had a progressive wing for a long time, he said, noting that former state Senator Myrth York was the Democratic nominee for governor three times and that Representative Christopher R. Blazejewski is part of the House leadership.
“Most people assume that Brown is involved because he wants to run for office again,” Lynch said. “This is a guy who moved back to Rhode Island after being absent 10 years and decides he’s going to be the new moral conscience of Rhode Island.”
He said Brown challenged “a respected Democratic governor who is progressive in many ways” — and Raimondo beat Brown 57 percent to 33.5 percent.
“He got trounced,” Lynch said. “So this notion that their platform is what everybody wants — well, everybody didn’t want it in the last Democratic primary for governor.”
Providence College political science Professor Joseph Cammarano said the cooperative represents the party’s younger, more liberal generation, and the strong response from party leaders comes as no surprise.
“Dinosaurs are going to roar,” he said.
State Senator Sam Bell, former state director of the Rhode Island Progressive Democrats, said he is often seen a “very left wing,” but some of the Rhode Island Political Cooperative challengers “represent more of a, perhaps, radical left-wing branch of Rhode Island politics than I have been associated with.”
While that’s “very healthy,” Bell said he sees value in having moderates in positions of power, such as Senate Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin, a Providence Democrat. “I support the overall effort, but challenging moderates in high positions — I don’t think it’s strategic,” he said.