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Georgia Hollister Isman: Primary was a great night for Working Families Party and for the values we stand for

Yesterday’s primary was a whirlwind, and a wet one at that. There were many great victories and a few sad loses, but on the whole, it was a great night for Working Families Party and for the values we stand for — social, racial, and economic justice.

We should be proud of our work to recruit and train candidates and campaign leaders, develop strong campaigns, and mobilize progressive activists and voters. In 2016, we took on four conservative Democratic incumbents with progressive challengers and won all four races. This year, we are taking that demand for bolder progressive Democrats statewide, defending our 2016 victors from conservative backlash, and looking to expand the total number of seats held by progressives in both the House and the Senate.  

There are a lot of progressive voters out there

With Aaron Regunberg’s bid for Lieutenant Governor, we waged our first statewide campaign for a bold progressive champion and taking on an entrenched incumbent statewide. We lost narrowly. But the strength of this campaign and the sheer numbers of voters who choose a vision of state government focused on bold policy and real democracy should be very encouraging. There is a popular myth that Rhode Islanders are conservative Democrats. While that may be true of most politicians, there is a huge base of progressive voters who are energized by real progressive champions. We’ve seen this over and over again in smaller races. Even though he didn’t quite overcome the incumbent advantage, establishment support, and dark money from out-of-state millionaires, Aaron showed us just how widespread this support actually is.

Campaigns are stronger than before

We have more priority races than we did in 2016, but each campaign is each stronger on their own than they were two years ago. This is in large part because of the training and development work that we have been doing throughout the off-season. Rhode Island Working Families Party has held eight trainings since the last election, educating not only candidates but also campaign managers and workers. Many more of these campaigns are being led by local leaders who have taken the time to learn about the tools it takes for progressives to mobilize voters and win. Beyond training, Rhode Island Working Families Party supported our endorsed candidates with campaign consultation, a vigorous texting program, and recruiting volunteers to put feet to the street to educate voters about these progressive champions. Strong grassroots campaigns mattered a lot last night too. It is notable that running on a similar message to Aaron Regunberg, lots of our local champions — Laufton Ascencao, Liana Cassar, and Marcia Ranglin-Vassell to name a few — won by wide margins. The difference was their ability to deliver their message directly to voters one-on-one.

We are taking on serious, and misguided, backlash from the establishment

I hoped, and really believed, that after witnessing victories like Marcia Ranglin-Vassell’s and Moira Walsh’s in 2016, Democratic Party leaders would clearly see the demand for a bolder economic justice agenda. For a while it seemed like leadership was responding; our paid sick days win seemed to be an example of this. But this year, our 2016 champions were challenged by more conservative candidates, who were more and less openly supported by the Democratic leadership. As a result we’ve spent far more energy defending these great women incumbents then we should have had to. Nevertheless, Representative Ranglin-Vassell’s and Representative Walsh’s victories clearly show that voters appreciate these women’s values, their clear and outspoken advocacy for them, and their willingness to take on the leadership.

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Voters want progressive policies and real democracy

So many of the conversations I’ve had with voters this year, and the ones I’ve heard candidates recount, make it clear that voters care about and are paying attention to the lack of action at the State House. They are also deeply frustrated with the culture of backroom deals and the sense that a well-connected corporate lobbyist can hold back even the most common sense reform. They aren’t wrong — the late night gutting of our fair pay bill which actually weakened the position of many women is the prime example of this. Voters agree with us on big policy issues, and they are seeing what we see when it comes to how the State House works — or fails to.

Here, as across the country, women candidates are on the rise

In 2016, we noted the strength of the women among our candidates. That is even more true today, with great new leaders who come out of activism like Bridget Valverde, Liana Cassar, and Rebecca Kislak winning their primaries. More women are running in Rhode Island than ever before — as we have been seeing across the country. And with few exceptions, they are champions for working families.

The legislature will be more progressive in 2019 than it is today    

Both in the Senate and House, more conservative members have stepped down (often in the face of strong challengers from the left). The Working Families candidates running in open seats won huge victories, thanks to platforms more in line with their district’s progressive values and strong grassroots campaigns. We will go into the 2019 legislative session with more supporters than ever of a $15 an hour minimum wage, a strong fair pay bill, a woman’s right to choose, immigrant rights, and a more progressive tax system. Our work continues to tip the balance of power in the State House toward a system that puts working families first.

About the Author

Georgia Hollister Isman is the State Director of the Working Families Party.