Politics & Elections

A progressive civil war or bump in the road?

Nell Salzman examines the truth behind the narrative of a ‘progressive civil war’ in Rhode Island…
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Published on December 9, 2021
By Nell Salzman

On December 2, the Huffington Post published an article by Daniel Marans analyzing the ways that the Rhode Island Political Cooperative (Co-op) is “driving a wedge between progressives.”

[This piece is being co-published by UpriseRI and The College Hill Independent]

Marans reported accusations that the Co-op—which puts pressure on long-standing conservative Democratic leaders in Rhode Island and takes positions that would make Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders proud—has a tunnel-visioned approach to campaign strategy and unrealistic expectations of what progressives can accomplish in Rhode Island.  He critiques the Co-op’s “top-down” strategy, litmus test nomination techniques, and candidate vetting process. Pointing to internal conflicts within the Co-op, Marans questions whether taking uncompromising stances on progressive issues and employing hard-edged political strategies to translate them into law causes more harm than help. 

Marans’ piece makes clear that the Co-op has been making progressive strides in Rhode Island since 2019, electing ten progressive candidates to state and local office last year—two for City Council, five for State Senate, and three in the State House. In a recent special election, however, the Co-op-endorsed candidate, Geena Pham, was defeated in the five-person Senate race on the East Side of Providence to replace Gayle Goldin. Pham and Jacob split the more progressive democratic vote 982 to 908, losing to Democrat Samuel D. Zurier, who got 1,282 votes.

Jacob and Pham had similar campaign platforms—investing in public schools, implementing the Green New Deal in Rhode Island, and fighting for affordable housing. Jacob told the Providence Journal he was committed to turning progressive action into policy that benefits the under-represented; Pham said that what set her apart from the other candidates was her anti-establishment stance. As a former member of City Council, Zurier touted his experience working with finances and city bureaucracy. After the election, Zurier publicly acknowledged that even though he won, two-thirds of the voter base did not swing for him, according to the Providence Journal

The loss has touched off a debate––reported in detail by Morans––about how the broader progressive community can collaborate instead of compete, and whether they should. 

The Co-op operates under two major tenets: it offers campaign services and it creates a deep community of candidates who can rely on and help each other. Ultimately, through these mechanisms offer support, the Co-op allows those who have typically been left out of the electoral process—working class people—to have a fairer chance of competing in legislative elections around the state. 

In Pham’s race, Co-op staff members and volunteers came together to help knock on doors. “As a first-time candidate and a full-time teacher, I couldn’t take two months off of work to campaign,” Pham told the College Hill Independent. “The Co-op staff and members supported me all the way through my campaign, helping with everything I needed.” 

Pham explained that although she applied for the Working Families Party (WFP) endorsement, she didn’t end up getting it. WFP refused to endorse Pham; instead, they chose to endorse Bret Jacob. “Jacob had a longer track record of community leadership on [progresssive] values, deeper ties to the east side and Senate District three, and demonstrated eagerness to be a wfp candidate and further build the party with us,” Zack Mezera, organizing director for the WFP, told the Indy. He explained that the WFP tries to recruit and endorse candidates who are the most aligned with the party. 

For the 2020 election, Mezera elaborated, it chose candidates who were identified with the Political Co-op, UPRISE, labor unions, and more. For the special election specifically, WFP recruited people from the community to be part of the endorsement process. Community members looked at questionnaires and feedback from WFP leadership on the East Side in order to come to the decision to endorse Jacob. “There were multiple strong progressives and it wasn’t an easy choice,” Mezera told the Indy. “But I think the important thing is that wherever individual groups landed, the demands across the East Side for urgent action—to end homelessness, stop climate change, reform the criminal justice system, and tax the rich—were very clear. Whoever won, Zurier in this case, needs to follow through on those priorities.” 

Though the WFP backed Co-op candidates in 2020, their lack of collaboration with Pham likely hindered the progressive movement in this specific race. According to Co-op spokesperson Camilla Pelliccia, Pham was endorsed by Reclaim RI, Sunrise RI Youth, Sunrise PVD, BLM RI PAC, Climate Action RI, and the RI Democratic Women’s Caucus. Pelliccia reiterated to the Indy that the division was not for Pham’s lack of trying: “We were disappointed that Geena did not win the Senate District Three race, but it was certainly not because she—or the rest of the Co-op community—was unwilling to work with other progressive organizations.” 

Observers point out that Pham’s race was only one contest in an off-year election, making it a weak barometer for the state of progressive politics in Rhode Island, but the division still raises questions about how a unified collaboration between organizations can be achieved in the future—as well as questions about who determines what is and isn’t “progressive” in Rhode Island. The real arbiters of progressivism, according to Pelliccia, are voters in the districts. These are the people that the Co-op is interested in representing. “The Co-op’s mission is to elect a governing majority to oust the current corrupt, conservative Speaker and Senate President and pass a platform that ensures that every single Rhode Islander has a livable wage, housing, healthcare, air they can breathe, and water they can drink,” she told the Indy

Inside the Co-op

According to Providence Journal investigative reporters Patrick Anderson and Katherine Gregg, the Co-op is treated like a for-profit organization by the IRS, but listed as a non-profit with the state; it functions much like a non-profit, but doesn’t receive donations. Its sole income source is the fees from its members, which means that all candidates are literally “bought in” to the mission. Anderson and Gregg report that these dues vary widely depending on the candidate—in 2020 Senator Tiara Mack paid the Co-op $13,000, while Representative Michelle McGaw paid just $7,000. AJ Braverman, who worked for the Co-op in 2020 and now is the deputy campaign manager for gubernatorial candidate Matt Brown and lieutenant gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Mendes, told the Indy that this difference in fees is common. Mack and McGaw paid the same amount of dues, but Mack opted to pay more for printing costs. 

Braverman elaborated on the financial challenges working within an electoral system. “A state-wide campaign, like Matt and Cynthia’s, comes with a lot of different resources. For that reason, the Co-op only does state legislative campaigns,” he said. Brown founded the Co-op and Mendes was a member when she was elected to the Senate in 2020, but they are no longer members of the Co-op. They collaborate with Co-op candidates, but they don’t pay dues, and they don’t receive services. Despite the difference in scale, state-wide and localized legislative elections both still work within competitive political structures. “What we’re up against is a deeply corrupt political machine. And what we’ve seen is that even if you elect just one or two progressives a year, you can peel powerful people away and can push enough people into positions of power,” he said. The Co-op has an unprecedented slate of 50 candidates for the 2022 election. 

Braverman explained that though the Co-op is structured like a consulting firm, its campaigns are rooted in grassroots tactics and strategies. It helps candidates get the word out—knocking on doors, talking to voters,  and making phone calls. Everyone in the Co-op has some role in movement organizing somewhere, Braverman said: Charmaine Webster in Woonsocket is part of an organization called the Watch Coalition that does mutual aid and non-violence work, Geena Pham organizes people to pick up litter across the state, and Maggie Kain maintains a community organizing spot in South County called The Collective. 

What distinguishes the Co-op from other electoral groups is the camaraderie the candidates feel towards each other and the personal sacrifices they make to support each other. Pham reiterated this, telling the Indy that the best part of the Co-op for her is the sense of community. “It is incredibly inspiring to work alongside so many amazing candidates and staff members fighting for collective change; we all rely on each other for campaign support, friendship, and hope,” she said. “Almost every member of the Co-op showed up for me during my election, knocking doors, driving volunteers, addressing letters, and more. I am so excited to support each and every one of them next year.” 

Though Marans pushed back on the Co-op’s “top-down” decision-making process, Pelliccia explained that it’s actually a very collaborative effort. Each year, the Co-op holds a series of meetings to collectively build the policy platform that the candidates agree to run on. Pelliccia told the Indy that the platform this year includes supporting universal health care, ending mass incarceration, building low-income and affordable housing, ensuring that every child has quality education, and passing a bold Green New Deal. Braverman explained that the process doesn’t end with the election. After writing core principles, candidates continue to meet to build out detailed policy papers and hash out details; candidates then lead and collaborate on different types of projects. Michael Niemeyer, a candidate for state Senate in South County, for instance, planned a rally this year calling for funding from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) for Early Intervention, a program that helped his daughter with developmental disabilities learn to swallow food. 

Internal debate

In his article, Marans points out that the Co-op did receive more criticism earlier this fall, following the decision to run Co-op candidate Jennifer Jackson against state Sen. Dawn Euer. According to Aaron Regunburg, who served in the Rhode Island House of Representatives from 2015 to 2018, Euer is a “longstanding community organizer,” focusing especially on climate issues. Regunburg wrote a scathing opinion article for The Boston Globe on October 1, condemning the Co-op for their decision to challenge a “progressive ally” like Euer. 

She might not, however, be the “progressive ally” Regunburg posits her to be. Though she was the leader on the “Act on Climate” bill which passed the General Assembly last year, this legislation received criticism from groups like Sunrise RI for being a marginal solution that only delayed investments in climate commitments. A comprehensive plan was developed, but it will likely take another two years for state agencies to actually implement the plan. Ultimately, Euer’s slow approach on climate action demonstrates a larger trend—that the Co-op believes in quick, structural change, as opposed to incremental action.

Regardless of whether Euer was the right person to challenge, the race itself was thwarted in September after Jackson made a series of social media posts and public statements protesting the state vaccine mandate and opposing refugees. The Co-op withdrew its backing of her, and she subsequently ended her bid. Then in October, Co-op candidate Tarshire Battle dropped out after a series of similar conservative Facebook posts were dug up. 

Both Marans and Regunburg drew attention to these incidents. In his opinion article, Regunburg questioned how the decision to run with Jackson was made, then criticized Co-op leadership decision-making: “Either way, it strikes me as particularly concerning coming from an organization whose leadership is so adamant that they, and only they, are the arbiters of what is and isn’t progressive in Rhode Island—a question that, according to their analysis, turns not on values or ideology, and not on policy goals or legislative record, but solely on whether or not you agree with their specific approach to politics.” 

Jackson’s social media posts were clearly outside of the progressive threshold that the Co-op considers in line with their mission, and the organization appropriately separated itself from the candidate. But after hearing criticism this fall, the Co-op refined their vetting process, Senate district 4 candidate Lenny Cioe told the Indy. Co-op members are more involved than they were before in decisions to add or remove existing members, and all candidates now have to go through multiple interviews to meet and be approved by all members. 

Cioe explained that the Co-op is constantly refining its procedures and values. “As the Co-op group grew, it changed,” he said. “It has a purpose now. We have exit ramps, we have ramps to join the Co-op, to leave the Co-op. We have a values clause, ways to communicate if there’s ever an argument between candidates. We know how to respect each other’s space.” According to Cioe, the Co-op had a series of meetings last summer about the most effective methods for communication and collaboration. After some bumps in the road this fall, they had to revisit some of those conversations. “It’s a growing community, and it’s going to go through growing pains. We make mistakes. We still have a lot of work to do, but we’ve made strides,” Cioe said. 

Progressive ‘infighting’

Over the past few months, a narrative has emerged of debilitating progressive conflict in Rhode Island. The split vote between Pham and Jacob and the Jackson/Euer debacles both strongly contribute to this narrative, and though it isn’t entirely incorrect, it obscures the larger picture of progressive momentum in Rhode Island.

In response to Marans’ article, Director of the Taubman Center for American Politics and Policy and political science professor at Brown University Wendy Schiller expressed concern to the Indy: “Anytime a national news organization shines a negative spotlight on a political organization, it should be a wake up call to work out any internal differences that exist.” But, prior to the publication of the article, Schiller said that it’s normal for in-fighting to increase when a progressive movement gains power. “We’ve seen it over and over again. When a local progressive movement rises, it will receive pushback from parties inside and outside. It has more to navigate and deal with, so complications naturally come up,” she said. 

Mezera pointed out that many groups do progressive work in Rhode Island, not just the WFP or the Co-op, but also Planned Parenthood, the Democratic Women’s Caucus, Democratic Socialists of America, and more. “I think the story here of this divide is a little much, because we’re all trying to work when there’s a near infinite amount of work to do. There’s certainly plenty of ways that we can overlap, but it’s hard when the increasing in-fighting narrative is what gets all the attention,” he told the Indy. 

Mezera spoke about the victories that the WFP has seen since their formation in Rhode Island in 2016—$15 minimum wage and paid sick days, among others. The state is slowly accomplishing the WFP’s progressive goals.

And so, while inevitable conflicts and missteps deserve attention and need to be better explained, they also obscure the larger story—that for the first time in Rhode Island history, there is a real opportunity to unseat the speaker of the House and president of the Senate with candidates representing citizens who have been shut out of power for a long time. 

State Senator Sam Bell, a Democrat, reiterated the message that progressive infighting narratives are setting back the movement. “Progressives who believe in supporting the machine, not openly challenging it, have been quite personally critical of a lot of people in the Co-op. There has been an accelerated degree of personal animosity that I think is on all sides counter-productive and not conducive to successful progressive goals,” he told the Indy

Now, the Co-op is challenging the decades-long rule of the conservative establishment that restricts reproductive rights and blocks serious climate action while cutting taxes for the wealthiest in our state. It’s trying to create a sustainable organization that works with other progressive groups, and simultaneously harnesses electoral power and grassroots organizing strategies. If Brown, Mendes, and the candidates of the Co-op win, they will form a government interested in standing up for working people. That is the story that deserves recognition and reporting. 

“The Co-op is so much more than just an organization that gives campaign advice; it is a true community that we all build together,” Pham told the Indy. 

Nell Salzman B’22 likes to canvas so she can spy into peoples’ windows and see what T.V. shows they’re watching.

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