Politics & Elections

Matt Brown and Senator Mendes announce run for Governor and Lt Governor

As part of their announcement the Rhode Island Political Cooperative rolled out the names of 24 of a promised 50 progressive candidates for state and local office.
Photo for Matt Brown and Senator Mendes announce run for Governor and Lt Governor

Published on September 22, 2021
By Steve Ahlquist

Former Rhode Island Secretary of State Matt Brown and State Senator Cynthia Mendes (Democrat, District 18, East Providence) today announced their campaign for Governor and Lieutenant Governor of Rhode Island. As part of their announcement the Rhode Island Political Cooperative rolled out the names of 24 of a promised 50 progressive candidates for state and local office. Described by the Co-op as a “multiracial group of community leaders which includes teachers, waitresses, retail workers, and nurses” that share “a deep commitment to rooting out decades of political corruption in Rhode Island,” the candidates have announced runs for Senate and House seats in the general assembly as well as city and town council seats throughout the state.

All of them will be running with the support of the Rhode Island Political Cooperative, which helped elect ten progressives to state and local office in 2020.

This time around the Co-op has set their goals higher. In the campaign’s official video announcement, released today, Brown declares, “We’re gonna win the whole f**king statehouse.”

UpriseRI conducted a short interview with Brown and Senator Mendes, alongside Co-op chairs Jennifer Rourke and Senator Jeanine Calkin.

UpriseRI: What’s different about your gubernatorial campaign this time around aside from having more time to make your case.

Matt Brown: We have more than five months. I think the things that I was pushing for last time, which of course are the same things Jeanine and Jennifer and Cynthia and all of us in different ways have been fighting for over the years are even more urgent and urgently felt than they were even just a few years ago. The need for housing that people can afford, the need for a true living wage, the need to address the climate crisis. I think all those things are becoming increasingly urgent. I think the pandemic really exposed the deep inequalities that are driving a lot of these crises. So I think there is this growing demand for ousting the corrupt political machine that’s run the state into the ground for so many years and getting new leadership – not just a new governor, and not just a new lieutenant governor, but a whole new government.

UpriseRI: I’m not sure if this is true, but running as a team seems to have been started, more or less, by Governor Daniel McKee, who is running with Lieutenant Governor Sabina Matos as a team. Do you see this as the future of gubernatorial politics in Rhode Island? Is this what we’re going to be doing from now on?

Matt Brown: I think what we’re doing is very different. I’ve never seen, in the history of state, an actual, fully unified governor / lieutenant governor ticket. I think you’ve seen people running who are allied and communicating with each other. We have one website – we’re running a totally unified ticket. This is an actual ticket and it’s not like we’re just allies who are running a unified single campaign together. This is something brand new in Rhode Island politics. Then, obviously, we’re running alongside and supporting all the co-op candidates and there’s never been anything like that in the country. The scale of what Jennifer and Jeanine and the group have been building – the country’s never seen it. I mean, 50 candidates! We have behind a bold, shared platform. I mean, it’s the most hopeful thing I’ve ever been a part of, honestly.

UpriseRI: Talk to me about the platform. How has it been updated from two years ago?

Senator Calkin: By us all running during the last cycle we were able to move the legislator a little bit on things like $15 minimum wage. So obviously we raised the amount that we’re going to be pushing for on the minimum wage. And there’s other things that we expanded on when it comes to things like healthcare, criminal justice and things like that, that are more expansive than the last time.

UpriseRI: I liked the $19 mark. I might’ve gone for a round number, but 19 sounds like a smart number.

Calkin: Kind of like how you put things up for sale at 19.99 and it’s really $20.

UpriseRI: I’ve done a lot of retail in my life, so it made sense to me.

Senator Mendes, you’ve only been in office a very short time and you’re obviously supporting Gregory Greco to replace you as you make your bid for Lieutenant Governor. Are you and your constituents ready for this kind of change?

Senator Mendes: Yes. Absolutely. As a state senator I have witnessed firsthand the apathy and negligence of our government that just refuses to work on behalf of people, even in the moments of our greatest need. We can’t just keep waiting for corrupt politicians to start caring. I’m very excited for Greg and his race, but one of the things that became really apparent, to Matt’s point, was that we needed to have a whole new whole new government. And that’s what I plan on doing with him.

UpriseRI: When are you going to have your first in-person appearances publicly?

Matt Brown: First of all, I’ve got to do a plug for Geena Pham. We’re going to be all out. We’re going to do a big canvasing event on Saturday and I’m going to be there. Many of us are going to be out there to help kick that off. And honestly, after we get through this announcement, our top priority is to get Geena elected and then we will do a big rally outdoor rally for the Co-op. [Depending on Covid.]

UpriseRI: The co-op is challenging some incumbents that may come as a surprise. Senator Dawn Euer has earned acclaim for passing the Act on Climate, Representative Karen Alzate has consistently led the charge on increasing taxes on the richest Rhode Islanders. What is the thought behind these challenges?

Calkin: Our thing has always been to take on those challenges for seats that could be more in line with our platform, but also to be an incubator for people who want to run. If candidates come forward in a district, and they would make a great candidate, we’re happy to support them. It’s a difficult thing because a lot of times people just hit the green button or along with the leadership. We’ve always said, from day one, that our mission is to get a governing majority. So by running more candidates you get more people in the seats to be able to pass a $19 minimum wage, single payer healthcare, things like that. That’s always been our mission.

UpriseRI: Other challenges seem more obvious such as those against Representatives Stephen Casey, Brian Patrick Kennedy and Samuel Azzinaro, who are all conservative supporters of house leadership. Is there enough progressive support in their districts to put the co-op candidates on top?

Calkin: There’s always this idea that the conservative districts are very conservative, but Rhode Island’s a small place. Anywhere you go you’re going to find people who believe in the same things that we do. I think that was evident back in 2016 with the Bernie Sanders campaign. He did really well out in the Western part of the state and in some of these districts that you mentioned, so it really is about the ideas and what we’re running on. No matter where you go in the state, people are struggling. People are having a hard time putting food on the table and they might be working two or three jobs. So I think our message resonates with people throughout the state, whether it be a single mom or a family that’s just trying to make ends meet and do the best for their family.

UpriseRI: We’ve got this once in a generation chance to spend money from the federal government, like $1.1 billion. And I know that may all be gone by the time the majority of you get into office but it’s a really big deal and your campaign is a chance to advocate for the best use of that money. What do you see that money being best used for as we go forward?

Jennifer Rourke: I think the biggest thing that we can do in this state is eliminate the homelessness crisis that we have. We have an opportunity to build 10,000 green homes for people. And that’s something that the state is lacking. We don’t have affordable or low income housing. There’s nothing here. And if we took a portion of the money that we are being given by the government to build these homes and give people a safe place to live, that would take a huge burden off of people and it would be helpful for the people who deserve a house or deserve a pillow to lay on at night. That’s something that our state never advocates for, and here’s our opportunity to actually do something right. And we’ll still have plenty left over to fix other things.

UpriseRI: What other issues resonate from the platform?

Rourke: One of my jobs was working with police officers and they said that what we lack in the state is a mental health facility. It would be nice to make sure that the Eleanor Slater Hospital Zambarano Unit remains open for the people that need it, instead of just taking people out of where they’ve been for so long and throwing them on the street. Building a nice network of mental health facilities would be amazing for the state. We all believe in providing services for people, and we have the option to make sure that Zambarano stays open and also build other places in other parts of the state, because we can’t just have one.

UpriseRI: A lot of people are talking about non police response teams for a mental crises, overdose, that kind of thing as well.

We’re still in the middle of COVID, right? What can be done better? What would a Matt Brown governorship looked like if we were dealing with COVID?

Matt Brown: What the political establishment has done on climate change sort of ranges from nothing to weak tea. It’s obviously a massive crisis and we’re way past out of time so our platform would make Rhode Island the first state in the country that is run on one hundred percent clean, renewable energy, but we also call for shutting down the fossil fuel and other polluting industries in the Port of Providence, which is a part of the climate crisis. It’s part of the systemic targeting of Black and brown communities with polluting industries causing asthma, especially for children.

This is the kind of bold approach that we need on the climate crisis and on the pandemic. Rhode Island has hovered around the worst in the country for overall cases per capita of COVID. And then, our legislature – leadership didn’t call a meeting of any kind for five months, while nobody else could take the five months off, like frontline workers and others and putting themselves at risk. Typical of this political machine, they tend to look out for themselves and their interests and ignore the needs of the people in the state.

We need to start requiring vaccines for people being in public spaces. That’s something we’ve done throughout the history of this country, and we’re going to have to do some things to get this pandemic under control. We don’t want to see more suffering, more deaths, more economic hardship from this. We haven’t acted swiftly enough and strongly enough to address it. We’re going to need to have people wearing masks and we’re going to need to ensure that kids are safe at school. It’s a big agenda. We’re facing a problem of historic proportion. 650,000 Americans have died already. ICU beds are still filling up. We’re going to need to act boldly and swiftly to protect the people.

Mendes: I want to lean into another part of the question that you asked. I talked a little bit about my experience as a state senator, but, as you highlighted, there will be this experience question. I’ve made it really clear that I’m not interested in playing the political games that this entrenched political establishment plays, mostly because it because it’s working class people, women, people of color, who always lose. And I just refuse to play that game. I refused to play it as a Senator. I refuse to play it running with Matt. And that is why I’m running with Matt, you know? Not to ask permission to serve when I’ve literally been doing it my entire life.

Also, what’s the benefit? How has the current political establishment – with term after term and decade after decade – served the people of Rhode Island? What good is that experience if it’s not actually serving? My constituents, I think, are going to be thrilled. They’ve been really clear that I’ve been fighting for them as a state senator. I will continue to do that as lieutenant governor for all of Rhode Island. It’s overwhelming when you talk to people in the community. One of the first things you hear is term limits and those types of things, but that the heart of it. The heart of it is they know term after term is not working for them. So this is a different way of doing politics and couldn’t think of three better people to be doing it with.

Greg Greco is an amazing guy. He’s a school teacher, a dad, an advocate, he’s an activist. He was active on the Bernie campaign. He is well known in the community. His family is well known in the community and whenever there’s a time to serve, whenever there’s a need to step up, to help anyone or to do anything, Greg’s right there. So yeah, I’m really, really proud to see him step into this role.

UpriseRI: Anyone have anything they want to close with?

Calkin: People are going to love our candidates because they’re all such awesome people. They really, really care. They haven’t been playing the political game for a long time. They’re not running with corporate PAC money, no fossil fuel money. They’re doing it because they want to do the right thing. Some of them are known in their communities pretty well, but as people throughout the state learn about them, I think they’re going to be really happy to meet them and get to know them.

I’ve been doing this kind of work my whole life in Rhode Island – community work, organizing, and this really is the most hopeful thing I’ve ever been a part of .My whole life this same corrupt, political machine has been running things and they’ve looked out for themselves, they’ve looked out for corporations, the wealthy, and they’ve left everyone else to struggle.

Several years ago Jeanine was up there fighting the fight, leading on many issues alone and now, to be going forward with 50 candidates in 2022, it’s just amazing.

From the Rhode Island Political Cooperative press release:

Brown and Mendes enter the race with backing from the Sunrise Movement, the youth-led climate organization that has played a pivotal role in electing progressive leaders across the nation. Once in office, they have promised to enact sweeping climate legislation to put Rhode Island on track to become the first state to achieve net-zero emissions. They are also committed to passing universal healthcare, restricting the influence of corporate lobbyists, funding large scale investments in green affordable housing, and implementing a wide-ranging series of racial justice policies which include ending mass incarceration and shutting down corporate polluters in frontline communities across the state.

Matt Brown served as Rhode Island’s Secretary of State from 2003 to 2007. His time in office was focused on uprooting corruption and expanding voting rights, including launching a first-in-the-nation electronic voter registration system. Matt has spent over 30 years of his life before and since then building and running nonprofit organizations dedicated to making Rhode Island and the world safer and more just. He was the executive director of City Year Rhode Island, the first expansion site of the pioneering national service program that supports students in marginalized communities. He is also the co-founder of Global Zero, an international nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing and eliminating nuclear weapons, which earned two Nobel Peace Prize nominations.

Cynthia Mendes is a single mom who, before running for office for the first time last year, worked two jobs to make ends meet. In 2020, she decided to challenge Rhode Island’s powerful and corrupt Senate Finance Chair—winning what is widely regarded as the largest upset in RI state politics in the 2020 election cycle. During her time in the Rhode Island Senate, Cynthia has fought relentlessly for reproductive rights, government transparency, racial justice, universal health care, and bold climate action.

“Rhode Island has been run by the same corrupt political machine for decades, but it doesn’t have to be,” said Brown. “We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to replace our entire state government in a single day and usher in an era of transparent, progressive, effective government that works for all Rhode Islanders. That’s why I’m running for Governor—and not alone, but alongside Cynthia Mendes and an incredible team of progressive candidates all across the state. Together, and only together, we can make our state work for all Rhode Islanders, the way it always should have.”

“Last year, I was one of ten candidates representing the Rhode Island Political Cooperative who won their election and proved there’s a resounding mandate for progressive, people-centered politics in this state,” said Senator Mendes. “Now, I’m thrilled to be running for Lieutenant Governor alongside Matt and the rest of our slate to finish the job and win a true governing majority. As the pandemic rages through Rhode Island and the climate crisis accelerates, corrupt incumbents in our State House are sitting on their hands, hiding from their voters, and refusing to lift a finger to help us. Our movement is about everyday people across this state taking back our government from the super-rich and their corporate lobbyists.”

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