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The National Director of the Working Families Party wants to shatter politics as usual in Rhode Island



A conversation with Maurice Mitchell, National Director of the Working Families Party about the minimum wage, holding elected officials accountable, and electing true progressives that fight for the values of the people…

“I’ve been criss-crossing the country for the past 11 months visiting our state operations,” said Maurice Mitchell, National Director of the Working Families Party (WFP) on a visit to Rhode Island Tuesday night. “The work that’s happening in Rhode Island is really exciting. We’re relatively new in Rhode Island but we’ve been involved in a few cycles of races that I think have really made a difference in the legislature and we’re seeking to deepen that change.”

Mitchell was meeting and greeting WFP supporters at Xaco Taco in Providence. Our short conversation quickly turned to the minimum wage, and efforts to pass a $15 minimum wage here in Rhode Island.

Connecticut and Massachusetts have both passed a $15 minimum wage, Rhode Island has yet to do that,” said Mitchell. “The people of Rhode Island are really progressive, so we need to make sure that the legislature is advancing the popular will of the people, and we think that Working Families has a unique role to play in that.

“This year Rhode Island didn’t pass any increase in the minimum wage at all,” I offered.

“And that’s unacceptable,” said Mitchell. “A lot of people think of the Northeast as being this progressive bastion, right? And many national organizations that have a national footprint ignore states like Rhode Island because they just assume that these places have Democratic legislatures, Democratic governors and therefore progressive values are being reflected in the governance.

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“And that’s not always the case,” continued Mitchell. “You need a grassroots army of committed people, and institutions that are deeply accountable to them, constantly pushing on the levers of government in order for government to really be accountable. That’s true in blue states, that’s true in swing states, that’s true in red states. Those dynamics don’t change.

“Having a D next to your name doesn’t tell the full story about who you are as an elected official and whether or not you’re truly accountable.”

Mitchell has spent twenty years working as a community organizer, electoral operative and social movement strategist. He grew up in Long Beach, on the South Shore of Long Island, New York, the son of Caribbean immigrants. His mother was a nurse and his father an electrician, both union members.

“I think there are a lot of exciting things to talk about over the next few years,” said Mitchell. “In Providence, because of term limits [for the Mayor’s office and the City Council], it creates an opportunity for a new crop of leaders to take the reins of City government. And we think that in 2020, there are a number of opportunities for progressives to take power in the [State] legislature.

“So we’re going to be very, very aggressive over the balance of 2019 into 2020 recruiting and identifying people to run really groundbreaking legislative battles all around the state,” continued Mitchell. “[We’ll] be ensuring that a very progressive state, in terms of the population, is being true to the progressive promise of where the population is already.”

“A lot of people have noticed the disconnect between the Democratic leaders of the state, and the people of the state, who have very different values,” I said. “Representative Dennis Canario just quit his local Democratic Town Committee over differences between his stance on guns and budget policy.”

“It’s really about being accountable to where everyday people are,” said Mitchell. “I think the disconnect that you’re experiencing is a broader disconnect in our larger politics, where our politics are disconnected from everyday people because our politics have become so corporately captured.

“In many ways our politicians are living on an island, and they’re insulated from the problems and concerns of regular people,” continued Mitchell. “They are able to get elected and re-elected due to the power of incumbency and because they have access to resources from moneyed interests.

“We want to shatter that and hold them accountable.

“We can do that through very thoughtful electoral strategies including primarying people who are way out of touch, who are not heeding the concerns of their constituents, or, who are heeding the concerns of corporate interests that aren’t really accountable to everyday people,” said Mitchell.

“You came to see how the local, Rhode Island WFP is doing, so what’s your assessment?” I asked.

“I’m really excited and encouraged,” said Mitchell. “I think the work that [State Director] Georgia [Hollister Isman] and the staff is laying down over the past few cycles and the wins that we’ve had – You know, honestly, because we are a relatively new presence in Rhode Island, I think initially many people in the political class maybe didn’t take us seriously.

“I think they take us seriously now.”

You can donate to the efforts of the Rhode Island Working Families Party here.

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Steve Ahlquist is a frontline reporter in Rhode Island. He has covered human rights, social justice, progressive politics and environmental news for half a decade. Uprise RI is his new project, and he's doing all he can to make it essential reading.