On September 8, the edifice of power that Rhode Island’s Democratic Party machine held over the statehouse was revealed to be a mostly empty facade. Rhode Island progressives ousted eight incumbents in the state’s Democratic primaries, and five more won open seats, forming one of the latest, and most sweeping, waves of primary challenges from the left to a state Democratic Party.
After over a decade of attempting to win legislative victories by pressuring elected officials from outside the statehouse, progressive organizations in the state had tried something new: primarying over two dozen incumbent lawmakers with the hopes of winning a few seats. Across the state, candidates without conventional political experience, backed primarily by new organizations diving into local electoral politics, went up against conservative Democrats.
Unlike similar movements to primary local conservative Democrats, like Reclaim Philadelphia and No IDC NY, the Rhode Island effort was not coordinated by a single organization and did not zero in on top leadership. Instead, it was a come-one-come-all effort, organized and supported by a half-dozen groups recruiting, running, and supporting progressive challengers. They included the Working Families Party, local Sunrise chapters, a new organization called the Rhode Island Political Cooperative (RIPC), a group of former volunteers for Bernie Sanders’s 2020 primary campaign called Reclaim RI, and the Providence Democratic Socialists of America.
Rather than exercising careful discretion in who they were primarying, they went after any incumbent who was working with party leadership. And it worked.
In Providence, David Morales, a 22-year-old activist backed by the local DSA, ousted incumbent representative Daniel McKiernan. In a campaign mailer, McKiernan had accused Morales of being “part of a national trend by the far left to gain influence in states such as ours.” But if there was a trend, it was coming from communities within Rhode Island.
In Cranston, Brandon Potter, a former car salesman who lost his job during the pandemic, ousted a one-term Democrat by 19 points. In Central Falls, city councilor and Brown PhD student Jonathon Acosta beat the incumbent candidate by 11 points. In East Providence, Cynthia Mendes, a single working mother running with the RIPC, won perhaps the most stunning upset of the primary, ousting the Senate finance committee chairman by over 20 percentage points. As Mendes told The Nation: “If you’re not working for people, you will be replaced.”
Rhode Island’s Democratic Party machine stands out, even among New England’s notorious array, for its conservatism and corruption. The Democratic Party controls state politics, and one person effectively controls the Democratic Party: House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello. The legislature’s rules are written to require the speaker’s (or Senate president’s) approval for bills to leave committee, and the speaker controls millions of dollars of funds to allocate to legislative districts.
The party’s stronghold has long extended to primary elections. Party-endorsed candidates appear on the primary ballot with a star next to their name—Rhode Island is one of two states to allow this practice—and leadership PACs donate tens of thousands of dollars to their allies’ campaigns. In 2018, the Democratic Party endorsed Michael Earnheart, a Trump-supporting challenger, against the incumbent representative, Moira Walsh, who frequently opposed the speaker.
Over the past decade, this faction has used its power to block legislation to raise the minimum wage to $15, prevent action on climate change, and forestall gun safety laws, all while passing budgets that cut Medicaid and grant corporate tax breaks.
In response, the state’s progressive organizations have coalesced around running Democrats with platforms aligned with the growing left-wing coalition within the national party: Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, a $15 minimum wage, and public investments in affordable housing. “Over and over, we kept advocating for the same types of issues, and nothing was happening,” said Leonela Felix, who challenged Raymond Johnston Jr., an incumbent ally of the speaker of the house.
When Johnston voted against a bill to codify abortion rights into state law, Felix decided to take action. She linked up with the Working Families Party and went on to win her primary by almost 20 percentage points.
Many of these candidates, like progressive challengers around the country, were galvanized by Bernie Sanders’s 2016 run. That year, Sanders’s 12 percentage point victory over Hillary Clinton in Rhode Island revealed a statewide appetite for progressive, anti-establishment candidates.
“We sent a message tonight that Rhode Islanders want their elected officials to support working families,” said former state representative Aaron Regunberg at a primary watch party in April 2016. Regunberg was one of only a handful of state legislators in Rhode Island who had endorsed Sanders during his first run.
Some progressive organizations picked up on this momentum, like the Working Families Party, which ran winning campaigns for four candidates in state Democratic primary elections later that summer. Regunberg himself added further proof of this statewide progressive base in 2018 with a run for lieutenant governor, losing to the incumbent by just two percentage points.
Despite winning a few seats, Rhode Island’s left could not convert this nascent wing of the state Democratic Party into any real political force at the statehouse. While Regunberg and other elected allies from the Working Families Party passed the first tipped minimum wage increase in decades, and a law granting workers up to 40 hours of paid sick leave per year, they were blocked from passing any sweeping progressive reform by Speaker Mattiello and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, both of whom maintained power over the legislature.
After the 2018 elections, however, three progressive Democrats who had lost their primaries launched the Rhode Island Political Cooperative. It advanced a new strategy: recruit as many candidates for the statehouse, and even town and city councils, to challenge incumbent Democrats. They didn’t zero in on the seats of party leaders, nor even the candidates with the most egregious voting records, but sent a different message: They would replace any Democrat not willing to vote out the statehouse leadership.
In one case, that even meant targeting one of the more progressive voices in the statehouse: Senate Finance Committee Chair William Conley Jr., whom Mendes ousted in her primary upset. Conley had led the push in the statehouse to raise taxes on the wealthy and sponsored legislation to expand the state’s earned income tax credit. But in spite of concessions to progressive policy, his loyalties ultimately seemed to belong to the statehouse leadership. “He has created his reputation of not listening to his community,” Mendes said, referring to Conley’s support for a controversial development project, “and not actually fighting. And people are ready for fighters.”
Potter, the former car salesperson running with the RIPC, said that taking on Democratic leadership allowed him to run a progressive campaign in a more conservative suburban district. He said that there is a sense of dissatisfaction with the state’s government that isn’t attached to a single event or policy. “Even if they can’t see it,” he said of the voters he spoke with, “they feel it, they smell it.”
Two traumatic events prompted Potter’s run: His employer, the Herb Chambers car dealership run by the titular billionaire, closed the location where Potter worked during the pandemic, and his girlfriend was removed from a kidney-transplant waiting list. Potter attempted to contact his district’s representative, Christopher Millea, but couldn’t even get in touch. He made the decision to challenge a member of his own party and joined the slate of RIPC candidates. “People don’t know their representatives, they don’t know what they are working on,” Potter said, “We literally and figuratively do not have a government working for us.”
Another factor helped push some of these progressives to victory: the support of the local chapter of the SEIU, which represents many of Rhode Island’s nursing home workers. Nursing home workers had been advocating for safe staffing levels in nursing homes for years and saw some of the nation’s highest nursing home death rates at the outset of the pandemic. However, the state legislature halted its session early in March as the pandemic was breaking out, and has reconvened only once since then, for a couple of days, to pass a supplemental budget.
After the state Senate passed safe-staffing legislation this spring, for the second year in a row, it was dead on arrival at the state House of Representatives. “We can’t let politicians do that without there being repercussions,” SEIU spokesperson Adanjesus Marin told The Nation. “For far too long, Democratic politicians in the state have taken for granted that unions, including the SEIU, will automatically support them when they are in office.”
The last straw was when Representative Raymond Johnston Jr., who had denied efforts at contact by the SEIU, turned his attention to another matter. “Instead of addressing staffing and the impacts of Covid on his community,” Marin said, Johnston “was campaigning to ensure that out-of-state golfers could play golf during the shutdown.” The SEIU 1199 endorsed both Felix and Potter, knocking almost 3,500 and over 9,500 doors in each district, respectively, according to the union.
While the state’s labor unions have historically been hesitant to endorse challengers to state house leadership, the stakes have been raised. “If we only stick to the pool of seasoned politicians, who for years and years led in being moderates, and have lots of seniority but not much to show in terms of them taking a stand against the many threats we are facing today, we are going to be hamstrung,” Marin said.
Despite leadership’s stronghold on the statehouse, the most recent slate of progressive challenges showed that a focus on the pillars of a good ground game—constant door knocking and voter outreach, even during the pandemic—can make inroads on a state party complacent against rare challengers. David Morales, the 22-year-old DSA candidate, said his campaign knocked on every door in his district at least twice, and many voters he spoke with didn’t even know who their current incumbent was.
Based on this model, little-known candidates like Lenny Cioe, a nurse who came within 341 votes of unseating the senate president, have laid the groundwork for the next election cycle. And others are setting their sights on statewide offices, both in the statehouse, where Governor Gina Raimondo is term-limited, and where Regunberg is eyeing a second run at lieutenant governor; and in Congress, where hawkish corporate-Democrat Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse are frequent targets of progressive criticism, yet have never faced a serious primary challenge.
Beyond this electoral approach, Rhode Island’s progressive network is focused on how to organize this newly elected bloc of progressive politicians into legislative power. With Rhode Island staring down hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue due to Covid-19 and the economic crisis, Reclaim RI’s first focus is stopping the budget cuts that Governor Raimondo has promised are inevitable. “This budget’s going to be brutal,” Raimondo said in May. “Everyone’s going to be unhappy. Everything is on the table. Everything.”
Now, with a large enough progressive coalition in the state senate to block a budget, Reclaim RI’s anti-austerity campaign seems possible. Already, the newly elected state representatives are spreading the message that cuts aren’t inevitable, and there are progressive ways to balance a budget. As Morales said from the statehouse steps in a post-victory press conference, “Our people know that they deserve better.… last week’s primary election demonstrated this because across the state we elected advocates who will stand against austerity budgets and fight for investments.”