Politics & Elections

Money and movements shaping an election to the Rhode Island Senate

“The constituency of Rhode Island Senate District #3 should know, beyond endorsements, who supports candidates’ campaigns,” writes sociologist Michael Kennedy. “Thanks to the transparency of our system tracking donations, we do. But I have not seen an analysis anywhere else.”
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Published on October 3, 2021
By Michael Kennedy

Every story about the Democratic Primary to become State Senator for Rhode Island District 3 has, rightfully, focused on the candidates and their visions for the future, and their priorities in politics. While there are meaningful differences in their policy prescriptions, I have been struck, nearly from the start, by the success of Hilary Levey Friedman in securing endorsements from notables across Rhode Island. I have been also struck by the social movement mobilization around the candidacy of Geena Pham. Both women are relatively new to electoral politics, as is Bret Jacob. Veteran politicians Ray Rickman and Sam Zurier offer fewer surprises to those who know Rhode Island politics. Friedman and Pham bring something new to the political contest, but very different things. 

I know both Friedman and Pham. I met public school teacher Pham at a fundraiser and I donated to her campaign based on her commitments to more fundamental change in politics. I know Professor Friedman far better. I appreciate my fellow sociologist as a colleague and her research on beauty pageants especially. I also know her husband, now Chair of the Economics Department at Brown, John Friedman. He is also my colleague at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs. We all have shared students.  I admire how John and Hilary have done so much to bring public engagement and Brown University together.

Public sociology is quite attentive to the various publics that make up that general public our political leaders represent. These candidates obviously draw on different communities for support. Those who have followed the electoral contest know that Pham is supported by a number of social movement organizations, including Rhode Island Democratic Women’s Caucus, Sunrise Providence, Climate Action Rhode Island, Reclaim RI, Black Lives Matter RI PAC and most famously the Rhode Island Political Cooperative. 

One of Rhode Island’s better-known progressives, Aaron Regunberg, has endorsed Jacob, and subsequently indicted the Cooperative last week regarding another of its actions. Some commentators have observed that his editorial could spill over into damaging Pham’s candidacy.  On their own accord, The Providence Firefighters Union, endorsing Friedman, spent $2000 to defeat Pham last week by saying a defeat for Pham is a defeat for the Cooperative. There seem to be some who distrust the movement that the Cooperative mobilizes; at least some of its opponents think that mobilizing fear against it could undermine Pham’s campaign.  

In all of this furor over Progressive Civil War, we are distracted from what Friedman is bringing to this race to decide East Side Providence representation in the Rhode Island Senate. 

In every piece commenting on the election, analysts note that Friedman has raised more money than anyone else. I myself have tweeted, drawing on Sam G. Howard’s research, that Friedman has raised the most money, even if it is least Providence-centric. By contrast, nearly all donors to Zurier’s campaign are local; once you take out his loans to himself, however, both Zurier and Jacob, also locally sourced, have raised the least money of all the candidates. Pham has not raised so much, but she has more donors than anyone else in the campaign. Friedman, however, has the greatest number of big money donors by far. I created the following table with Sam Howard’s data. 

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I wrote to Sam to ask if he knew who the big donors to each of the campaigns were. He shared the publicly available data with me. 

Of course for all of these actors, we see family members, if there are any wealthy enough to be able to afford $1000 donations, contributing to their beloveds’ campaigns. Each campaign also has some generous donors from Providence itself – typically those who are in the candidates’ personal circles from prior lives. If your professional colleagues are from relatively wealthy circles, you are more likely to be able to enjoy greater largesse from your friends. I recognize many names from Brown University; I don’t know the business world as well. We all know former Congressman Patrick Kennedy endorsed Ray Rickman but he and his wife Amy also gave $1000 each to his campaign. These data fascinate and deserve more interpretation, especially for Pham and Friedman. 

Pham enjoys five of these big donations, but I don’t know these generous souls. Those from Rhode Island are activists and change agents whose financial circumstances may allow that kind of generosity not usually seen among movement organizers. But Friedman’s donors might be more readily generous for their Providence reputations are built on philanthropy, and on their financial success. 

Once we move beyond the considerable number of professional colleagues and family members who were able to contribute to her campaign, Friedman’s donors include several women who are leading figures in the investment world, like Nancy Zimmerman of Newton Center, Massachusetts, who, at least in 2016, headed the largest hedge fund in the world led by a woman. Another big donor, Abigail Doft, is a Member of 37 Angels and an active investor in sustainable enterprises in developing countries according to her LinkedIn account. They represent an idea of the professional woman so many commentators on the election find inspiring in Friedman’s own example. 

Alan Hassenfeld, the former CEO of Hasbro, also contributed $1000 to the Friedman campaign. Not all of Friedman’s big donors, however, have readily apparent ties to Providence like Hassenfeld. But many of them have ties to Brown University. 

Hassenfeld also happens to be a trustee on Brown University’s Corporation. Doft’s ties to Brown University are evident with her service on the Brown RISD Hillel Board of Trustees. Nancy Zimmerman serves is a trustee on the Corporation. Corporation leaders are identified as chancellors; former chancellors Thomas Tisch and his wife Alice, and Samuel Mencoff and his wife Ann, each contributed $1,000 to her campaign. Perry and Martin Granoff also contributed $1000 each; their most generous donations to Brown have enabled the magnificent arts center known by their name. Not all the big donors are so intimately tied to Brown University, but these are the most obvious. 

Although each campaign has big donors, even if in very different numbers, the bigger point is this: the networks on which each candidate draws for financial support differ dramatically. 

Visiting Professor Friedman has mobilized many in Brown University’s community of faculty, but also among its donors, to support her campaign. If elected, perhaps she could mobilize the university and its supporters in support of Providence and Rhode Island beyond what they already do. 

Public School teacher Pham does not have Friedman’s networks with financial capital. But with her obligations to these transformational movements supporting her, Pham may have to mobilize our state resources to change the way we do business in Rhode Island. And educate our students. And address climate change. 

The constituency of Rhode Island Senate District #3 should know, beyond endorsements, who supports candidates’ campaigns. Thanks to the transparency of our system tracking donations, we do. But I have not seen an analysis anywhere else. 

One can draw one’s own conclusions from how money and movements variously influence campaigns and forms of representation. But unless one knows how they flow, you can’t be a very good judge of their influence. 

We’ve debated movements plenty, but have not touched money’s power. That is, itself, a kind of politics, one that I don’t share.

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