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What does it mean to be a Democrat?



Arthur Corvese

The Platform Committee of the Rhode Island Democratic Party (RIDP) is supposed to be putting together a document that expresses the Party’s values for 2018 and beyond. But the process quickly exceeded that mandate, taking on the issue of what the Democratic Party in Rhode Island, described by Party Chair Joseph McNamara as a “big tent,” actually stands for on a fundamental level.

Tolulope Kevin Olasanoye, executive director of the RIDP, said that to him, the platform is an expression of Democratic Party values. But he acknowledged that members of the party have “a lot of different opinions about a lot of different issues.” This wide variance of opinion is evident in the makeup of the Platform Committee itself which includes Our Revolution and Rhode Island Progressive Democrats of America member District 40 Committeewoman Lauren Niedel and Representative Arthur Corvese (Democrat, District 55, North Providence), who has submitted legislation against immigration, abortion and LGBTQ rights. Olasanoye said the present platform encompasses the “complete spectrum” of Democratic opinion on the issues.

The intent is to improve the Party Platform, last updated in 2016, because much of what interests Democrats today is not included, including immigration, labor, second amendment issues, voting rights and more. At the meeting, attendees were encouraged to express their opinions about what should or should not be included in the document, and also their ideas on what values are common to all Democrats.

The “big tent” is what it is, said Corvese, “through ethnicity, through religion, through a lot of social changes over the last 60 years. But the big tent, and I am only speaking for my self, the big tent is one of the main reasons the Democratic Party has been successful.”

Platform committee member Hilary Levey Friedman broadcast the platform committee meeting on Facebook live, and noted that one viewer had quipped that people should take a drink anytime anyone said, “big tent.”

Gun control, immigration, equal pay, net neutrality, paid family leave, contraceptive equity, Roe v Wade protections, $15 minimum wage, the tipped minimum wage exception, anything about people with disabilities, education, Latino education, support for public schools, affordable housing, public transit, LGBTQ foster care and adoption, eliminating poverty, workplace democracy or worker coops, anti-Capitalism, publicly funded elections, predatory lending practices, clean energy initiatives, support for small businesses and sexual harassment are just a few of the ideas suggested for inclusion by the several dozen people in the room.

Things took a turn when attendee Kaki Accola asked if elected Democrats were going to be somehow be held to the platform. “No,” said Corvese immediately, as others shook their heads. “Not yet!” said Capri Catanzaro from the back of the room, optimistically.

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“We’re mostly Democrats in Rhode Island,” said Accola, “But a lot of Democrat politicians don’t look like Democrats to me.”

“It’s up to individual legislators to explain to their constituents what their positions are and how they reconcile what their positions are with this particular document,” said Olasanoye.

“I would have no problem signing onto a pledge that I support the platform,” said Senator Jeanine Calkin (Democrat, District 30, Warwick). “It would at least let voters know that I believe in the platform.”

“I feel that funding and official party endorsement” should be made contingent upon following the party platform in some way,” offered Anne Holland.

A woman named Anna said that she is a registered Independent, because the Democratic tent is, “too big for me and far more right than I am ever willing to sign onto.”

Mary was at the meeting to advocate for a more progressive Democratic Party. She became involved in part because her neighbor, a Democratic Committeeman living in Warwick, had a Donald Trump sign on his lawn. There were gasps, knowing laughter, and sarcastic cries of “big tent” in response to her revelation.

“I have a question, and I’m not trying to be snarky,” I said, when my turn to speak came around. “What would I have to believe, before I disqualify myself as a Democrat? You know, if I can put a Trump sign on my lawn, if I can be pro gun, anti abortion, anti LGBT – I can be pro PayDay lending – What would I have to believe before you say, ‘You know, you’re not really a Democrat, under this umbrella.’ What would exclude me? And if we can’t answer that question, then the whole idea of an umbrella is meaningless. We’re just a group of people who get together and say ‘Democrat’ is our name. Might as well say ‘American’ or ‘human.’ Because there’s no meaning to the word Democrat at that point.”

Access to the Democratic Party was also an issue. The party’s offices, in Warwick, are nearly a mile from the nearest bus stop. “If this is the Democratic Party and we’re supposed to be representing everybody, this place is not easy to get to,” said a woman, adding that the location is not easily accessed by the disabled and that the party platform handout was in English only. “I’d like to see a lot more accessibility. We are the party of the people.”

The next three scheduled meetings are April 9, May 14, and June 4, locations to be determined. The members of the committee are Arthur Corvese, Hilary Levey Friedman, Senator Cynthia Armour Coyne (Democrat, District 32, Barrington), Lauren Niedel, Robert Farrell, Charon Rose, Anthony DeRose, Representative Marvin Abney (Democrat, District 73, Newport), Stephen Mulcahey and Sandra Cano.

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About the Author

Steve Ahlquist is Uprise RI's co-founder and lead reporter. He has covered human rights, social justice, progressive politics and environmental news for nearly a decade.