Democratic platform committee meeting highlights divisions amid calls for unity

Kevin Olasanoye

The third meeting of the Rhode Island Democratic Party (RIDP) Platform Committee highlighted the divisions between conservative and progressive Democrats that exist beneath the RIDP’s “big tent.” In unusually blunt statements, party members such as Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena and Representative Arthur Corvese (Democrat, District 55, North Providence) gave voice to their fears about the rising progressive tide, and defended core party values that are “traditional,” conservative, and Catholic. Both politicians, as well as RIDP Executive Director Kevin Olasanoye and Representative Stephen Ucci maintain that if progressive voices that are presently included under the so-called “big tent” get too loud, the party could fracture.

“Remember,” said Polisena, “If we continue to be at odds, we obviously will be our own demise. And those traditional Democrats will change to unaffiliated and vote Republican in November. We do not need that. We can’t afford that to happen.”

Hilary Levy Friedman and Arthur Corvese

“If the candidates that I think are going to be endorsed this year are endorsed it will be the big tent that puts them over the top, at least two of them,” said Corvese. “It will not just be one portion of this party. So thank your lucky stars for the big tent. Whether you like it or not, the big tent will be here to stay.”

“We have to be working on the things we agree on and forgetting about the things we don’t agree on,” said Olasanoye.

“We need to concentrate on the things that we do agree about because the gun and abortion issues break us apart,” said Representative Stephen Ucci (Democrat, District 42, Johnston).

(However, if Ucci were serious about not allowing the gun and abortion issues to divide the party, why did he put his name on the conceal/carry reciprocity bill and the anti-abortion fetal dismemberment bill? Doesn’t Ucci care about party unity and the big tent? Or is that only a problem when progressives pursue their agendas?)

The RIDP Platform Committee is tasked with rewriting the RIDP platform, an aspirational document that lays out the values and goals of the party on a state level. In a very open process, a series of listening sessions are being conducted. Since the third meeting was being held at the Johnston Senior Center on Hartford Avenue, Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena was invited to greet those in attendance and say a few words.

Polisena was quick to distinguish his brand of “traditional” Democrat and strike a note that let progressives know that their brand of politics was not going to fly in his town.

“The Johnston Democratic Town Committee is composed of 55 members of traditional, active Democrats,” said Polisena. “Our mission is to work for, and get elected, those traditional Democrats with traditional values at a local, state and national level.”

These traditional Democrats are pro-life, pro-guns, pro-business, anti-regulation, patriotic and mostly Catholic. They believe healthcare is a right, but oppose single-payer. The believe in a minimum wage, but not necessarily a living wage. The want equal rights for all regardless of skin color, gender, religious beliefs or sexual orientation. They want a path to citizenship for the undocumented.

And they fear progressives.

“The traditional Democrats fear that if one has a different view, they’re lambasted, shamed and ostracized,” said Polisena, implying that progressives would go so far as to shut down the first amendment rights of traditional Democrats.

So strongly does Polisena see himself as the protector of traditional Democratic values that he often changed his pronouns in the middle of making a point, conflating his beliefs and the beliefs of traditional Democrats. Also, Polisena routinely mischaracterized legislation, such as single-payer, the carbon-tax bill and death with dignity:

“Now I’ll tell you, as a registered nurse of 33 years and a former firefighter of 22 years, and 18 of those years on rescue, another thing that concerned the people of Johnston was the assisted suicide legislation that has been put in,” said Polisena. “My community has a huge Catholic population as well as several other churches that are not Catholic, but they are appalled by such an idea. Especially the elderly. When I talk to the elderly they’re concerned that they’re going to be put on death row because the insurance companies are not going to want to pay for certain treatments and testing that they may have to have. Those big insurance companies really don’t care about people.”

(A responsible conversation with people expressing such fears would be to assure them that the death with dignity legislation does not allow for insurance companies to kill them off.)

What is a true Democrat, according to Polisena?

“Ladies and gentlemen, we need to ensure, and I mean ensure, that Senator [Sheldon] Whitehouse is re-elected. That [James] Langevin is re-elected. That David Cicilline is re-elected. That Governor [Gina] Raimondo is re-elected. That Lieutenant Governor [Daniel] McKee is re-elected. That Nellie Gorbea and Seth Magaziner are re-elected. Those are all true Democrats. True Democrats. And of course we have to make sure that our local delegation, my Senators and my Reps, are all also re-elected,” said Polisena.

(You can read Polisena’s full comments below)

Reactions from the committee ranged from supportive to appalled. Representative Corvese thanked Polisena for his “poignant” comments and said, “I think that you hit a number of issues and a number of nerves right on the button…”

Committee member Lauren Niedel-Gresh, who had earlier identified herself as a progressive told me afterwards that, “Mayor Polisena’s comments were divisive and struck a negative chord. At an event that was supposed to unite Democrats for a common cause his messaging was one of negativity and showed a lack of respect for party members who consider themselves to be progressive or liberal.”

Portsmouth Town Councilmember Linda Ujifusa disagreed with the idea that the Democratic Party is fracturing because it’s moving to the left. “I think we fractured because we moved to the right.”

The discussion that followed Polisena’s remarks was remarkable. Each member of the audience was allowed 90 seconds to make suggestions or comments to the platform committee. No one who identified as living in Johnston rose to say anything in disagreement with Polisena. Entire tables passed on the opportunity to take the microphone.

One Johnston resident who did speak was Frank Saccoccio, president of the Rhode Island 2nd Amendment Coalition.

When I look at the Democratic Party Platform it’s a little unnerving how far it goes away from conservatism and goes more towards progressivism,” said Saccoccio. “This doesn’t seem to be protecting our collective freedoms. It seems to be going to a set of policies that don’t look towards the future, doesn’t look toward who’s going to be paying the bill for any of this it looks towards more and more big government, more and more restrictions on our freedoms.

“This is the kind of thing that actually fractured the Republican Party when the Tea Party got in there. Now we have a Democratic Party that is fracturing even more, because of the progressivisms on this. We need to become more toward the middle. What’s happening is we’re going to be looking at this and its more and more progressives. This is why we lost the race for the White House. There are a lot of people who don’t like the liberal ideas. They want more and more conservative ideas. I see the Democratic Party going away from conservatism and I don’t think it’s the way we should be going. It should be a little bit more toward conservatism and accountability for people and accountability in regards to what it’s going to cost to get these programs into place.

“And we should be protecting our freedoms, especially the second amendment, and not trying to curtail them.”

All the criticisms came from people outside Johnston, as when Representative Kathleen Fogarty (Democrat, District 35, South Kingstown) defended reproductive rights by citing the same first amendment that Polisena called “a precious, precious amendment” that “must remain intact regardless of what the opposition may want to believe.”

Fogarty pointed out that the first amendment protects the idea of separation of church and state.

Abigail Altabef rose to also defend reproductive choice, saying that, “I’m really disappointed and disheartened by the Speaker’s comments last week about women’s health. I sit at home and I watch Capitol TV and even Rep Corvese’s comments… [see: here and here] It’s on your platform, even if in your personal life you feel a certain way, you know, you’re serving as a Democrat and it would just be nice to have more support.”

RIDP Executive Director Olasanoye shut down further comments like Altabef‘s, warning those in attendance against “direct comments at individuals… Let’s try to stick to the issues here. By doing that that’s one way we’re going to try to unify.”

When asked about when the platform is completed by the committee, will individual Democrats be held to the document in some way, Representative Corvese was quick to rise. Noting that Olasanoye is in agreement with him, Corvese sees using the document as a litmus test as something akin to totalitarian regimes like Nazi Germany or Communist Russia.

Police were on hand

“You’ll never see anyone sign onto a platform,” said Corvese. “This is not the Communist Party, this is not the Nazi Party. You will never see an oath of fealty to a particular platform. You will not see that. Now, why do I say that? Because at the last meeting Kevin brought up something very important that I don’t think he mentioned tonight. This is an aspirational document. This is a work in progress. Whether we put it on paper or put it in stone, it’s a work in progress. So this isn’t something we’ll sign onto. You’ll never see an oath of fealty to the party.”

Corvese sees fracture in the Democratic Party as a losing proposition:

“There will always be extremes on the left and on the right,” said Corvese. “What I say to my extreme left friends, I say, ‘If you don’t like it, peel away and create the Social Democratic Party.’ To my extreme right friends I say, ‘You don’t like it? Peel it off and start a Christian Democratic Party. See how far you get.'”

To which I ask, how is “Christian” the opposite of “progressive”?


You can view the entire meeting on Facebook, courtesy of RIDP Platform Committee member Hilary Levy Friedman here.


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Here’s as complete a transcription of Mayor Polisena’s statement as I could produce:

“The Johnston Democratic Town Committee is composed of 55 members of traditional, active Democrats. Our mission is to work for, and get elected, those traditional Democrats with traditional values at a local, state and national level.

“We were really fortunate to have Hillary Clinton come to our town twice: In 08 and then she came again two years ago. Unfortunately the outcome wasn’t good a couple years ago but she was here, and it’s just unfortunate she didn’t win. She should be the President. That’s another story.

[applause]

“I really mean it. It’s ridiculous what we got, but it is what it is.

“Those traditional Democrats I talk about, they represent, obviously, the citizens of this town. Many of them are pro-life, many believe in the second amendment. They want stable taxes: we haven’t had a tax increase in this town in the last three years. They want good schools for their children. They want good, safe neighborhoods. They want good, safe recreational facilities and they want an economy that thrives and a good business climate.

“They want to reduce the burdensome state and federal regulations. Our seniors want to feel safe in their homes and remain in their homes.

“Many of them believe in worship. They believe in prayer, and they believe in ‘Dear God,’ no matter who they say the believe in. And they also respect the flag and our soldiers, who are in harm’s way each and every day.

“And of course health care. We don’t feel that health care is not a benefit. It’s a right. It’s a right for every American. It’s a right. And it should remain a right.

“We also want equal pay for women. We want equal rights for all regardless of skin color, gender, religious beliefs or sexual orientation.

“We also want a path to citizenship for our undocumented brothers and sisters. We want less government interference in our lives, be it local, state or national. And of course we want to make sure we care for and protect our veterans.

“The members the Johnston Democratic Town Committee feel that sometimes the progressive movement is going in a direction that cannot and maybe would not be supported by all 55 members of our Town Committee. Yes, there is room at the table for the opposite view in the exchange of ideas at the Democratic Town Committee in Johnston, but it sometimes appears there’s no room at the progressive table for the traditional Democrats to coexist.

“The traditional Democrats fear that if one has a different view, they’re lambasted, shamed and ostracized. By the way, that’s not the America that we know. Our first amendment is a precious, precious amendment, and must remain intact regardless of what the opposition may want to believe.

“We also feel that we may lose many Democrats to either unaffiliated or change their status to Republican. We don’t want that, ladies and gentlemen. We can’t afford that.

“Now let me tell you what the traditional Democrats in Johnston will not stand for and work against with every bit of blood, sweat and tears.

“They don’t want to lose their rights, obviously, to be able to voice our opinion. They’re for increasing the minimum wage, but not to fifteen dollars so quickly it will destroy their businesses. Obviously they don’t want to see an increase in top rate income tax from 5.99 to 15.5 percent. They don’t want to see a single payer health care tax of ten percent, which will put businesses out of business and people will end up losing their jobs.

“They don’t want to see 14 year olds mandated, because they want to work for the Summer, to take a training program before they get their working papers.

“Now I’ll tell you, as a registered nurse of 33 years and a former firefighter of 22 years, and 18 of those years on rescue, another thing that concerned the people of Johnston was the assisted suicide legislation that has been put in. My community has a huge Catholic population as well as several other churches that are not Catholic, but they are appalled by such an idea. Especially the elderly.

“When I talk to the elderly they’re concerned that they’re going to be put on death row because the insurance companies are not going to want to pay for certain treatments and testing that they may have to have. Those big insurance companies really don’t care about people.

“The opioid epidemic is destroying our families, friends and neighbors. Quickly, in 1986 I saved my brother. I found him dead from a drug and alcohol overdose. It was opioids. So it’s hit my family. Anyway, I did bring him back. I was a pretty good hospital care provider.

“… to make it harder to seize property from these murdering drug dealers. Are you kidding? Who’s side are we on? C’mon. are we protecting these drug dealers or are we going to protect our citizens?

“We know that there’s a carbon tax bill out there, wanting people to pay taxes on the fuels that they use to heat one’s home in the winter time. And we get our vehicles inspected every two years and pay our mileage. You know, ironically I called today on my home heating oil, to renew the contract. It went from $2.92 to $3.59. That’s what they’re going to charge, imagine paying a tax on your home heating oil or your gas.

“And all of those items I mentioned, obviously, the traditional Johnston Democratic Party would fight against, and they’ve been put forward in the General Assembly. As a former state senator, that was a member of Senate leadership for 12 years, and for the past 11 and 1/2 years as mayor, I feel that I can speak from a position of passion, knowledge, and experience.

“In this town we approximately have a $1 billion, 300 million increase in new businesses with those men and women that worked very, very hard were concerned what some off the progressive agenda movement may do to destroy the economy with some of the issues that I mentioned.

“My concern, as a Democrat, and I am a Democrat, is that many of our constituents, who used to vote as Democrats, they will be voting in the November elections as Republicans. We don’t want that. We do not want that. We don’t want them jumping to the other column.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we need to ensure, and I mean ensure, that Senator Whitehouse is re-elected. That Jim Langevin is re-elected. That David Cicilline is re-elected. That Governor Raimondo is re-elected. That Lieutenant Governor McKee is re-elected. That Nellie Gorbea and Seth Magaziner are re-elected. Those are all true Democrats. True Democrats. And of course we have to make sure that our local delegation, my Senators and my Reps, are all also re-elected.

“If the Democratic Party remains fractured, the Republicans will win in November, take it to the bank, ladies and gentlemen. How the Hell do you think Trump got in? They will win, not by Republican voters, but by traditional Democrats, John Kennedy Democrats, will leave that Democratic column in the voting booth, and move over. And we can’t have that.

“Thank you for listening to me, and I just ask that people take note of what I’ve said tonight. To the progressives and your agenda, we’re not really that far apart, we’re not really that far apart from each other. However, cooler heads must prevail for the good of the Rhode Island Democratic Party and all of the Democratic officials that serve us and serve us well. Remember: If we continue to be at odds, we obviously will be our own demise. And those traditional Democrats will change to unaffiliated and vote Republican in November. We do not need that. We can’t afford that to happen.

“Just quickly, in Johnston, last election, we lost 700 voters that went into the Republican side, and they registered as Republicans. Now it’s going to be my job and our chairman Richard Delfino‘s job to get them back as Democrats. We are going to end them letters. We are going to try to talk to them We want to get them back as Democrats. They jumped over.

“So on behalf of my chairman Richard Delfino who is here this evening, the Johnston Democratic Town Committee, the 55 members and they’re strong they’re a working committee, as well as my town council and my school committee, my state delegation, and myself, we want to thank you for coming to the most Democratic town in the State of Rhode Island, the Town of Johnston.”


 

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About Steve Ahlquist 527 Articles
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. atomicsteve@gmail.com

1 Comment

  1. The disdain & disrespect shown to the more liberal (IE, TRUE) Democrats was appalling. If FDR was alive today, some of these people would call him a wild-eyed radical. With the exception of the Dixiecrats in the 1950s & 1960s, NO Democratic leaders have been as reactionary & regressive as Mayor Polisena, Rep. Corvese and and Rep. Izzo. They do not speak for the vast majority of RI Democrats.

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