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The Bernie Left Is Taking on Machine Politics — and Each Other

Rhode Island has long been one of the most corrupt and machine-driven states in America. A new left movement is trying to change that — but they can’t agree on how.

Supporters of Bernie Sanders gather at Roger Williams Park in Providence, Rhode Island, 2016. ,Scott Eisen / Getty Images

On a cold evening last November, a handful of activists along with a state senator and gubernatorial candidate pitched tents in front of the Rhode Island state capitol in Providence. “I shouldn’t have to do this at all,” Senator Cynthia Mendes told a local news site that night. “But when we’re sure that the homelessness crisis has been resolved and no one is going to freeze to death, the protest will end.”

The encampment was organized by a new progressive insurgency in Rhode Island, which has announced plans to challenge dozens of incumbent lawmakers in the upcoming primary elections, citing the failings of the state’s Democratic establishment.

For Mendes, the insurgency’s tactics were already working. She was one of over a dozen progressives who ascended to the state house in 2020 after ousting Senate Finance Committee chairman and Working Families Party ally Billy Conley by over twenty points in a primary. Mendes had challenged Conley due to his tight relationship with the establishment forces in senate leadership.

One legislative session later, Mendes found herself making demands from outside the state house, railing against the state’s political leaders. She spoke harshly of her colleagues that evening: “State leadership feels entitled to ignore the fact that people in their state are going to die this winter,” she said.

Camping outside the state capitol though would be much harder to ignore.

Alongside her was Matt Brown, former secretary of state who unsuccessfully ran for governor in 2018, and is running again this cycle. Mendes herself is running for lieutenant governor, and the duo announced their candidacies alongside a few dozen state legislative candidates as part of the progressive electoral organization, the Rhode Island Political Co-Op, which Brown runs.

On the sixteenth day, Governor Dan McKee announced about a hundred fifty new emergency shelter beds and a new quarantine and isolation facility for homeless people.

When asked about the camp McKee said“We are listening to anybody who wants to talk about the issue. But I think it’s a little presumptive to think that any one group got us here today.” In early November, McKee had announced $5 million in funding to create two hundred seventy-five new shelter beds. Brown told Jacobin, in response, “It defies plausibility that within sixteen days of the sleep-out, four hundred beds emerged by coincidence, or they were going to do it anyways.”

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It was an important victory won using militant tactics. But the Co-op hasn’t been without controversy, even on the Left.

Putting on the Pressure — Inside and Out

While Mendes, Brown, and activists were sleeping out and holding daytime rallies and press conferences, a different set of left-wing organizers were canvassing and meeting with unions and housing organizations to put together a proposal to build green, public housing.

Reclaim Rhode Island, formed by volunteers from Bernie Sanders’s 2020 campaign, is working in concert with state lawmakers, labor unions, and issue-based organizations to build left power by training organizers and building consensus around popular policies, including public housing investments. This fall, Reclaim formulated their Homes For All campaign to direct a quarter of the state’s $1.1 billion in American Rescue Plan funds to green public housing. The state has no dedicated funding stream for affordable housing, and a shortage of homes has driven up prices in recent years.

Rithika Ramamurthy, cochair of Reclaim, said engagement like this is necessary before escalating pressure on lawmakers. “At a certain point, it will come time to pressure individual legislators,” she said. “But we are hoping to build a lot of public consensus around this issue, because there are very few people who would disagree that we need more affordable, public housing in this state.”

The Co-Op’s strategy, meanwhile, starts from the basis that Rhode Island voters have an appetite for a progressive agenda and an antiestablishment message, and that the biggest barrier to winning progressive governing majorities is running effective campaigns.

Members of Reclaim Rhode Island. (Reclaim Rhode Island website)

The organization was founded by Brown and two others, Jeanine Calkin and Jennifer Rourke, all of whom lost their primaries in 2018 and blamed their losses at least partially on the establishment outspending them and using aggressive tactics.

Reclaim, meanwhile, is investing time and energy in training organizers and engaging with communities to build support for progressive policies.

“Organizing work is not just deciding that you’re correct,” Ramamurthy told me. “Of course the Left is right; that’s not really the question. The question is, how many people are going to stand up for the right thing?”

At times, the Co-Op and other groups in its orbit — like Sunrise and the DSA — have operated in parallel with Reclaim’s organizing work, of which elections are only a small part. Reclaim has endorsed candidates running with the help of the Co-Op, and has also allied with the Working Families Party, which has achieved legislative victories in Rhode Island such as paid sick leave by working in tandem with state house leadership.

But at other times, the Co-Op has alienated potential allies by making demands which its members find untenable, or by vilifying progressive lawmakers as not progressive enough.

“We’re all speaking the same language, yet we’ve never been in a room together,” State Senator Tiara Mack told Jacobin. Mack was elected to the state house in 2020 as part of the Co-Op, but has since left the organization. “There is no definition of what Rhode Island progressives are working toward. That has not yet been defined by the movement.”

The Co-Op has defined for itself what it means to be a progressive, and its goal is clearly stated: winning progressive governing majorities in the state. But the way it has delineated who is inside and who is outside its movement has created rifts among organizers and left progressive legislators struggling to meet the organization’s demands.

This fall, the organization announced it was primarying two lawmakers who had been working with Reclaim Rhode Island on legislation to tax the rich and pass binding emissions targets, because both lawmakers had voted for the establishment leadership picks in 2020. Both of the challengers the Co-Op had recruited for those primaries dropped out weeks later after local media uncovered old social media posts in which the challengers expressed anti-vaccine sentiments.

Once elected, many Co-Op members have disaffiliated from the organization. Senator Kendra Anderson left the Co-Op after it changed its platform to require that its members support a $19 minimum wage, a policy she thought was untenable in her conservative-leaning district. Only two current lawmakers who ran their campaigns with the Co-Op in 2020 have retained their affiliations with the organization.

The Co-Op also expelled one of its own candidates after the 2020 election, Representative Brandon Potter, for voting for the establishment’s pick for house speaker. Potter published an op-ed in response, arguing that his expulsion was a symbolic gesture given that abstaining from the vote would not have impacted the outcome, and noting, “Ultimately, I answer to the people of District 16. I will continue to exercise independent judgement even when it’s uncomfortable, and I’m prepared to be held accountable by my constituents for all of the decisions I make,” he wrote.

While the group has had significant momentum, both in the 2020 primaries and through actions like the sleep-out, the effectiveness of its strategy will be put to the test in this fall’s primaries.

The group is currently planning to run fifty candidates in state and local elections, about half of whom have already announced. Many of the announced candidates have run, and lost, in previous election cycles, some two or three times.

And Brown, who is running for governor in a crowded race, is currently polling between 6 and 9 percent.

Mendes told Jacobin that the victories in 2020 prove that the Co-Op strategy is working. “It doesn’t take a lot of imagination now to know that it’s possible to win majorities, because we proved it.”

Taking on Machine Politics

Rhode Island’s history of corrupt political machines and insurgent upsets lends credence to the Co-Op’s antagonistic approach.

In Rhode Island, a handful of people — the state Democratic party chair, the house speaker, and the senate president — run what resembles a political machine. This machine funnels money to vulnerable allies in elections and unseats lawmakers who vote against them, gives offices to its allies in the state house, decides which legislation is perpetually held in committee, employs family members and political allies in state government, selects committee chairs, and controls a slush fund which is doled out to little league teams and community groups.

Over the past decade, state treasurer-turned-governor Gina Raimondo allied with this machine to shepherd cuts to public pensions and Medicaid, and push through the charterization of urban public schools. (Raimondo is now Biden’s commerce secretary.)

But over the past few years, progressives have shown that what once seemed like an impenetrable and omniscient force may be weaker than it appears.

The Left began to challenge the machine’s omniscience in 2016, when Sanders stunned in the state’s presidential primaries.

Ahead of the primary, Hillary Clinton had led Sanders in a Brown University poll by almost ten points. She visited the state four times during her campaign, and was endorsed by Raimondo, the house speaker, and the chair of the state party. But Sanders gathered a rally of more than seven thousand a few days before the primary — one of the largest political gatherings in state history — and won the primary by 12 percentage points.

Contemporary observers thought his victory revealed more resentment toward the state’s political establishment than previously suspected, creating an opening for the Left.

“Sanders’s victory for Rhode Island is confirmation of an anti-establishment sentiment in Rhode Island, and that’s not particularly good news for Governor Raimondo,” Professor Val Endress of Rhode Island College, told the news site GoLocalProv at the time. “Any public official who closely aligns with a candidate who loses the state in the primary creates some reason for consternation.”

On the same day that Sanders upset Clinton, four Working Families Party–backed candidates for state legislative seats also unseated incumbents. In 2018, progressive state representative Aaron Regunberg — one of only a few state lawmakers to endorse Sanders in 2016 — came within 2 percentage points of unseating the lieutenant governor, and the Providence DSA sent their first candidate, Sam Bell, to the state senate.

After the 2018 primaries, a few candidates who had lost their elections — Brown, who lost by over twenty points to Raimondo, Calkin, a WFP-backed senator who was unseated by a machine-backed challenger in 2018, and Rourke — decided that progressives needed their own electoral infrastructure to compete in primaries. Those three formed the Rhode Island Political Co-Op.

Building a Serious Left Challenge

With this momentum, and the Co-Op’s ambitious goal of winning enough elections to replace house and senate leadership, the 2020 primary was a windfall for progressives.

A few months before that primary, another group joined the scene.

In 2020, Rhode Islanders had run a substantial volunteer base for the Sanders campaign, despite the campaign not having a paid staffer in the state. The weekend before the New Hampshire primary, an estimated hundred fifty Rhode Islanders went to the state to canvass.

When Sanders dropped out of the election in March 2020, those Rhode Island Sanders volunteers decided to turn the campaign infrastructure into a new group to build working-class power at the state level.

The product of their work is Reclaim Rhode Island, which launched in spring 2020 with a campaign to tax the rich and prevent cuts to the state budget. Then governor Raimondo was insisting that substantial budget cuts would be necessary to recoup lost revenue due to the pandemic, and Reclaim mobilized a campaign to raise taxes on the top 1 percent of earners. The coalition behind the “tax the rich, no cuts” campaign included the state Working Families Party and Providence DSA, anti-poverty organizations, and labor unions.

Meanwhile, the Rhode Island Political Co-Op spent that spring and summer running seventeen state legislative campaigns for candidates the organization had recruited to run on an agenda of a $15 minimum wage, a Green New Deal, taxing the rich, and other agenda items mirroring national organizations like Justice Democrats.

The Co-Op, teaming up with local Sunrise Movement hubs operated like something between a state party and a political consultancy, vetting candidates, giving campaigns access to voter data and campaign managers (many of whom were Sunrise Movement organizers), and helping recruit volunteers, in exchange for monthly dues from candidates.

Additionally, Reclaim endorsed a handful of primary challengers, as did the Providence DSA, and the SEIU 1199, all of which ran substantial ground games.

In many cases, incumbents didn’t even lift a finger against their challengers. One such incumbent failed to file a single campaign finance report (and lost), while another didn’t knock a single door. Numerous candidates in that primary season told Jacobin that people at the doors had never been canvassed before, had tried to contact their legislator during the pandemic and been unable to or simply didn’t know who represented them in the state legislature.

That momentum manifested in eight progressives unseating incumbent candidates at the state house, in addition to as many as seven more winning open seats. In a seventy-five member assembly, that replacement was notable.

Perhaps the most important outcome of that election, however, came as a Republican unseated the powerful house speaker Nicholas Mattiello, a conservative who had helped the state pass its first voter ID law, opposed pro-choice legislation, received an A rating from the National Rifle Association, and said in 2020, “There’s nothing Rhode Island can do to address climate change in a way that’s real or impactful.”

Since that election, some progressive groups have moved into the Co-Op’s orbit. The DSA, for its part, has drawn a red line against working with the state’s leadership. Kimberly Dicupe, Providence DSA cochair, told Jacobin that the group’s membership has “overwhelmingly voted to adopt standards like refusing to vote for conservative leadership and going forward with an aggressive electoral strategy, putting our standards in a league with Sunrise and the Co-Op.”

That approach puts these groups at odds with labor unions and progressive lawmakers who see voting for leadership as essential to getting their bills to the floor.

The Limits of Insurgency

Railing against the political establishment may be an effective electoral strategy in Rhode Island, but is almost impossible as a legislative strategy, lawmakers say.

Not only does state house leadership exert total control over which bills are allowed to proceed, but passing progressive legislation usually requires union support, and the state’s most powerful unions have long been cozy with the political establishment. The current senate president, Dominick Ruggerio, is himself a member of the building trades.

Nearly one in five employees in Rhode Island is a union member, one of the highest union densities in the country. But some progressives have alienated the labor movement, especially the building trades, either by primarying union allies or denouncing them as conservative.

Bell, the first DSA-backed lawmaker to win a seat in Rhode Island’s state house, told Jacobin in an interview last September that, “There is a problem, though, in that construction labor is run by very right-wing people. They pretend to support working people but they don’t, which is why they fought to have their workers exempted from the paid sick days law.”

There’s a recent legacy in Rhode Island of progressive politicians betraying unions in office, explained Pat Crowley, a longtime progressive organizer in the state and now Secretary-Treasurer for the state AFL-CIO.

In 2010, the state Democratic Party turned on the state’s unions, which had long been a key constituency, by proposing unprecedented and sweeping cuts to public employee pensions. Other states were cutting pensions in the wake of the financial crisis, but this initiative, led by then state treasurer Raimondo, stood out because it made cuts to the pension payments of existing retirees, not just the future retirement plans of workers.

In response to the proposed cuts, a coalition of labor unions ran primary campaigns against six Democratic state legislators who had backed Raimondo’s plan. They won five of the six primaries. Crowley, the political director of the Rhode Island’s teachers union, told In These Times in 2010 about the victories, “​I think we have to do this nationwide. I think we have to challenge them everywhere we go, or otherwise we are never going to get our agenda…. What the labor movement did in Rhode Island sends a good message to the rest of the labor movement that it is possible to primary anti-labor Democrats.”

That betrayal left a legacy, Crowley told me. “It really set a tone for a long time. This is part of where this ‘progressive against labor,’ or our PALS, come into play,” he said, referring to an acronym used to describe progressives who denounce unions.

Still, some of the more progressive unions, such as the SEIU 1199, have been willing to work more closely with new organizations.

During the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, Rhode Island was topping the charts with nursing home outbreaks and deaths. The SEIU was pushing the legislature to pass their bill to enact minimum staffing levels in the state’s nursing homes, because Rhode Island had some of the lowest standards in the country. “Nursing homes were running on pretty bare bones,” Heather Kelley, an elected lead organizer with the SEIU 1199, told Jacobin. “But they told us that the house wasn’t going to even vote on our safe staffing bill. We had the votes lined up, but we couldn’t even get it to the floor. So we ran a very aggressive primary season.

That summer, the SEIU knocked on thousands of doors for Potter and Leonela Felix, a Reclaim-backed challenger to an incumbent ally of the speaker who also won her primary. During the 2021 legislative session,the governor signed the safe staffing bill into law.

Meghan Kallman is one of only a few recently elected progressives to have won her campaign with broad union support, as well as the backing of Reclaim, Sunrise, and other groups. And she believes that a labor-left coalition can enact progressive change in the state house, even under current leadership.

“The amount of progressive legislation that got through this year is an incredibly strong indication of how people’s values are more convergent than divergent. The successes of this legislative session speak for themselves in so many ways,” Kallman told Jacobin. She pointed to bills to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, end source-of-income housing discrimination, increase a high-end real estate taxcap insulin prices, and enact some of the most aggressive state-level binding carbon emission targets as evidence.

Kallman said that those victories came from an “inclusive” policymaking process. “Part of getting buy-in is that it has to be an inclusive process. The inclusive process, by definition, means we are going to come into contact with people who have different perspectives.”

Working with Kallman, Reclaim has been deliberate about bringing construction unions on board with their Homes for All campaign. “We’ve incorporated what we’ve learned from the Homes Rhode Island coalition, environmental groups, and labor unions, which had demands regarding wage theft and employee misclassification” explained Jordan Goyette, a Reclaim organizer working on the proposal.

That engagement has been essential for winning union support. As Kelley of the Painters responded to me, “Workers want a seat at the table not to be told we came up with this idea for you, the boss does enough of that.”

Meanwhile, some of those unions have their own “green and healthy schools” initiative, a proposal backed by the AFL-CIO and construction unions to retrofit public schools in alignment with the state’s new emissions targets and using union labor.

One thing that Kallman, Bell, Potter, and Mack all agreed upon was that progressives in and outside the state house would benefit from agreeing on policy priorities and making demands as a coalition.

“The reality is, the machine in Rhode island is very clever, very strategic,” Bell told Jacobin. “And the Left has not been as strategic as the machine. When we’ve driven the conversation toward the issues, and been willing to think independently of the machine, victories start to happen.”

Julia Rock is a reporter for the Daily Poster.

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