The Rhode Island Democratic Party has solidly controlled Rhode Island politics for decades, with members currently occupying all statewide and federal elected positions. In addition, the left side of the aisle has a dominant segment of the state’s bicameral General Assembly.
However, more and more attention has been paid to some of the widespread ideological makeup and differences within the state party and how that diversity is represented in leadership positions and legislative activity.
For the most part, leadership within the Rhode Island Democratic party has rested in the somewhat conservative, institutionalist element of the party, and less so in the more and more vocal and active progressive wing.
In the 2018 election, several indicators demonstrated what seemed to be increasing momentum for progressive ideals: progressive former Representative Aaron Regunberg’s impressive, near victory in challenging Lieutenant Governor Dan McKee in a Democratic primary; push back from party members at the insertion of former Trumpian Republican Michael Earnhart as a primary challenger to progressive Representative Moira Walsh, and, several General Assembly seats - and the party’s platform - swinging towards the left in and following the 2018 General Election, including the emergence of the progressive and anti-establishment Reform Caucus in the House.
In seeking to advance the progressive agenda, and to shake up the nature of party leadership, several challengers to the party leaders emerged ahead of this past Sunday’s State Democratic Committee election.
Although Rep. Walsh, the aforementioned Providence progressive, challenged current chairman Rep. Joseph McNamara for the party leadership position, she fell short of mounting a serious challenge, ammassing 28 total votes to McNamara’s 144.
For his part, Chairman McNamara seemed pleased with both the result and the process which the elections were conducted, telling me in an interview that he was appreciative of the challenger’s speeches and efforts.
“Well, I think that now looking at the meeting itself, drawing 300 people, it is the one of the largest state committee meetings we've had and a couple of decades. And I think that the folks shows that, there are some people that are engaging with different ideas and they brought those ideas forth.
I think the nomination speeches were excellent. It introduced a state committee to some of our newer members and a lot of ideas were brought forth that, I believe will be embraced by the potty and make us stronger.
I think it also demonstrated that the Democratic Party has a very large tent, and that has contributed to our success and our appeal and communities that were traditionally Republican. I believe it will continue to do so.
Overall it was a very positive experience. I was pleased with all of the candidates, including Representative Wall Chin, her presentation. I think that the challenge is, did a good job.
I particularly enjoyed the nomination speeches and, it just showed that and demonstrated that the Democratic Party has a lot of very talented, dedicated people who, are out and wanting to improve both to the party and the state.”
On the other hand, activist and journalist Lauren Niedel portrayed the affair as more of the same ‘business as usual’ for establishment Democrats and leaders:
“A lot of progressives are like ‘why bother when there's such a machine in place?’. It's just way too hard to make the change necessary by becoming state committee members. And it really is because in 2018 we had a pretty good success with state committee members who ran, that we got in, that we're progressive.
So, the names are well known, the money is there, the party is very indoctrinated with keeping the status quo and people don't like to see change in the Rhode Island Democratic Party.
And it's a shame because, if you look at the mentality of a lot of people in the party, it's very 20th century.
There is no vision. It just wants to stay right where it is. Kind of stuck in time without trying to, you know, bring in new people, new energy, new vitality and,(instead) keeping to the old school rule. And you could see that there because the diversity was horrendous. There was none practically, there was practically no diversity within the 300 people. It was quite sad. And that's because there's no effort to really bring in people outside of party elite.”
Following Sunday’s Democratic State Committee meeting, I was left wondering, as I often have in recent times, where is the actual center of the Rhode Island Democratic Party? Is major compromise possible given the size and scope of the party’s ‘big tent’? Can the state party forge a clear and consistent identity ahead of the 2020 Presidential elections?
Bill Bartholomew is a musician, podcaster and media contributor based in Providence, RI. Listen live to Bartholomewtown Radio every Tuesday at 6pm on 990wbob.com
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