PROVIDENCE — Liz Gledhill is certified in crisis intervention training, and her resume says she’s known for her “ability to exercise leadership in contentious situations.”
Those skills could come in handy in her new role as chair of the Rhode Island Democratic Women’s Caucus, which just split from the state Democratic Party amid a bitter dispute over whether the women’s caucus can endorse candidates and raise its own money.
The controversy has catapulted Gledhill, 35, of Wakefield, into a high-profile role after she served on the South Kingstown Town Council from 2015 to 2018. She works at the Thundermist Health Center as health equity zone program assistant and crisis intervention team coordinator for Washington County.
Last week, the women’s caucus reached a crisis point when the Rhode Island Democratic State Committee voted 122 to 37 for new bylaws that prohibit the party caucuses from endorsing candidates, spending money, and making statements without party approval.
The next day, the Rhode Island Democratic Women’s Caucus announced that it had formed a new organization independent from the similarly named Rhode Island Democratic Party’s Women’s Caucus.
Gledhill, who now heads both groups, said the bylaws vote came as no surprise.
“The party organization is a boys’ club,” she told the Globe. “The patriarchy is alive and well in the Democratic Party in Rhode Island.”
Gledhill said she also was not surprised by video, posted on Twitter, that appears to show a member of the Democratic State Committee — former state Senate Finance Committee chairman and current State House lobbyist Stephen Alves — exchanging words with a member of the women’s caucus and saying, “If a pig grunts, you don’t grunt back.”
“It’s gross,” Gledhill said. “It begs the question of why lobbyists are allowed on the Democratic State Committee in the first place. But also, why is that culture tolerated at a meeting?”
Gledhill said members of the women’s caucus, who wore white in solidarity at the meeting, were jeered at throughout the night with taunts such as “Go back to the kitchen.”
“I am deeply disappointed,” she said. “We know it is a good old boys’ club.”
But state Democratic Party Executive Director Cyd McKenna said, “The party is not a boys’ club. The vice chair, third vice chair, and treasurer are all women, and they are all active and valued in the party.”
McKenna said the changes in the bylaws represent “common sense provisions” that reflect how party-affiliated caucuses operate throughout the country.
The women’s caucus is free to organize an independent organization “to endorse or financially support who they choose,” she said, but caucuses affiliated with the party “act as a public extension of the party.”
McKenna said, “What Alves did was wrong and I condemn it. I, an African-American woman, was personally called a slave on Twitter this week by a supporter of the women’s caucus who disagreed with the bylaws, and that, too, is wrong.”
She urged people to “take a step back, take a breath, and look at the big picture about how we will come together as a group to defeat Donald Trump in 2020.”
Gledhill agreed that the 2020 election is crucial. At a moment such as this, the Rhode Island Democratic Party leadership should not be alienating one of its most engaged caucuses, she said. “We make calls, we stuff envelopes, we raise funds,” she said.
Gledhill said House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello, a Cranston Democrat, essentially controls the party organization. She noted that last year the party endorsed a former Republican who backed Trump in 2016 over Representative Moira Walsh, an outspoken Democrat from Providence. And she noted some Democrats voted against a bill aimed at protecting abortion rights in Rhode Island in case the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade.
“This is about the heart of our party,” she said.
Looking ahead, Gledhill said she expects the women’s caucus to push for legislation aimed at curbing gun violence and making doula services eligible for reimbursement through private insurance and Medicaid programs.
Gledhill, who narrowly lost a 2018 re-election bid on the South Kingstown Town Council, said she took a public leadership course last year at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. The class included mayors, town managers and police chiefs, but she said she realized that rather than running for office, she might be more effective by getting involved in a role such as chair of the women’s caucus.
“I think you can do a lot more when you can empower people, as opposed to holding the power,” she said.
State Senator Gayle L. Goldin, a Providence Democrat, was one of four co-chairs of the Rhode Island Democratic Party’s Women’s Caucus when it formed as President Trump took office in January 2017.
“Women came into the party in droves,” Goldin recalled. And the women’s caucus provided a way for hundreds of Rhode Island women who had not been very involved to become actively engaged in the state Democratic Party, she said, noting the women’s caucus now includes 600 members.
So it was a “huge mistake” for party leaders to do what they did last week, Goldin said.
“What we saw was an action intended to silence women’s involvement in shaping the party if it was different than what the party leadership wanted it to be,” she said. “That’s trying to check a box that you have a women’s caucus, which is vastly different than actually listening to what they say.”
Goldin said the Democratic State Committee nullified the bylaws of the women’s caucus and made it explicit that the party chair picks caucus officers.
“The whole point of any caucus is to have diverse voices represented in the Democratic Party,” she said. “It is not to have a small group of the leadership determine what that caucus should be, look like, or say.”
But last week’s move is bound to backfire, Goldin said. The political action committee linked to women’s caucus raised more money last week ($3,800) than in any previous week, she said.
“People are going to give money and show up to the women’s caucus,” Goldin said. “If the party doesn’t want to hear their voices, they will get their message across. They are not going away.”