Politics & Elections

Interview: The Rhode Island Political Cooperative isn’t apologizing for doing democracy

“Some of the detractors say we’re not working with anybody, that we go rogue and stuff like that, but that’s not the case,” said Senator Jeanine Calkin. “The first time I ran I had a lot of people saying, ‘You didn’t ask permission. You didn’t talk to so-and-so and get their blessing.’ Well, I didn’t need their blessing for one thing. But we are working with Sunrise, we’re working with BLM PAC. Some people feel left out, but we’ve been open to talking to anybody.”
Photo for Interview: The Rhode Island Political Cooperative isn’t apologizing for doing democracy

Published on September 29, 2021
By Steve Ahlquist

The Rhode Island Political Cooperative announced that it is recruiting, training, and supporting a total of 50 candidates for the 2022 election cycle last week while at the same time announcing that former Secretary of State Matt Brown was once again making a run for Governor, this time with Senator Cynthia Mendes running as Lieutenant Governor.

The announcement raised questions and spurred accusations. Pundits and reporters are framing this as a progressive civil war. Others wondered why the Co-op was running candidates against ostensibly progressive legislators like Senator Dawn Euer and Representative Karen Alzate. The Rhode Island Democratic Party released a fairly tone deaf press release against Matt Brown. Former Co-op member, Representative Brandon Potter, wrote an oped for The Boston Globe decrying the Co-op, and questions were raised about the organization’s finances and about the way the Co-op is run over at The Liberator.

But if you were at the canvas for Geena Pham last Saturday, after the announcements and the political attacks against the Co-op, there were no signs of anything but positivity for the Co-op and what it stands for. Geena Pham is the Co-op candidate in the Senate district 3 Special election to replace outgoing Senator Gayle Goldin in Providence. Over 100 enthusiastic people turned out to canvas for Pham over the course of the day.

Senator Mendes spoke to the crowd, and rather than dwell on the attacks against the Co-op, she struck a positive, progressive note. “I am really happy to be apart of the beginning of what it looks like when people organize on behalf of themselves and on behalf of their neighbors,” said Mendes.

When I reached out to Co-op founders Jennifer Rourke and State Senator Jeanine Calkin, they were happy to answer some of the questions that have come up over the last week.

The conversation was conducted via Zoom and edited for clarity.

UpriseRI: What is the status of the Co-op? What kind of legal organization is the Co-op? Does that make sense?

Jennifer Rourke: So like you’re asking whether we are a 501(c)(3) or 501(c)(4).

UpriseRI: Yeah. I want to get to the basics. How is the Co-op legally organized?

Rourke: We are a not for profit organization. We are not a (c)(3) or (c)(4) because both limit the way that you can work with candidates. We have no shareholders, there are no owners and there’s no profit.

UpriseRI: So you’re donor supported?

Senator Jeanine Calkin: The only money that comes into the Co-op is the dues from the candidates. We don’t raise money on our own because we’re a not-for-profit corporation. We’re not a (c)(3) or (c)(4) that does fundraising.

UpriseRI: You have memberships, dues paying members. How does that work? Can you explain that to me a little bit?

Calkin: So backing up, currently I’m the President of the Co-op, Matt Brown is the Vice president, Melanie DuPont is the treasurer and Jennifer is the Secretary, but none of us collect salaries.

Rourke: Jeanine, Mel and I are all dues-paying members. We are volunteers and we provide services to candidates. Candidates can get a campaign plan, a campaign manager, training, stuff like that. They get a bunch of stuff for the dues that they pay. But Jeanine, Mel and I, also pay into the Co-op and we do the work. We are an organization of candidates that are running together and we provide services to the candidates for a specified amount.

UpriseRI: Let’s say, for example, I decided I was going to run for Senate District 3 and I said, I want to join the Co-op. What would that look like? How would I make that pitch to you?

Rourke: It’s a process. We take recommendations from other people and we do extensive research on people. And then you have to make sure that you are aligned with us. We can’t have someone who’s partially aligned, like we’re not going to have someone who’s gonna come out and say that they don’t support a $15 minimum wage. If they only support a $12 minimum wage that doesn’t work. Then you meet with the team and we go through this process of making sure that everything that you have posted or whatever you said is actually true. Then you become a member and you pay dues and we go over everything from what your opponent is like, here’s your [opposition] research and here’s your campaign plan. This is how you knock doors. This is your messaging. And the fees depend on how big your race is. Obviously you can’t charge for a city council race the same as you charge a Rep race.

Calkin: I would say that the services that are provided, if somebody were to go to another consulting company, would probably be at least twice as much, if not more.

Rourke: Campaign plans are very expensive to get.

UpriseRI: There’s people out there who make a career out of running political campaigns. There’s money to be made. Tell me about the Co-op platform. How does that come together?

Rourke: We come up with an initial plan. We have meetings, we all get together, all the candidates – including all the candidates that haven’t announced and past candidates – and we get together. We talk about what we would like to do for the upcoming year. And then we came up with eight points. We have someone who does extensive research. They do all the policy research and they provide any annotations that are needed, any type of references. Then we get back together and then we go over it. If we need to make changes, we make changes, until we get it to the point where we all agree.

UpriseRI: So theoretically, all 50 members agree? Suppose somebody wanted $20 minimum wage, not $19?

Calkin: We all agree. We have a vote and we all agree and whatever we agree to, that’s the floor. We said $19 minimum wage this time. Some people might say, I want it to be $23. That’s fine, but when your out canvassing and stuff you can’t be less than $19. Then, when we bring in more people, we have to make sure that they also agree with the platform.

UpriseRI: Moving on, people have asked about what they call an endorsement process, but I understand that the Co-op does not endorse candidates. Can you explain that?

Calkin: We don’t do endorsements. We have candidates who are part of the Co-op. Obviously we support them because they’re part of us. We’ve been asked in the past, can you endorse this candidate but we don’t do endorsements. We’re not like the Working Families Party or other organizations that give endorsements and then they go and help with canvassing and stuff like that. It’s a very different model.

Rourke: Usually when there’s an endorsement process, you’re either a c3 or c4 You have some sort of status like that and we are not that type of organization.

UpriseRI: I don’t want to talk a lot about Matt Brown too much because I think his campaign is going to be vetted and examined over the next year or so. I want to talk about the Co-op, but let’s use Matt Brown’s campaign as an example. When they say the Co-op is endorsing Matt Brown for Governor, the truth is that it’s not an endorsement, but that he’s a member of the Co-op?

Calkin: He’s not a member of the Co-op. The Co-op doesn’t do any statewide races. He and Cynthia Mendes are not members of the Co-op.

Rourke: Cynthia, as part of the 2020 cohort of Co-op candidates, is still Co-op family, like Nick Delmenico, who’s not running. They’re still Co-op family. They’re just not part of the everyday process. Like when we like have all these big meetings and everyone’s comes together. Cynthia was part of the 2020 cohort. Her campaign for Lieutenant Governor has all the structure that it needs – We don’t have to provide that stuff for her. Plus, as we said, we don’t do statewide races.

UpriseRI: So what is the relationship then between the Matt Brown / Cynthia Mendes campaign and the Co-op? Is there a relationship or is it just that you announced on the same day?

Calkin: Because they believe in the same platform that we do we would obviously support their run, but it’s informal. We don’t send them resources, they don’t pay dues. No one in the Co-op is forced to individually endorse them. But as a matter of platform and the policies that we believe in, they believe in the same things.

UpriseRI: If any of these questions are too stupid, just let me know. But let’s say a candidate in the Co-op wanted to support and campaign for Luis Daniel Muñoz or Seth Magaziner. That would be okay? How would that look from the Co-op’s perspective?

Rourke: Our candidates can support whoever they want.

Calkin: Personally, I support Matt’s campaign and, if our candidates believe in our platform, they would support the candidates who also believe in our platform.

UpriseRI: Let’s talk a little about Brandon Potter. After he voted for Joseph Shekarchi as Speaker of the House he was – ejected? I’m not sure what to call it. He’s no longer a member of the Co-op. How does that process work? What does that look like?

Calkin: Our mission was to replace leadership. If someone goes against the mission, they don’t really believe in the organization.

Rourke: When Brandon first signed on, he promised that he would not support leadership and that encompasses the Speaker, Senate President, majority leaders – and Brandon campaigned on that. He campaigned and then he decided, if I’m not mistaken, the day before the caucus, that he was going to support Shekarchi as Speaker. And we were like, this is what you’ve promised. This is what you said to your constituents. That morning it was just constant phone calls – people who have endorsed you are going to rescind their endorsements because you campaigned that you would not support leadership. It was an all day event and I guess he didn’t take it seriously. He went in there and he decided to vote. He could have abstained, he didn’t. Shekarchi didn’t need that extra vote. There was no need for it. All he had to do was abstain. Other Co-op members abstained and Brandon decided not to. That’s what happened. That’s what he campaigned on. That’s what he promised. Even his opponent called him out on it.

UpriseRI: Chris Millea, yeah. I remember his tweet. Representative Potter says that he only promised to not vote for Mattiello as Speaker. Voting for Shekarchi was not a broken promise.

Calkin: We have always said the leadership, which includes all of the leadership positions.

UpriseRI: Which would have included Speaker Shekarchi and Majority Leader Christopher Blazejewski. I want to touch on Samuel Howard‘s piece at The Liberator. I talked to Sam a little bit and I have some questions from him about stuff we haven’t yet covered exactly. Some of the stuff we talked about I think we covered. But, there are some details I can cover. So the meetings to discuss the platform: Are minutes kept and are these meetings open to the public?

Rourke: There are no minutes and platform meetings are private conversations between Co-op members.

Calkin: Part of that is making sure people feel comfortable speaking their minds on all the different issues. Sometimes these conversations go back and forth for hours for us to come up with something. We’re not a political party.

UpriseRI: If the Cooperative has two people looking to run for the same office, how does the selection process work? Has that ever happened?

Rourke: I haven’t seen anything like that.

Calkin: We haven’t had that happen yet because there’s usually Senate, Representative, City Council… there’s different options for people.

UpriseRI: Let’s get a little bit into the Dawn Euer thing, because people have pushed back on that. How did the Co-op come to run a candidate against Senator Dawn Euer?

Rourke: First, Jennifer Jackson [the Co-op candidate] is absolutely amazing. She ran for, I think, school committee a couple of years ago. And she has been in Newport her entire life, except when she was working at the Naval base. People don’t seem to understand that everyone has a right to run for office and with Jennifer, she’s just the person that wants to step up and run for office.

At the same time, I think people forget that politicians are flawed. I know people want to think that Dawn is great and she’s a nice person, but there are things that she could have done better. So when Jennifer came forward – we call it democracy. If Dawn is the better candidate and people go for her and they can come up with reasons they want to support her, that’s an option. But I think people forget about some of the things that Dawn has done in the past, and they focus on one issue and they just be stick with that.

Calkin: I think I mentioned last time that the Co-op has to be an incubator, right? So if someone like Jennifer wants to run for office and just needs some help, and she believes in our platform, it’s good for democracy. You know, I don’t own my Senate seat. If somebody wants to come along and say, “Hey, I don’t like how you did this. I don’t like how you did that” that’s going to make me think that maybe I shouldn’t do those things, or maybe that person beats me. That’s democracy. What I found disheartening was everyone just jumping on this without even talking to Jennifer or asking what she’s about, what she believes in. I think if she were to be elected, she would be a great fighter for the environment. But that’s how politics is and we have to roll with it.

UpriseRI: I agree that no one is owed a seat in the legislature. Every politician has to compete for their seat occasionally. So I don’t understand the reaction to this. During the Senate committee hearings on the Green New Deal legislation, people testified that if the Senators won’t help us with these bills – if you won’t work with us to get these bills through, we are going to run against you. We’re going to run candidates against you. Now that it’s happening, everybody’s like acting like this is out of nowhere work. Instead of taking it seriously, instead, we had people like Senator Stephen Archambault telling people that he doesn’t appreciate being threatened and hanging up on them. Telling someone you’re going to run against them is not a threat. That’s democracy.

Calkin: Sunrise has been very open about that. For the past couple of years now they’ve said that if you don’t push the things that we believe in, we’re going to run somebody against you. You can’t be surprised when that happens.

UpriseRI: Speaking of Sunrise, what is the relationship between Sunrise and the Co-op? They provide a lot of the boots on the ground. How does that relationship work? What does that look like?

Rourke: They do endorse our candidates. All of our candidates have been endorsed by Sunrise because they are fighting for the Green New Deal. All of our candidates sign the New Green Deal pledge and we already all agree that we’re not going to take corporate PAC money, we’re not going to take corporate lobbyist money or fossil fuel industry money. So hey already know that our candidates already believe that.

Calkin: That hasn’t happened yet for the coming election though.They haven’t endorsed yet for 2022.

Rourke: Right. I mean in the past. Sunrise does their own thing because they are a PAC. They do what they do and they have their own expenditures that they take care of.

UpriseRI: What is the relationship between the Co-op and Renew Rhode Island?

Rourke: Renew is a whole separate organization. Renew RI is part of a national environmental agency completely different from the Co-op. It was started by Matt Brown, but in Rhode Island it’s chaired by Monica Huertas and and Emma Bouton. The Co-op and Renew are two separate entities.

Calkin: If they were to do anything for the Co-op, they’d have to report it as an in-kind donation. But it’s completely separate in both cases.

UpriseRI: Back to the money. The Co-op takes no money, but if I wanted to send money to a candidate that’s a member of the Co-op, do I send it to you?

Calkin: No, we don’t take any money. Any donations go directly to the candidates. It’s not like it comes into us and then we forward it to them. It goes just directly to their account.

Rourke: You go to our website and you see a candidate and you want to donate, let’s say, to Jennifer Rourke. You click on my page. There’s an option for you to donate and that donate button takes you to my ActBlue account. The Co-op doesn’t have an ActBlue account. We don’t have any place that you can donate. Everyone thinks that it goes through the Co-op. It goes to the candidate. There is no in between. If you want to donate to me, you go here to go to the Co-op website and click on my name and send a donation. It goes directly to my ActBlue, which goes to my campaign account.

We don’t get any money. I don’t. I pay into the Co-op. I pay dues to the Co-op. Jeanine pays into the Co-op and that money goes to the small staff that we have.

UpriseRI: Is there anything I missed ?

Calkin: A lot of people are complaining about this or that race, but the thing is like, we’ve got redistricting coming up and everything could change. So like, even though Jennifer Jackson is in Dawn Euer’s district, that could completely change. So when people get upset, it’s like, how do you even know they’re going to be in the same district next time around?

Rourke: I think the part that frustrates me the most is that people don’t ask other organizations how they’re funded.

UpriseRI: The only questions I got about that recently were about The Gaspee Project, which for years has refused to reveal its funding and has gone to court twice to hide their donors. But that was more an attempt to expose bias on my part, I think.

Rourke: And it’s not like we can just say we want to run for office anymore because of that Rep Corvese bill at the end of the session in 2019 or 20 that says you have no choice but to declare what seat you’re running for. You can’t just go in and say, “Hey, I have an exploratory campaign.” Now you have to decide which seat you’re running for. You have no choice. Even if you don’t know what’s going to happen with redistricting, it doesn’t matter. You have to declare for something. You can thank Rep Corvese for that.

I also want to address the fact that it seems like Jeanine and I are constantly overlooked when it comes to the work. I don’t know what is with the press, but they always leave Jeanine and I out of it. I’ve been called Jennifer Douglas numerous times. We’re doing the work. We would like some acknowledgement for the work that we’ve been putting in for the past couple of years. They’re like, it’s Matt Brown’s Co-op. And I love Matt to death. He’s my friend. I love him to death, but Jeanine and I have been busting our butts for awhile now.

UpriseRI: That’s a thing that happens when you have a tall white dude in the group. It’s like, oh, he’s gotta be in charge.

Rourke: Another thing that bothers me is that people don’t ask other organizations how they work. I don’t go ask the Working Families Party about their endorsement process. I don’t care because that’s what works for them. It’s frustrating that people are questioning how we operate. What about all these other organizations?

Calkin: We answered all these questions when we first announced. The information is out there. It’s not a secret. You just have to take the time and maybe find an article, or go to our website. It’s all there. Some of the detractors say we’re not working with anybody, that we go rogue and stuff like that, but that’s not the case. The first time I ran I had a lot of people saying, “You didn’t ask permission. You didn’t talk to so-and-so and get their blessing.” Well, I didn’t need their blessing for one thing. But we are working with Sunrise, we’re working with BLM PAC. Some people feel left out, but we’ve been open to talking to anybody.

UpriseRI: Let’s talk about that. You have a candidate in the Senate District 3 special election that Sunrise and the BLM RI PAC is backing, Geena Pham. And the Working Family Party they’re backing Bret Jacob and then some other groups are like getting behind Hilary Levey Friedman or Sam Zurier or Ray Rickman. Would it have been better if the Working Families Party and the Co-op could have talked and gotten together behind one candidate? Is that something that could happen or is that something that might happen in the future?

Rourke: So can we take it back to 2019 though? Because we, we asked to meet with the work of working families party. It was 2019 before we announced. We met with different organizations and we told them what we were doing and they decided that they didn’t want to be a part of it. So that’s on them. But their endorsement process is something that we don’t know how it works. And I don’t see them reaching out and saying, “Hey, we’re going to endorse this candidate.” I don’t see that happening. I’m not opposed to it, but I think the difference is that they’re fighting for legislation, or they already have legislation up there that they’re trying to get passed. We’re not there to make friends – we’re there to ruffle feathers. I don’t think that we are in the same boat when it comes to things like that.

UpriseRI: Different objectives is what you’re saying.

Calkin: In terms of the Senate District 3 race, would it be great if we all consolidated around one particular candidate? Yeah. That would be cool, but it’s not always going to happen that way for whatever reasons. We obviously believe Geena would be the best for that position. But you know it’s not like you have candidates that are extremely different, you know, anti-choice or pro NRA. It’s not like that in that race.

Here’s more video from the Geena Pham canvas:

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