In one sense, there were no surprises at the 2018 Rhode Island Democratic Party State Committee Meeting on Sunday night. Everyone received their expected endorsement. In another sense, the evening was full of surprises.
The meeting was held to determine the Party’s endorsements for statewide offices. United States Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, United States Representatives David Cicilline and James Langevin, Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo, Lieutenant Governor Daniel McKee, Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea and State Treasurer Seth Magaziner all received their endorsements. They are all incumbents. Former United States Attorney Peter Nerhonha was endorsed for Rhode Island State Attorney General. Peter Kilmartin, who currently holds that position, is term limited and cannot run.
This was all according to plan.
What wasn’t according to plan was candidate Matt Brown‘s decision to not seek the endorsement towards the end of his speech. “Now, I’ve been around a while,” said Brown, “And I understand that the incumbent Governor gets the state committee’s endorsement. I’m not here to contest that. Mr Chairman, I formally withdraw my nomination from consideration.”
“I am here to ask for your nomination,” said Governor Raimondo when it was her turn at the microphone. “I’m not afraid of the vote. I’m here to ask for it. I don’t expect it to come to me, I expect to earn it.”
In fact, the incumbent always gets the endorsement.
After Brown and Raimondo made their speeches, Rhode Island Democratic Party Chair Joe McNamara asked for a motion for a roll call vote. That motion was made and seconded, but within seconds Michael Sepe of Cranston made a motion to table the roll call vote. McNamara either missed Sepe’s motion or ignored it. As Party Secretary Arthur Corvese began to call the roll for a vote, the room erupted.
Sepe approached McNamara and Corvese to press the case that his motion was ignored.
After consultation with parliamentarian Matt Jerzyk and Rhode Island Democratic Party Executive Director Kevin Olasanoye, McNamara said, “At that point, the motion was not recognized. We had already called for a vote.”
There were shouts of “No!” from many in attendance.
“Fairness, there’s transparency,” continued McNamara. “We’ll have a roll call vote.”
As Corvese rose to call the roll, some in the crowd repeated their objections. A man yelled, “This is insulting to us!”
“He withdrew his nomination. This is unnecessary,” said Jennifer Rourke from Warwick. “Someone needs to speak up.”
In the video, at the 5m mark, Executive Director Olasanoye can be seen talking to Rourke. Rourke said Olasanoye tried to silence her. Olasanoye says he was explaining the process to Rourke.
Corvese continued to call the roll. One person passed. Catherine Collette answered to her name saying, “I also pass because this is a waste of time and it’s very divisive!”
“Amen!” said a woman in the crowd, to applause. There were cries of “Shame!”
Corvese called Charlene Damiani, who answered, “Gina Raimondo, and I don’t know why we’re voting like this!”
Corvese continued to call the roll, and many in the room continued to express support for Raimondo, but control of the room was lost. Everyone seemed engaged in conversations. Many Raimondo supporters were accusing the Brown supporters of being afraid of a fair vote. Many Brown supporters maintained that the public vote for Raimondo, who was in fact contending for a endorsement in which she was unopposed, was akin to a loyalty oath.
The fact is that it wasn’t just Brown supporters who were upset, many Raimondo supporters objected to the roll call vote. They saw it as divisive and unnecessary. “You understand,” said a woman to me who an hour earlier had been outside holding a sign in support of Raimondo, “that I turned my back on the process, not the governor.”
At the ten minute mark, McNamara made a play for control. “If you want to have a conversation, please do not do it here.” Was McNamara aware that virtually the entire room was engaged in a conversation, not just those opposed to the roll call vote? McNamara continued, “We are conducting an election and we want people to be able to voice their vote. Very basic democracy… Could the sergeant at arms please instruct people to have conversations outside.”
I heard someone say that progressives are afraid of democracy.
Lauren Niedel, who had nominated Brown, cast the only vote for Matt Brown. There were three abstentions. [Edit: Niedel informs me that she has formally requested that her vote be changed from Matt Brown to an abstention.]
Then Raimondo received a standing ovation for her victory.
At the beginning of the event, Chair McNamara said a few words about the Rhode Island Democratic Party being an “extremely large tent.”
“We have more that unites us than divides us,” continued McNamara. “We have always had a liberal wing of the Democratic Party… The reason we are successful as a party is because we listen to each other, we respect each other…
“There is no litmus test for Democrats,” said McNamara. “People say we have two wings [in the Democratic Party]. I tell them it takes two wings to fly and that’s what makes us great.”
Later, as Secretary Corvese called the roll in what many saw as a move to put Brown and his supporters in their place, someone asked, “What about the two wings flying together?”
Like Sepe’s motion, that comment was either not heard or ignored.
Matt Brown issued a statement about what happened:
“Tonight’s convention demonstrated the deep divide in Rhode Island’s Democratic party. What was engineered as a coronation for Governor Raimondo descended into chaos and protest as a group of women turned their backs on the rigged proceedings, chanting ‘shame’ at the fixed process.
“Tonight’s debacle was befitting of an administration that has a troubling history of corruption and falsehoods. Party leaders held an endorsement vote between me and Governor Raimondo at the convention tonight despite my publicly stating that I did not put myself forward for endorsement. It was an outrageous, sham process.
“Insiders manipulated the process to stack the deck for Governor Raimondo, rather than mobilizing the party around our core Democratic values. This primary election will be a battle for the heart and soul of the Democratic Party and Rhode Island’s future. I intend to win it.”
Raimondo also accused Brown of lying. “By the way,” said Raimondo, “There were a number of lies and mistruths in what Mr Brown just said. I’m not going to waste my time addressing them here, but especially the couple hundred thousand dollars. It’s just a lie. You shouldn’t lie. You shouldn’t lie. You should at least tell the truth.”
Raimondo was taking Brown to task for saying, “A week ago Monday morning. Governor Raimondo went to Boston for a campaign, fundraising breakfast where she collected $200,000 for her campaign coffers. That fundraiser was hosted by Partners Healthcare.”
Partners Healthcare is a Boston based company looking to buy Care New England. Brown maintains that Rhode Island’s healthcare infrastructure is at risk of being absorbed by Boston based companies and that Raimondo receiving campaign contributions from these companies renders her biased and compromised.
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