As former Secretary of State Matt Brown enters the gubernatorial race I have begun to watch the primary debate more closely.
Matt’s argument is simple: He is campaigning on the issues – of which most American voters consider to be the core message of the Democratic Party. His strong opposition to Medicaid cuts, his call for repealing the tax cuts for the rich, and his passion for the environment mirrors the spirit of politicians like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Barack Obama. They also draw a clear contrast with the incumbent, Governor Gina Raimondo. A policy-based argument may seem unusual to Rhode Islanders but it is standard for Democrats in states with a less broken Democratic Party.
The incumbent’s argument is not so clear. The usual arguments for establishment candidates in Democratic primaries do not work for Raimondo. What is the argument for Raimondo?
First, there is the electability argument, the core argument of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 Presidential primary campaign. At this time in 2016, Clinton had a 6-point lead nationally over Donald Trump, while Raimondo currently has a 2.5-point lead over Cranston Mayor Allan Fung. Raimondo is trailing Fung by a whopping 12 percent in one critical area: independents. Unaffiliated voters make up half of the state’s registered voters, so it is no surprise that the Republican Governor’s Association is targeting Rhode Island. Winning with a mere 40 percent plurality in 2014, and standing in a statistical dead-heat with scandal-tarred Fung, Raimondo is an extremely weak Democratic nominee. In a state as blue, and as progressive, as Rhode Island, Raimondo’s conservative policies do not attract unaffiliated voters. And those same conservative policies have caused so much harm to some families that a handful of loyal Democrats are looking for anyone other than Raimondo. Electability is surely in favor of challenger Matt Brown.
The argument I am most partial to is getting more women elected. Feminists agree that political representation is crucial in achieving equity, and most feminists also agree that gender identity is not a magical key that unlocks total feminist enlightenment, or the right to every woman’s vote. The woman argument falls short for Raimondo, who enacted abortion restrictions in Rhode Island after only 6 months in elected office and is listed as “mixed-choice” by NARAL. When a woman falls short on choice, the candidate who is strongest on choice is the better candidate for feminists, even if they happen to be a man. Simply put, Matt Brown is a man who is more pro-choice than Raimondo.
Regarding the argument that Democrats, progressives in particular, should embrace incrementalism and support moderate but well-meaning establishment candidates, Raimondo fails to deliver even moderate incremental change. Enacting abortion restrictions, repeatedly gutting Medicaid, aggressively funding corporate welfare projects, decimating hard-earned pensions, and pushing dirty fossil fuel power plants in Burrillville and South Providence are undeniably right-wing initiatives, not groundwork for incrementalist Democratic change. Hillary Clinton’s slow but positive progressive achievement is the Children’s Health Insurance Program, a meaningful expansion of Medicaid. Raimondo’s legacy will be devastating Medicaid cuts. Matt Brown is to the left of Raimondo because of her extreme conservative agenda, not because he is shooting too high.
The argument that establishment Democrats are superior managers with a greater likelihood of policy success is laughable if applied to Raimondo. UHIP, DCYF, pensions, and I-195 have become buzz words signaling catastrophic administrative failures on Raimondo’s watch. Matt Brown’s track record as Secretary of State is credible and impressive.
The last, and perhaps the most important, argument is that establishment Democrats evolve, adopting progressive agendas as they become popular. In most cases, this argument can protect a candidate from their political past by claiming they grew from those teachable experiences. In 2014, Raimondo ran in support of granting drivers licenses to undocumented immigrants. Taking it a step further, she signed a poster board-sized pledge promising to issue licenses by executive order within a year, yet never followed through. Put simply, no one trusts her. And why would they? Raimondo explicitly broke the promise on licenses and back-stepped on her promise to both raise the minimum wage and index it to inflation. Voters have little reason to trust new progressive promises put forward by Raimondo. As Rhode Island’s political climate grows more progressive by the minute, Matt Brown’s proven record on progressive issues and his trustworthiness make him poised for high favorability among the majority of Rhode Island voters.
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What arguments have been made against Matt? It starts with a handful of shallow personal attacks on the projects Matt has been working on since 2006. Rather than commending Matt’s effort to eliminate nuclear weapons globally, Raimondo’s first comment on her primary challenger to Patrick Anderson of the Providence Journal was, “If he cared about Rhode Island I think he would have been here the last 10 years working in Rhode Island.” Coming from a governor who moved her venture capital firm out of the state in 2012 and routinely fundraises from corporate interests in big cities like Chicago, this attack is not only shallow but also tone-deaf as the President comes closer to starting a nuclear world war over Twitter each day.
Next came criticisms on Matt’s salary. Talk on personal finances should be an obvious weakness for Raimondo, hardly a smart platform to spar on. Any critique on Matt’s salary while working for a pro-peace charity is hypocritical and hollow considering Raimondo earned far more while working for a controversial private equity firm.
Again and again, the arguments for Raimondo are either baseless or rooted in personal attacks. After nearly 4 years of waging a war on the social safety net Democrats have spent years building, her extreme right-wing policies have pushed her so far to the right of the Democratic primary electorate that the usual arguments for an establishment candidate simply do not work for Raimondo in 2018.
So I have a challenge for my fellow Democrats (and unaffiliated voters) planning to cast a ballot for Raimondo over Matt Brown in the September primary: Say why.