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Primary Concerns

This month’s primary could redefine what it means to be a Rhode Island Progressive in Trump’s America

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By the time Rhode Islanders head to the polls to vote in the primaries on September 12, Democrats across the country will have a good idea of just how wide their party’s tent has become. But as one of the last primary states in 2018, Rhode Island could serve as a final test case for the expansive ideological menu offerings from multiple factions within the party.

The contest of ideas that primaries are designed for will give Democrats in Rhode Island the option of sticking with pragmatic incumbents like Governor Gina Raimondo and Lieutenant Governor Daniel McKee, or backing progressives who are dead set on shaking up the status quo like Matt Brown and State Representative Aaron Regunberg.

Down the ticket, particularly in Providence, there are challengers taking on liberal lawmakers from the right, including a former President Donald Trump supporter who managed to win the Democratic endorsement over progressive Representative Moira Walsh until the party backed off out of embarrassment.

So why are these primaries so contentious and what message are Democrats sending as they head into the November election?

“I think primaries are opportunities for the Democratic Party to have a conversation about where we’re going and how fast we’re going to go there,” T. Kevin Olasanoye, executive director of the State Democratic Party, said in a recent interview.

Just as they have in campaigns throughout the United States this year, the topics in that conversation vary widely depending on the race. The performance of Trump is usually a mainstay among Democrats. Gun reform has also been a frequent talking point. But discussion over health care or the economy or schools can range from front-and-center to nonexistent in certain races.

In the gubernatorial primary between Raimondo, Brown, and former State Representative Spencer Dickinson, Raimondo has largely focused her energy on touting the state’s strong economy as the best reason to elect her to a second term. A former venture capitalist who cut her teeth in politics by leading the effort to reform the state’s pension system as treasurer, she has argued her approach has helped bring the unemployment rate back in line with the national average.

But Brown has found his niche by attacking Raimondo from the left, arguing that the governor has invested too much of her energy recruiting large corporations with tax incentives rather than focusing on bread-and-butter issues in the state. He is advocating for universal health care, driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, and a vast renewable energy program.

Raimondo has sought to counteract Brown’s criticism by highlighting her own progressive credentials, advocating for an expansion to the state’s free college program to include Rhode Island College and the University of Rhode Island, while promising to improve pay equity between men and women. But Brown’s promise to restore cost-of-living adjustments to pensioners positions him as the left’s clear alternative in the race.

The lieutenant gubernatorial primary pits the incumbent, McKee, a former Cumberland mayor who won the office in 2014 without support from organized labor, in the primary against Regunberg, a progressive darling who replaced the disgraced former Speaker Gordon Fox in House District 4 and successfully convinced his colleagues to support legislation that gave paid sick leave to thousands of Rhode Island workers.

McKee is well-liked among most of the state’s mayors, who view him as a strong partner at the State House. He has also spent his first term taking National Grid to task while trying to be an advocate for small businesses. Regunberg has raised a boatload of campaign money appealing to liberals who believe their voice is too often forgotten during contentious debates on Smith Hill.

But for the two major statewide office primaries – State Treasurer Seth Magaziner, Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, and Attorney General favorite Peter Neronha don’t have Democrat challengers – the actual policy differences between the candidates has played second fiddle to their personality differences. As Brown University, political science professor Wendy Schiller sees it, there is no singular issue driving the divide between Raimondo and McKee Democrats and Brown and Regunberg Democrats.

“I think there is a broader perception among younger Democrats that government is not working well enough in providing essential basic services such as a good education to average citizens and that long serving politicians are not sufficiently attentive enough to helping people who are not their donors or their friends,” Schiller said.

Schiller said the Democratic Party across the country is facing a challenge with voters who don’t feel as though they’ve recovered well enough from the Great Recession nearly a decade ago.

“But there is a basic disconnect between what incumbent Democratic officials are supporting and providing for people, and what people believe they are getting from government,” Schiller said. “It will be up to those incumbent Democrats to adapt their messaging to make it clear what they do accomplish, and who it helps.”

Incumbent Democrats have another challenge in Rhode Island: party leadership.

At a time where most of the excitement within the party nationally is coming from fresh faces like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 28-year-old female of Puerto Rican descent who unseated Caucus Chair Joe Crowley, one of the most powerful Democrats in Congress, in a primary earlier this year, Rhode Island’s Democrats are facing criticism for failing to embrace that liberal energy here at home.

In House District 3, the state party initially endorsed Michael Earnheart, who admits to voting for Trump in 2016, over incumbent Representative Moira Walsh, a single mother and former waitress who has been a critic of House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and other members of his leadership team. The move backfired, sparking outrage from elected officials and activists who came to Walsh’s defense. Even Congressman David Cicilline rebuked party leadership and offered to help Walsh’s re-election campaign.

The party ultimately rescinded the endorsement, but the damage was done. Still, some of the endorsement controversy coupled with other top-of-mind issues like a push for lawmakers like Regunberg to reconvene the General Assembly to pass the Reproductive Health Care Act in an effort to protect abortion rights as the spark the party needs heading into the fall.

Sulina Mohanty, who chairs the Women’s Caucus of the Rhode Island Democratic Party, said she is seeing more engagement in local politics. The Providence Journal has reported that 29 percent of the people who declared for Congress, statewide office, or the General Assembly were female, a record high.

“There are a lot more people paying attention to what’s happening in addition to people who are running for the first time,” Mohanty said in a recent television interview. “So I think eyes are open, people are paying attention to what’s happening, whereas before they might not have been engaged. And I think as we have more people engaged in the process, we’re going to have more outcry when things don’t go the way they’re supposed to.”

For Darrell West, vice president and director of governance studies at the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution and a long time Rhode Island political observer, everything goes back to the president.

West said Trump has changed the political turf even for Democrats, who appear to be moving to the left as a result of their unhappiness with his policies. While even conservative Democrats in Rhode Island are hesitant to embrace Trump, the primary could become a litmus test for how far candidates are willing to go to oppose the president.

“He has galvanized the progressive base and made people more willing to confront him,” West said. “Conventional politicians who are not tough on Trump will face some political exposure, especially within Democratic primaries, where liberals are more likely to vote.”

West predicted Trump’s impact on Democrats, let alone Republicans, could have a lasting impact.

“This is not just a minor turf war, but a shift in the underlying foundation of American politics,” West said. “It is the reason progressives have upset incumbents in several states and more Democrats are signing up behind progressive politics. Trump has dramatically altered the entire political landscape.”

No matter where they stand on the ideological spectrum, Olasnoye from the State Party said he’s hopeful Democrats can come together following the primary. As the son of Nigerian parents who sent their children to college on the Pell Grant, he said he’s confident the party’s broader values are still a winning message in Rhode Island.

The challenge is real. While the vast majority of Rhode Island’s elected officials will be Democrats heading into 2019, Raimondo is not a lock to hold on to the governorship in a rematch with Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, the presumed favorite on the Republican side. Similarly, Speaker Mattiello faces a credible Republican in Steven Frias.

Olasnoye said his mission is clear, no matter who wins in the primaries.

“The only thing I care about is the fact that Democrats have a vision for making the lives of working families and middle-class families better,” he said.