A Different Shade of Blue

Inside the ‘big tent’ of Rhode Island's Democratic Party

by Harry August

Illustration by Gabriel Matesanz

published February 2, 2018

In Rhode Island, the label of “Democrat” doesn’t mean all that much. Despite its reputation for being as blue as the oceans, the state legislature has plenty of what critics call “DINOs,” or “Democrats in name only,” politicians who hold leadership positions in the Democratic Party but are more ideologically aligned with Republicans. This reality can help explain how Rhode Island, a state with Democrats in every statewide elected position and 85% of its legislature’s seats, has recently slashed taxes for the wealthiest, passed a voter-ID law, and faces a $165 million cut to Medicaid in the new state budget. 

Take, for example, Democratic Speaker of the House Nick Mattiello, one of the most powerful members of the Rhode Island state government, who has an “A+” rating from the National Rifle Association, is pro-life with regards to abortion, and said in 2017 that Rhode Island “should be supportive of [President Trump].”  Also, five Democratic state representatives recently introduced a bill restricting women’s right to receive a specific type of abortion, known as a dilation and evacuation, promptly sparking criticism from the party’s progressive wing. This progressive wing includes state senators and representatives who advocate for policies more closely aligned with social democratic politics, such as single-payer health care, a $15 minimum wage, reproductive justice, and environmental protection. 

Chairman of the Rhode Island Democratic Party Joe McNamara of Warwick told the College Hill Independent that the Party has an “extremely large tent,” because “people have to work together to achieve common goals.” McNamara cited, for instance, how a NRA-endorsed Democrat voted for progressive issues like banning conversion therapy and taking guns from domestic abusers. But to progressive Democrats, the prevalence of these conservative Democrats is misaligned with the actual values of the majority of Rhode Island voters. As evidence of this, Georgia Hollister Isman, state director of the Rhode Island Working Families Party, told the Indy that progressive policies are “overwhelming popular” in the state, citing poll that found 90% of Rhode Islanders support paid sick days for workers. 

On state ballots, however, people in Rhode Island often just vote for the Democratic candidate on the ballot as a 'shortcut,' assuming the views of local candidates align with the national Democratic platform, Hollister Isman told the Indy. As a result, running conservative Democrats “is unfair to voters,” Sam Bell, a recent State Coordinator of the Rhode Island Progressive Democrats, told the Indy: “Especially in local elections where there is very little news coverage, if you are a Republican and you run as a Democrat, how are people supposed to know?” 


“Rhode Island is ripe for organizing around progressive issues,” Hollister Isman told the Indy, because the state “is still governed to the right of where people’s values actually are,” despite the ubiquity of Democrats in the State House. That’s where the Rhode Island Working Families Party (WFP) steps in, said Hollister Isman, to mobilize the progressive base in Rhode Island and better represent the working people of the state. And while it is still a small player in a state dominated by the Democratic Party, the WFP has begun to rack up a series of legislative and electoral victories. 

The Rhode Island WFP is the state chapter of the national Working Families Party, which was founded in 1998 by a coalition of progressive and labor groups in New York and has now spread to about a dozen states. The WFP is both a political and advocacy organization, one that endorses and supports progressive candidates—almost always Democrats—and also organizes around progressive legislation, such as universal healthcare, increased minimum wage, and environmental reform. In states where candidates can run as the nominee of multiple parties, the Working Families Party will endorse and nominate the Democrat on their ballot. 

In Rhode Island, where candidates can only run as the nominee for a single party, the WFP has never endorsed or nominated its own candidate. Instead, Hollister Isman told the Indy, the party seeks out progressive candidates that share the party’s values and then “fulfill the role of the party for those candidates,” helping those candidates, many of them new to politics, win elections. The support they provide depends on the candidate and their needs, Hollister Isman said, ranging from expert advice on campaign training and strategy, money from the WFP’s political action committee, or phone banking and canvassing neighborhoods. This makes the WFP strategically similar to the Tea Party (the libertarian political activist group formed in response to President Barack Obama’s election), although that is likely the only similarity between these ideologically opposed groups. 

The Rhode Island chapter of the WFP was organized in 2015, when a coalition of community and organized labor groups formed to lobby for progressive policies, conduct grassroots organizing, and support candidates for local offices. The party continues to work closely with organizations, such as the Teamsters Local 251, Jobs with Justice, and healthcare workers unions, including on a recently announced campaign for a $15 minimum wage and equal pay legislation. 

In the few years since its establishment, the chapter has been developing into a political force through both legislative and electoral victories. In 2016, the WFP-endorsed, first-time candidate, and progressive Democrat Marcia Ranglin-Vassel beat the House Majority Leader John DeSimone, an incumbent of 24 years, by 17 votes. A political analyst for Rhode Island Public Radio (RIPR), Scott MacKay, recently described this on-air as, “the biggest legislative upset we’ve seen in many a year,” and credited the WFP as being “crucial” to defeating DeSimone. Ranglin-Vassel was one of four WFP-endorsed progressive Democrats who beat more conservative Democratic challengers in that first election cycle. 

After the election, the Working Families Party began to use their growing legislative power in coordination with their grassroots organizing to pass progressive legislation, most prominently a paid sick leave bill that was signed into law by Governor Raimondo this past September. The bill requires employers (of businesses with more than 18 employees) to provide their workers with five paid sick days by 2020; it looks similar to laws already passed in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Vermont. After initially proposing a bill that would require more paid sick days and also apply to smaller companies, the Working Families Party reached a compromise with business leaders who opposed some aspects of the bill, Hollister Isman said on RIPR. Even so, Hollister Isman told the Indy that it was the fastest a paid sick leave bill has been passed through a state legislature. RIPR Political Analyst MacKay told the Indy that the WFP deserves plenty of credit for passing such a bill, especially since the legislation was something that neither Speaker of the House Mattiello nor Senate President Ruggiero “gave a darn about.”


As progressive Democrats continue to challenge conservative Democrats in the ‘big tent’ of the Democratic Party, there appears to be a growing amount of tension within the organization. And while this parallels the challenges that the national Democratic Party has faced since the 2016 election, the conflicts are fairly distinct. 

At the national level, the Democratic Party has been unable to resolve the ideological conflicts between its moderates and progressives, the Hillary and the Bernie crowds. At the core of this debate seems to be the question of whether the Democratic Party, led predominantly by moderates, is willing to embrace a progressive wing with a growing list of electoral successes, often in states and counties where moderate Democrats have floundered.

Rhode Island, however, cannot really be seen as just a microcosm of this national conflict. In Rhode Island, Bell told the Indy, political centrists and moderate Democrats are fairly absent in the state’s legislature; instead, Bell says Rhode Island politics fully revolve around the fights between the ruling conservative Democrats, “who would be hard to be classified as anything but conservatives,” and Democratic reformers from the party’s left wing. Many Democrats in Rhode Island are much more conservative than the moderate Democrats associated with Hillary Clinton. 

Chairman McNamara disagreed with this characterization in an interview with the Indy, emphasizing that the party has contained a wide range of ideologies for decades. However, tensions between the two sides have flared up recently in party leadership elections and another incident involving a recent skirmish with the Rhode Island Democratic Women’s Caucus and the Democratic Party’s leadership. 

Lauren Niedel, a member of the RI Democratic Committee, outlined in a recent article on (a progressive political blog) bluntly titled “The RI Democratic Party isn’t very democratic,” how the Democratic Party has worked to exclude progressive voices from the party. She writes that “it’s unclear to me if the current executive committee of the Rhode Island Democratic Party was ever legitimately elected,” and outlines her challenges, as a voting member of the party, towards figuring out if, when, and where the “clandestine” elections for party leadership and superdelegates took place. Niedel’s piece points out the hypocrisy of Party Chair McNamara’s description of the party as a “big tent,” making it clear that the metaphor is applicable primarily for defending the right wing of the party while keeping progressive party members like Niedel at a distance. 

Niedel is also a member of the Women’s Caucus, a group within the party created to encourage more female Democratic candidates to run for office. During a December 10, 2017 meeting at the party headquarters, the caucus was forced to relocate to a nearby sports bar after they refused to allow a Democratic staff member to sit in on the interviews the caucus was holding, according to coverage in the Providence Journal. The conflict quickly became a contentious issue for the party as people challenged its inclusivity of women and other historically underrepresented groups. While Chairman McNamara described it solely as a “dust up” caused by “growing pains,” Governor Gina Raimondo sided with the Women’s Caucus, telling RIPR that the way the caucus was treated was disrespectful and patronizing, and went as far as to offer meeting space in her own campaign headquarters. While not explicitly a conflict between progressive and conservative Democrats, this skirmish is indicative of a party that appears hesitant to open its doors, or tent flaps, to party members hoping to make the party more inclusive. 

Beyond these recent conflicts, there is also the question of how long the the Democratic Party can sustain itself with such ideological divisions among its members. Political Analyst MacKay told the Indy that no one really knows the answer to that question. One concern is that these fissures will weaken the party, distracting politicians and voters from key issues, but MacKay told the Indy that “the state Republican party is so weak that I don’t see [a lack of party unity] hurting statewide.” McNamara reinforced this position to the Indy, saying that the party’s strategy acknowledges that “in order to get [Democrats] elected very often, they have to have a message … that resonates with their constituency, so that’s why we have a very wide tent.” From this perspective, it seems that the leaders of the Democratic Party are more interested in maintaining a stronghold on the state assembly than taking stances on issues and actually pushing for the policies supported by their Democratic constituents. Furthermore, Hollister Isman told the Indy running progressive candidates is not a poor strategic decision: “We think the candidates that support bold progressive platforms have better chances of winning.” Given President Trump’s successes with low-income, less-educated white voters, exemplified by his victories in Johnston and Woonsocket, there is a compelling case to be made for a strong progressive labor movement that can re-engage voters disenfranchised from the Democratic Party. 

Beyond electoral strategy, there’s also the question of when the Democratic Party should stand up and articulate a positive vision, such as during the upcoming legislative debate on abortion rights. Chairman McNamara said that while the party does have “core values,” such as healthcare for all citizens and support for organized labor, it does not have any litmus tests. Accordingly, the party has yet to take a stand on the upcoming state battle over abortion rights, a decision that will inevitably alienate some of its members. To Bell, however, refusing to have a core set of policies is a fault of the state’s Democrats: “I think parties should stand for something; it is fundamentally dishonest for a Republican to run for office as a Democrat.”


In just a few years the WFP has had some successes, but the true test of progressive politics will come as they try to shift from a fringe party to a true political force. The party had a major legislative achievement in the paid sick leave bill, but to combat the conservative Democrats and the many regressive laws they have passed, the WFP will have to start leading more frequent campaigns on other contentious policies. As progressive democrat Bell told the Indy, “We are still losing. We’re still seeing a really awful set of policies, particularly with regards to health care.” 

That said, Bell added that even in the past few years, progressive Democrats have shifted the topics of political debate in Rhode Island from extremely conservative policies to conversations about issues like poverty, gender equality, and reproductive justice. Furthermore, as MacKay told the Indy, while the Democrats have the fundraising strength, “the energy is on the progressive side—if you look at who is doing the work, who is getting out there and knocking on doors, who is doing the phone banks, the people who get out there are more often from the progressive side of the party.” Thus, with the 2017 legislative session and 2018 Democratic primaries looming, the Working Families Party and progressives throughout the state have a promising opportunity to use this surge in energy to extend their reach into the machine of the Democratic Party and reshape Rhode Island politics. 


HARRY AUGUST B’19 Wishes DINOs went extinct 65 million years ago.