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Editorial & Opinion

Rhode Island Democratic Party in need of internal reforms



The Rhode Island Democratic Party State Committee held their executive committee elections and yearly general meeting on Sunday, March 24th at the Portuguese Club in Cranston. The Committee members and guests totaled about 225 people and as in past meetings over 90 percent of those who attended were white and older.

Lauren Carson

The meeting was missing major Rhode Island Democrats. Governor Gina Raimondo, Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea and Congressman David Cicilline did not attend. Senators Sheldon Whitehouse, Jack Reed, Congressman James Langevin and Treasurer Seth Magaziner were present but left prior to the elections. Only Lieutenant Governor Daniel McKee stayed throughout most of the 3.5 hour meeting.

After the Secretary, State Representative Arthur Corvese, took the roll call to establish a quorum, elections commenced. First up, the election of the Chair of the party which pitted incumbent State Representative Joseph McNamara from Cranston/Warwick against State Representative Moira Walsh from Providence.

The roll call vote started after each candidates’ nominations and speeches. This is where the issues began: What needs to happen is a paper ballot vote. Committee members should be able to cast a ballot without worrying about possible repercussions. The roll call vote is about as undemocratic of a process as it gets. Since the voting starts with the current Executive Board, few dare to vote against the Chair and other high ranking members of the party. Of the 170 or so attending members Walsh received just 29 votes, and very few from sitting members on the General Assembly.

This was the pattern for the remaining 5 who went up against Chair McNamara’s chosen candidates. The same 30 or so committee members voted against the establishment candidates every time. The intimidation factor was felt by those taking a stand for change and not falling in line.

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The challengers all lost by large margins. In addition to Representative Moira Walsh, Representatives Lauren Carson and Teresa Tanzi also failed in their bids to change the dynamics of the party leadership. 2016 Bernie Sanders Delegates – Portsmouth Town Council member Linda Ujifusa and former State Senator Jeanine Calkin lost as did Shawna Rahini, who ran for treasurer. Their efforts, however, were gallant and will make a difference in the long term.

Joseph McNamara

During the speeches the opposition candidates did attempt to shed light on some of the ways that the party lacked transparency and why they ran. Issues included how during the 2018 primaries Chair McNamara overrode the wishes of some of the Representative District Committees and endorsed more conservative candidates against incumbents. Case in point the endorsement of Michael Earnhart, a MAGA hat wearing Trump supporter with a criminal past v Representative Moira Walsh. Representative Teresa Tanzi brought to light the fact that her opponent, Rep. Arthur Corvese, does not support the party platform especially regarding reproductive rights. Another point that was made and deeply troubling, was that Chairman McNamara appointed 24 new committee members prior to Sunday’s meeting. Many felt he was “stacking the deck” and those appointments should have waited until after the meeting.

In addition to these issues, candidates were stymied in their attempts to get an updated list of committee members and contact information. An email from the Executive Director, Tolulope Kevin Olasanoye to me, a committee member, stated, that, “Any candidate who declares will get the full list with contact info. Otherwise, we typically just share names and offices for privacy reasons.” A retraction was quickly made. Olasanoye explained that he misspoke and that only party member addresses would be provided – due to “privacy concerns”.

There is no room for that type of miscommunication from the Executive Director to any candidate and again shows a lack of transparency. At Sunday’s meeting members were given the opportunity to “opt in” with their contact information at point of registration. We will see if that information will be made available to all the committee members and the public. All other New England states post their committee list via their websites, why not RI?

These examples are some of the many reasons why the Rhode Island Democratic Party has a poor reputation, and why it is in dire need of a shakeup. The candidates who ran, had they won, would have instilled energy and enthusiasm and would have helped move the party in a positive direction. Instead, we have the same old party with some members in executive positions for almost a quarter of a century.

The final agenda item was voting for the 2018 Rhode Island Democratic Party State Platform. That was approved via a voice vote with no fanfare. It is doubtful that more than a handful of committee members even read it. The Executive Director did make a point to highlight new sections in the platform including, immigration and gun reform. Definitely a step in the right direction.

A last minute effort to insert additional New Business was dismissed by the Chair who had already declared the meeting over. The goal of the potential new business was to request that a committee be established to review the 2011 bylaws, by which these meetings are conducted as well as how the party is run. Not dealing with the motion at last night’s meeting means that the issue could lay dormant for a year or more unless a special meeting is convened or a committee is established behind the scenes.

Unity is important for Rhode Island Democrats, as it is for Democrats across the country. We all want to make sure that Trump is not reelected and that we take back the Senate, but it is also critical that leaders of the RIDP recognize that there is dissent for a reason. We all want the party to thrive, but its success and growth hinges on our party being open, transparent and really listens to those who seek change. Lip service is not acceptable. Actions are what we need to expand the party and to have it represent Rhode Island Democrats from all walks of life and the entire spectrum of registered Democrats – not just those who are in the rank and file and who are part of the establishment.

Moira Walsh and Teresa Tanzi

Lauren Niedel is currently a member of the RI Democratic State Committee - serving her 2nd term on the Platform Committee. She has been reelected for 2018-2022 session. She was also the State contact and delegate for the Bernie 2016 campaign.