When one of Jennifer Rourke’s opponents in a critical Rhode Island state Senate race violently attacked her at a late June abortion rights rally in Providence, she was shocked. “I didn’t see it coming,” Rourke recalls. “When I looked to the left, [Jeann Lugo] was punching me in the face.” Lugo, an off-duty Providence police officer, struck Rourke repeatedly, leaving her with impaired hearing.
Chaos ensued. It was dark. People were yelling. State Senator Jeanine Calkin, a friend and fellow activist who was toward the back of the crowd of 1,500, called gubernatorial candidate Matt Brown, who was near the front with Rourke, to ask what was going on.
“I know something happened because I saw all this movement, and then I just saw Co-op bodies swarm around Jennifer,” Calkin says. “Everyone came out of the crowd and just surrounded her.”
Brown assured Calkin that Rourke was safe. The members of the Rhode Island Political Cooperative had their candidate’s back. “My family was right there for me,” Rourke says of the people who rushed to protect her as she was being assaulted.
The Co-op, as everyone calls it, is a political movement that is all about defending its candidates, the hundreds of activists who pour long hours into its campaigns, and the long-neglected Rhode Island communities where it is renewing electoral politics as a vehicle for transformative change. One of the most remarkable political initiatives in modern American politics—and already one of the most successful—the Co-op is addressing the great challenge of an electoral moment in which divide-and-conquer campaigning, viscerally negative television advertising funded by corporations and billionaires, and fake news stories about dubious wedge issues have left voters feeling disconnected from politics. This grassroots group in the nation’s smallest state is restoring a sense of community to elections by making a commitment that no candidate will stand alone in the fight against the most powerful political and economic interests in the state and nation. “There’s such a strong, entrenched, corrupt Democratic Party machine here in Rhode Island,” Calkin explains. “We asked: How do we build our own machine that gives resources and knowledge and training and everything a candidate who’s never run before needs to win elections? Our answer was that we had to do it ourselves. So that’s what we did.”
Formed in 2019 with the audacious goal of upending the historically corrupt, corporate-aligned politics of Rhode Island, the Co-op is not a traditional campaign organization, not a political action committee, and not a political party. It’s a movement with big ideas for expanding access to health care, raising wages, and tackling climate change in the Ocean State. But its biggest idea is that the Democratic Party can be moved away from its centrist and corporate moorings to become a genuinely progressive force in politics. That prospect has relevance for progressives in Rhode Island and a lot of other states. It also has relevance at the federal level of a country where the fight to make the Democratic Party a force for fundamental change is an ongoing struggle.
The Co-op is currently running more than two dozen candidates in Rhode Island’s September 13 primaries for statewide posts and legislative offices. Its goal is to build on the success of the 2020 campaign, which saw eight Democratic candidates who were endorsed by the group win hard-fought primaries, a result that led WPRI-TV, the local CBS affiliate, to report that “the progressives really came out strong with a lot of energy.”
A number of Co-op candidates are all but certain to win this year. Others face uphill battles. There are no assurances that the group will be able to deliver on its promise to provide Rhode Island with “A Whole New Government.” But if the Co-op achieves the sort of breakthroughs that candidates and organizers say are possible—particularly in legislative races—it promises to make Rhode Island the kind of “laboratory of democracy” that US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis suggested 90 years ago would position states as the generators of big ideas for how to solve national problems.
Although most of the attention on the battle for control of the nation’s 50 statehouses centers on the partisan fight between Democrats and Republicans, the Rhode Island competition is a reminder that even when Democrats are in charge, they are not necessarily champions of progressive policies. That has long been an issue of concern in Rhode Island, a state that has not backed a Republican for president since 1984 and where the Democratic congressional delegation includes Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a star of the Judiciary Committee and a favorite of liberals nationwide. Despite their current domination of the state capitol, Rhode Island Democrats have a history of compromising with corporate interests and of blocking progressive social initiatives.
A survey of state legislatures conducted by political scientists Boris Shor and Nolan McCarty over an almost 20-year period, from the 1990s to the 2010s, found that there was significantly less ideological disagreement between Republican and Democratic lawmakers in Rhode Island than in other states. But Rhode Island has not exactly been a beacon of enlightened bipartisanship. A 2014 New York Times review of the Shor-McCarty survey noted, “It’s common for Republican officials in heavily Democratic Northeastern states to be moderates. What makes Rhode Island stand out is the number of conservatives within its Democratic legislative supermajority. The median Democrat in Rhode Island was more conservative than in all but 13 state legislatures, scoring directly between Georgia and Indiana and far to the right of those in Connecticut or Massachusetts.”
As the parties have moved further apart in recent years, Rhode Island’s Democratic legislative leaders have remained outliers: A striking number of the party’s top members earn high marks from anti-abortion groups and the National Rifle Association.
While moderate Republicans and an independent (Lincoln Chafee) have occasionally held Rhode Island’s governorship in recent decades, the Democrats have controlled both chambers of the state legislature since 1958. And they’ve often enjoyed supermajorities, making the legislature the defining force in the governance of the state. Yet instead of delivering for the people in a state where almost 12 percent of residents live below the poverty line, where housing prices are skyrocketing, and where income inequality is a serious issue, Rhode Island’s legislative Democrats have distinguished themselves by their close ties to the business community, compromises on social issues, and questionable ethics. Multiple legislators, including a former speaker of the state House and a House Finance Committee chair, have been jailed in the past decade on charges of influence peddling, bribery, and raiding campaign funds. The Democratic-controlled legislature passed a voter ID law that was so strict that Republicans in other states have cited it as a model for their voter-suppression initiatives. Some Rhode Island Democratic legislators still tout their “A” ratings from the NRA, and even after the mass shootings this spring in Buffalo, N.Y., and Uvalde, Tex., Rhode Island legislators did not respond to calls from their constituents for an assault weapons ban.
“There are Democrats who are anti-abortion, there are Democrats that are pro-gun in our legislature. They’ve been around forever. They call themselves Democrats, but they are really Republicans—right-wing Republicans—in everything but name,” says Ellie Wyatt, a retired high school special education teacher who has long been active in local and state Democratic politics. Wyatt, who turned out on a scorching hot Saturday morning in late July for the launch of the Co-op’s door-to-door canvas drive in North Providence, says, “Changing the legislature is the key to changing politics in Rhode Island, and the way to change the legislature is by winning these Democratic primaries for the state House and the Senate.”
Wyatt has been working for years to move her state’s Democratic Party in a progressive direction. That Saturday morning, she was surrounded by young activists who were using phone apps to identify the doors they would knock on over the next few hours. This combination of the old-school, people-powered politics of neighborhood and community with new technology is central to the Co-op’s campaigning strategy. The candidates the group endorses refuse corporate money and take positions on tax policy that are unlikely to attract contributions from wealthy donors. As Calkin, a cochair of the Co-op and one of its most successful candidates, says, “I’m fighting for Rhode Island’s working families, not corporate lobbyists or party bosses.” To wage that fight, says organizer A.J. Braverman, the Co-op has developed a model for campaigning in which dozens, sometimes hundreds, of activists show up whenever one of its candidates needs to gather signatures to get on the ballot or knock on a few thousand doors before Election Day. Or is threatened—as Rourke was on the night of June 24, shortly after the Supreme Court issued the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision that overturned the protections for abortion rights established in its 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling. “Running by yourself is not fun,” Rourke says. “But with the Co-op, you’re not running alone. You have a community that shares ideas, that shows up when you need help, that is there for you when you’re in a tough spot.”
A relative newcomer to electoral politics, like most other Co-op candidates, Rourke was encouraged by Calkin and others to take on the overwhelming task of challenging powerful Rhode Island Senate majority leader Michael McCaffrey in 2018 and again in 2020. McCaffrey, a social conservative who opposed a 2019 measure to create a state-based protection for abortion rights, had served in the legislature since 1995 and had frequently run unopposed in past primaries. Rourke, a mother of four who campaigned while helping several of her kids manage education at home during the pandemic, came within 550 votes of beating the incumbent. Following the playbook of the Co-op, where she has emerged as a key leader, Rourke kept right on campaigning. She expected to face McCaffrey again in this year’s primary and then to take on Republican nominee Jeann Lugo in November. But then Lugo struck her at the abortion rights rally. Arrested and charged with assault and disorderly conduct, Lugo ended his campaign amid the flurry of national media attention that the assault attracted. The incident also focused attention on McCaffrey’s record of taking anti-choice positions, and within days he announced that he, too, would exit the race.
But McCaffrey didn’t exit politics. He joined other top Democrats in helping a local union official get on the primary ballot. Within a week, Rourke’s campaign had revealed that the new contender’s Facebook profile featured a picture of the white candidate wearing blackface and another with Fox News personality Tucker Carlson. He had also liked a Facebook page titled “Support Officer Darren Wilson.” Wilson is the police officer who shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., on August 9, 2014. ”This guy calls himself a Democrat!” says an outraged Rourke. As she outlines the support for her opponent by members of Rhode Island’s Democratic establishment on the summer afternoon when I meet with Co-op activists, Matt Brown, the gubernatorial candidate, listens with mounting frustration. “That’s how far they are willing to go,” he says. “To go out and support a guy who wore blackface in order to defeat a Black woman who is running for the legislature is beyond the pale.”
The problem, Brown says, is that “this is who they are. They have held on to power for so long that they feel they don’t have to change. That’s what we’re up against.”
Brown is a dynamic activist with deep roots in the civil rights and peace movements—his mother went into labor while attending a protest against the Vietnam War in 1969. He was elected as Rhode Island’s secretary of state at the age of 32, and in 2018, he won a third of the vote when he mounted an underfunded but energetic progressive primary challenge to the corporate-aligned incumbent Democratic governor, Gina Raimondo. “I’ve been fighting with this party most of my life,” Brown says as he knocks on doors in a Providence precinct where he is greeted warmly by voters. “But I’m definitely not doing it alone this time.”
When Brown ran for governor four years ago, one of his few supporters in the statehouse was Calkin, who, like hundreds of political figures across the country—including Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.)—has a political origin story linked to Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign. Out of her two-story home on a leafy side street in Warwick, Calkin began organizing for Sanders in 2015 and played a big role in helping the senator win the state with 55 percent of the vote in April of the following year. Inspired to run for the state Senate, Calkin beat a Democratic incumbent who had served in the legislature for more than 20 years. That was the easy part. The hard part came when she joined the legislature as a progressive in a chamber controlled by conservative Democrats such as McCaffrey and current Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio, who was first elected in 1980 and who until recently boasted about his “A” rating from the NRA. She immediately ran into roadblocks and opposition.
Calkin grew so frustrated that she, Rourke, and some allies came up with what they called “Project Chicxulub.” “Chicxulub is the asteroid that took out the dinosaurs,” she says. “We were thinking like DINOs—Democrats in Name Only—so it made perfect sense to me.” It made perfect sense to Brown as well, who became a cochair, with Calkin and Rourke, of the Rhode Island Political Cooperative.
At their first meeting, Brown recalls, “we took out the list of legislators and said, ‘Who do we have to beat?’” They began to recruit grassroots candidates, many of them neighborhood and union activists who had never thought of running for elected office, and they haven’t stopped since. “We’re on a mission,” Brown says. “We’re going to take out the leadership. We’re going to win a governing majority for the people.”
The Co-op has pursued that mission with a politics built on personal relationships, a support structure designed to assure that candidates have the strategic help and resources they need, and shared values. Candidates sign on as supporters of a platform that they pledge to implement if elected: a $19-an-hour minimum wage, a state-based Medicare for All health care system, a plan to cap rents and build 10,000 affordable homes, and a Rhode Island Green New Deal that would make the state a leader in reaching net-zero emissions by 2040.
The Co-op is not the only progressive project that is focusing on these sorts of issues at the state and local levels. Other groups—such as the Vermont Progressive Party, Reclaim Chicago, and the Courage California coalition—recognized the need to challenge entrenched Democratic machines and have built meaningful movements to do so. But the Co-op, which is part of a network of state-based progressive political projects known as Renew U.S., has been strikingly ambitious. And it has already enjoyed considerable success when it comes to upending Rhode Island politics. Its candidates dislodged powerful incumbents such as Democratic state Senate Finance Committee chair William Conley, who represented East Providence. Conley lost his race to Cynthia Mendes, a working-class single mom who once supplemented her income by cleaning the mansions of millionaires in the über-expensive enclave of Newport. “We’re not going to stop until we’ve replaced every corporate sell-out politician in this state with leaders who will stand up for our communities,” Mendes said after the primary win that assured she would become a state senator.
Now Mendes is running for lieutenant governor on a ticket with Brown and as part of a slate that includes candidates such as registered nurse Lenny Cioe, who is challenging Senate President Ruggerio. “My opponent says, ‘You’re a politician,’” Cioe says as he knocks on doors in his North Providence neighborhood with Brown. “I say, ‘No, I’m a nurse that wants to change politics.’” Cioe almost beat Ruggerio in 2020, and he’s running hard to finish the job this year.
Whether Brown ends up in the governor’s mansion is an open question. Brown and Mendes are being outspent in their races by candidates with ties to the party organization—which has endorsed incumbent Governor Dan McKee, who inherited the job when former governor Raimondo became President Biden’s secretary of commerce, and Lieutenant Governor Sabina Matos, who replaced McKee—and by other contenders with sufficient personal wealth to fund free-spending television advertising campaigns. Yet they have a message that’s in tune with what pundits in Rhode Island and nationwide have identified as a populist moment. “For decades, the people in power have fought for giant corporations and the ultra-wealthy,” declares their manifesto. “Matt and Cynthia are doing things differently. They are not taking any money from corporate lobbyists, corporate PACs, or fossil fuel executives. Instead, they are running alongside dozens of candidates—nurses, teachers, social workers, people who have spent their lives fighting for their communities—to build a whole new government.”
When I meet with Mendes in a second-floor workspace above a bustling downtown Providence street, she is taking a quick break between campaign stops to read a few pages from a favorite book by Audre Lorde. The poet and civil rights activist once wrote that “for every real word spoken, for every attempt I had ever made to speak those truths for which I am still seeking, I had made contact with other women while we examined the words to fit a world in which we all believed, bridging our differences.”
There’s not a lot of time for poetry reading on the campaign trail. But Mendes is always looking for ways to frame the message that the people of Rhode Island have the power to transform the politics of their state and their nation. “The first step is the work of imagination,” Mendes says. “We’re building a movement of people who recognize that it doesn’t have to be this way.”