When Sunrise Rhode Island visited the Rhode Island Democratic Party HQ to demand a Presidential Climate Debate, outgoing Executive Director Olasanoye pushed back

“We care about this issue and we’re going to do something about it. I can’t tell you what the DNC is going to do. I can’t tell you,” said Olasanoye. “As a matter of fact, I’m probably here to tell you that [the DNC is] likely not going to listen even if [the RIDP] agitate[s], even if we say something

Published on July 18, 2019
By Steve Ahlquist

“We care about this issue and we’re going to do something about it. I can’t tell you what the DNC is going to do. I can’t tell you,” said Olasanoye. “As a matter of fact, I’m probably here to tell you that [the DNC is] likely not going to listen even if [the RIDP] agitate[s], even if we say something publicly because the lens that they look at this through is a different lens than we look at it through. That said, the Chairman [Joseph McNamara] understands that this is an important issue and by the way, [DNC Chair] Tom Perez understands that this is an important issue. It’s not about the importance of Climate Change. It’s not about that Democrats don’t get how important this issue is.”

Members and allies of Sunrise Rhode Island, a youth-led campaign dedicated to stopping climate change and bringing racial, economic, and environmental justice to the forefront of our national discourse, entered the offices of the Rhode Island Democratic Party (RIDP) in Warwick yesterday to demand that the Democratic National Committee (DNC) listen to their base and center the ongoing climate crisis by voting in favor of a Climate Debate.

Young people, said the activists, are committed to making the climate crisis the central issue of this election cycle because climate change poses an existential threat to the lives and livelihoods of Rhode Islanders. Climate change is one issue which impacts all others. Sunrise has been working hard to pressure the DNC to align with the needs of its base and host a climate debate. Thanks to all of the hard work of activists across the country the DNC has agreed to vote on whether or not to host a climate debate. Sunrise RI was at the RIDP Offices to ensure that our state party publicly acknowledges support for that debate.

When the Sunrise Rhode Island members entered the offices, they were invited to wait in the lobby before speaking with Tolulope Kevin Olasanoye, Executive Director of the RIDP. Olasanoye is leaving that position soon to be the Executive Director of the New Jersey Democratic State Committee (NJDSC). The Sunrise RI members and allies introduced themselves and stated the reasons that they are concerned about climate change. Olasanoye entered the lobby just before the last introductions were completed.

I tried to flesh out the contours of the two sides of the conversation below.

“We’re Sunrise and like I stated before, we’re here because we need to talk about the climate crisis and we’re here to demand that the Democratic Party do something about it,” began the spokesperson or Sunrise.

“Hang on,” said Olasanoye. “Before we get started I want to thank you guys for being here. I didn’t expect this many folks. I also didn’t expect media. I was hoping to kind of have a conversation and that’s fine. Steve’s a friend and he does a good job, so please, go ahead with your presentation.”

“Hello Mr Olasanoye my name is Estrella Rodriguez, I live in Rhode Island, and we’re part of the Sunrise Movement’s campaign for a Climate Debate. We’re here today because we’ve witnessed the failure of the political leadership on climate for as long as I’ve been alive. The latest United Nations climate report says we have 11 years to radically and rapidly transform our society and our economy to address the climate crisis in order to protect human civilization as we know it. The science is undisputed. We have the technology, we have the money, and the public is overwhelmingly on our side. Now all that remains is to build a political will, which the Democratic Party has failed to do. We are part of Sunrise, a mass movement of young people trying to stop the climate crisis and create millions of good jobs in the process. We are here to say that the time for talking is over. Now is a time for action.

“This isn’t an isolated office visit,” continued Rodriguez. “Young people all across the nation are rising up and dictating that we need to have a Climate Debate. We demand that you publicly announce your support for the Climate Debate. We don’t want any more of your empty promises, your excuses. Our generation’s future is on the line, and if you don’t step up, we will have someone else who does.”

Kevin Olasanoye, Executive Director of the RIDP

“First of all, I think it’s super important that you guys are doing what you’re doing and that you’re involved in the process,” said Olasanoye, when asked for a response. “There are far too many people who believe that democracy is self-executing and that if they just do the bare minimum, which is show up to vote every two or four years, that things will just take care of themselves. I think what we’ve learned since 2016 is it’s going to take a whole lot more than that. So, whether its climate change or health care or affordable housing or any of the other issues that I think that people who, like yourselves, are gonna be looking at and confronting, I think it’s super-important that you’re here.

“We talked a little bit about the climate change debate and where I am, where I think the Rhode Island Democratic Party is – As you know, the DNC, in putting together their framework for Presidential Debates, has made the decision that they are going to do 12 debates, six this year and six next year. We’re in the middle of that process now. As I understand the process, and I’m not heavily involved in it, what the DNC does is they qualify the candidates based on the criteria and then they hand over the list of candidates to the TV networks and the TV networks are in charge of the production of the debates, including the questioning.

“So the DNC does not have a role in deciding what topics are brought up, how many of those topics are brought up, and for how long those topics are brought up, for just the 12 DNC sanctioned debates,” continued Olasanoye.

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“Now, all the presidential candidates, as I’ve been told, were made aware of that and agreed to that framework ahead of time, but that does not stop them from having or participating in what are called non-sanctioned forums that are on individual issues. I have seen, example, in South Carolina and other states around the country, conversations around police brutality and conversations around other issues, but they are just not DNC sanctioned debates, if that makes sense to folks.

“In terms of what you all would like to see, which is a climate change only debate, unfortunately, as executive director, I don’t have much of a say in that,” concluded Olasanoye. “I’m not a voting member of the DNC. My chairperson is, and he happens not to be here. But what I can tell you about Joe McNamara is that he understands that climate change is a very important issue. You guys should know that in the 2018 election cycle we added stronger language about climate change into our platform because we think that it’s a super-important issue and that people should be paying attention to it.”

“So important that no legislation got passed this year about climate change in Rhode Island?” asked an incredulous Nicole DiPaolo, a longtime Rhode Island activist and member of Sunrise Rhode Island. “When has Joe McNamara spoken out about the climate crisis and the action that Rhode Island needs to take?”

“Well,” replied Olasanoye, “I think that there are a number of opportunities for the Chairman to talk about a number of issues. He happens to be the chair of the [Health, Education and Welfare Committee in the House of Repesentatives] so it’s not his particular committee, although he has supported…”

“Climate change is a health issue,” interrupted DiPaolo. “Asthma is one of the leading causes of death in the entire world. The air is toxic. Right now, in South Providence, Shell is up for a permit for the air quality and they have always gotten it even though the air quality is toxic.It’s toxic air in South Providence, and National Grid just got a liquefaction facility approved because of suppression of health data from Department of Health.

“So that is the perfect committee for climate action to take place because this is a health issue overall.”

“Well,” said Olasanoye, “there is, at least in the House, there is [an Environment and Natural Resources Committee] committee where a lot of the climate change legislation and a lot of the pieces of policy related to climate change are actually…”

“It doesn’t have to be that way though…” said DiPaolo.

“Just just a minute, just just let me finish. I believe it is Chairman [David Bennett] from Warwick who is the chair of that committee, and there are a bunch of pieces of legislation that are there,” said Olasanoye. [Note: All he legislation died in committee during the last legislative session.] “If your frustration is about the lack of progress on climate change legislation, that is a different conversation, I think, than the one that you started with, so I’m trying to understand, what is your specific concern? Is your concern about the lack of addressing the issue of climate change globally or are we talking about specifically the presidential debate and wanting to have a presidential debate on climate change? Because those two things require different conversations.”

Yesenia Puebla

“I think you heard everyone sharing their story and the introduction and your response to that was kind of like wiping off the responsibility of the Democratic Party, of the of the politicians, and saying that it was up to the media and that the media has the part to play in these questions,” said Yesenia Puebla, who was managing the Sunrise presentation. “So then, I guess to answer the question – What we’re saying is we need the Democratic Party to stand up. We need the Democratic Party to announce their support for a Climate Debate because it’s not being discussed enough.

“We’re saying that you do have the power, that you going out, you publicly announcing to the DNC, to Tom Perez, to everyone who does have that power, that we really need this because Rhode Island is going to be affected by climate change just like the rest of the world, just like the rest of this country, and so it’s not really just up to the media, it’s also the party and the party needs to step up,” continued Puebla.

“With respect to presidential debates,” said Olasanoye, “I can’t speak for Joe McNamara. I can’t speak for the four DNC members that we have in Rhode Island, but here’s what my position: We should have as robust a policy debate about all the issues that people care about including climate change. I also don’t believe though, that we have enough time between now and next June to have a debate on every one of those issues singularly because we have 25 presidential candidates… and there’s just not enough time to be able to have all of the candidates talk about the issues that they care about in a singular fashion under the DNC’s current framework. That’s my personal opinion.

“I’m not a voting member of the DNC. I’m a staff person. So I’m happy to communicate how you guys feel to our DNC members.

“But what I will say to you is that if you just take that framework away for a minute and you’re talking about the issue of climate change, I don’t think there’s any doubt that the Rhode Island Democratic Party understands how important this issue is,” continued Olasanoye. “I don’t think that there’s any doubt that our members are representing how folks feel about climate change at the National Party. I don’t there’s any doubt about that. You may have disagreements of opinions based on things that have you seen but I know how Joe McNamara feels about this, I know how Grace Diaz feels about this I know how Joe Paolino feels about this and I know how Edna O’Neill Madsen, those are the four DNC members that we have in Rhode Island, feel about it.

“You should know that there are two resolutions about this issue scheduled to be before the DNC in August and so there will be a large conversation, I think, among the former DNC members about how Rhode Island is going to respond to this issue, but I have no doubt, I think that when it comes to understanding how important climate change is, and the effects it could have here in the Ocean State, that the Rhode Island delegation to the DNC understands that and will be making sure that your voices are heard at the larger DNC meeting,” concluded Olasanoye. “I can’t tell you what’s going to happen with the whole DNC membership but I can tell you that our four DNC members hear you loud and clear. They understand this and they’re going to be working on it among the body.”

“I think we need more than just understanding,” replied Puebla. “I think we need actual words. We need a confirmation. I think you just saying these words, they’re not going to soothe us because we need this to be said out loud, to the media. We need Rhode Island to back all of us up. We need the Rhode Island Democratic Party to back us up because Rhode Island is suffering. So I think I what you’re saying is that, yes, there’s things being done, but that’s not where we’re asking. We’re saying that that’s not enough. We’re saying that we need you to publicly say this. We need you to tell the DNC that citizens of Rhode Island, that us here, that we really care about climate change, about the climate crisis.

“I think you’re also saying that a climate debate isn’t necessary and we strongly oppose that because with the first debate that happened there were less than 15 minutes dedicated to the climate crisis, and so clearly not enough things are being discussed.

“This is like not a single issue. [It] affects communities in so many ways. It affects communities of color more, and low-income communities more than others. So we need to address this problem because it is the front line communities who are going to be most affected.” concluded Puebla.

“If you’re going to be fair, then what you’ll acknowledge is [that] I did not say that climate change is not important, because it is,” replied Olasanoye. “And I did not say that the Rhode Island Democratic Party is not fully supportive of finding a way to end or reduce climate change. I am not saying that. I am also not saying that a climate change debate is not necessary. That’s not my position, but it is also not my job as a staff person to make a public statement about climate change or the need for a climate change debate. That rests with the four folks that I talked about. I am happy, on your behalf, to go to them and say I met with a group of concerned citizens from Rhode Island who think this is a really important thing for you to be doing and to say something publicly. I will let them make the decision about what they think is in the best interest of the Rhode Island Democratic Party.

“But I want you to understand something: This is not adversarial,” continued Olasanoye. “You don’t have to lobby me on this idea. We’re both on the same side of the fence. The Republican Party does not believe in this, right? So have no doubt that the Rhode Island Democratic Party understands this and while we may not be able ,singularly, to get the DNC to change its mind about a climate change debate, we understand the need to be able to address this issue to address it quickly and expeditiously. I, as a staff person, will make sure that the Chairman is fully aware of the idea that there are folks not just you, but folks all across our state who think that this is an important issue, and that we need to be fighting to make sure that it gets that the attention that it deserves during this Presidential Contest.”

“Where we’re not on the same side of the fence is that talking about it, saying we understand, saying that we care, saying that this is an important issue,” said DiPaolo. “We equate that to taking time out of our day, taking time off of work, taking time at any moment that we can to be here, to stand here and to advocate for action, action now. Because we’ve known about climate change since 1992, even before that.

“We have understood and action hasn’t happened. We’ve been saying we need to take quick action. Everyone on this wall here [DiPaolo pointed to the pictures of Democratic State leaders on the walls of the lobby] has said we need to take quick action. Who here has gotten behind the action that is actually happening right now to mobilize, to create a plan to address this crisis? The Democratic Party is not doing that. We are not on the same side of the fence of what understanding and caring and calling this an important issue means.”

“Again I think you’re conflating the two issues,” said Olasanoye. “Are we talking about a climate debate or are we talking about climate policy, because I’m not understanding what action with respect to the climate debate that you’re looking for the Chairman to take. I heard you say that you’d like the Chairman to make a public statement that a Climate Change Debate is necessary and I am going to let him know precisely that. But if what you’re talking about is a policy conversation, which is a different conversation and not the premise of the meeting, then I’m confused. So help me understand.

“I’m sorry that I’m kind of speaking out of turn here,” said DiPaolo. “I’d like to connect the dots between taking climate action and taking action in the sense of having a debate that’s focused on the climate crisis. That is taking action. Speaking out to say we need to do this, that is taking action.

“We need to start talking about it now and taking action as in having those public public conversations and making that stance known… not just saying you, as the executive director, saying this is important to the Chairman but [the Chairman] actually coming out and demonstrating that it’s important by specifically calling for a debate…”

Olasanoye then spoke for an almost uninterrupted nine minutes. He noted that the debates were set up to best serve the best interests of the DNC and the presidential candidates.

“We don’t care about the candidates best interests,” said Liam, a member of Sunrise Rhode Island. “We care about our best interests.”

Later, Olasanoye made the case that regardless of who the DNC presidential candidate is or how that candidate is determined the DNC is the only option. “If you care about climate change, you ought to care that Donald Trump is not elected in 2020.”

When Puebla attempted to interrupt Olasanoye at the 8m40s mark in the video below, Olasanoye pushed back, implying that he had been misled about the nature of the meeting.

“This is not fair,” said Olasanoye. “You emailed me. You came to my office, you told me you wanted to have a meeting. You didn’t say anything about signs, you didn’t say anything about a demonstration, you didn’t say anything about inviting media, which again, I don’t have a problem with because Steve and I are good, but that’s not the premise of the meeting that I was told that we are having.

“We care about this issue and we’re going to do something about it. I can’t tell you what the DNC is going to do. I can’t tell you,” said Olasanoye. “As a matter of fact, I’m probably here to tell you that they are likely not going to listen even if we agitate, even if we say something publicly because the lens that they look at this through is a different lens than we look at it through. That said, the Chairman understands that this is an important issue and by the way, Tom Perez understands that this is an important issue. It’s not about the importance of climate change. It’s not about that Democrats don’t get how important this issue is.”

Sarah, a 15-year old high school student and organizer with Sunrise RI, then spoke.

Sammie connected the climate crisis to his experiences growing up in Syria, a war started due to drought and climate…

Puebla then spoke:

Estrella Rodriguez made the final statement, before Sunrise Rhode Island exited the meeting.

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