PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Democratic gubernatorial candidate Matt Brown offered his most extended critique yet of incumbent Gov. Gina Raimondo on Monday, telling supporters Rhode Island needs a leader who will move the State House in a more progressive direction.
Brown, a former secretary of state who recently re-emerged after a decade out of Rhode Island politics, made clear he hopes to recapture the energy that surrounded the 2016 presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders, who defeated Hillary Clinton handily in Rhode Island that year.
“The current governor has defined the job of governor as selling the state to businesses to get them to come here,” Brown said during a kickoff organizing meeting at the Southside Cultural Center in Providence. “That is not how I define the job of governor. I define the job of governor as looking out for the people of the state.”
Echoing Sanders, Brown assailed “a broken system” that he said has infected government with “financial corruption” and “moral corruption.” He said he will not accept contributions from corporate PACs, lobbyists, or companies with interests in oil, gas and coal.
State Sen. Jeanine Calkin, a Warwick Democrat and one of the General Assembly’s leading progressive voices, appeared to be the only current officeholder on hand. She highlighted Brown’s support for alternative energy, single-payer health care and legal abortion in explaining her endorsement.
“We all know that there are good bills that go up in the General Assembly all the time, but we’re facing some corporate interests that exert their influence on whether bills pass,” Calkin said. “So we need some strong leadership to move those bills forward.”
Brown is an underdog in the Sept. 12 primary, not only because Raimondo is an incumbent but because of the massive amount of money – $4.3 million – she has stockpiled for her re-election bid. (Two other Democrats, Burrillville Land Trust President Paul Roselli and former state Rep. Spencer Dickinson, have also filed to challenge Raimondo and Brown in the primary.)
But the 48-year-old Brown, whose last job was leading an anti-nuclear nonprofit, cited his experience in the 2002 election as evidence he can win.
After law school, he said, “I went home and challenged an incumbent Democrat in a primary for secretary of state who had the full backing of the political establishment. Does that sound familiar at all to what’s going on here today? And with a massive grassroots campaign, we won that election.”
Maggie Kain, who chairs the Rhode Island chapter of Our Revolution, an activist group that grew out of the 2016 Sanders campaign, argued Brown is the natural candidate for those who previously backed the Vermont senator. She highlighted Brown’s opposition to the Burrillville power plant and a proposed LNG facility in Providence, two projects that came up repeatedly at the event.
“Matt Brown’s platform is something that I truly support, and I hope that all ‘Berniecrats’ in the state support, as well,” she said.
Brown initially said he planned to run for governor on the November ballot as an independent, but he changed course last month and said he would instead enter the primary. His decision came the same day Lincoln Chafee said he too was likely to enter the primary, in his case against incumbent U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, setting up two intraparty contests that were unexpected just weeks ago.
Raimondo has said little publicly about Brown, but behind the scenes she is working to shore up her support inside her party. Every high-ranking Democrat in the state but one has signed onto the host committee for a May 22 fundraiser at the Black Sheep to raise support her re-election. (The exception: Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, who used to work for Brown and is remaining neutral in this year’s primaries.)
Raimondo’s campaign is also distributing a memo from Pete Brodnitz, her longtime pollster, that reports 69% of self-identified liberals and progressives “support Gina’s leadership” and nearly 80% “believe she is working hard to improve the economy.” He cited a survey of 600 voters conducted in late April; the full poll was not released.
On policy, Brown said he wants to reverse various recent state tax cuts, such as by raising the top income tax rate from 5.99% back to 9.9%, where it stood until 2010. He also said he would raise the top corporate rate from 7% back to 9%, but wants to create a graduated system that lets smaller companies pay a lower rate. He has not yet decided whether he wants to raise the estate tax, he said.
Brown pledged to increase funding for Medicaid, the state-federal health insurance program for low-income residents that has grown to about a quarter of the state budget. He said he would reverse rate freezes and other Medicaid reductions Raimondo has instituted in recent years to balance the budget.
“This governor has cut Medicaid,” he said. “It has hurt people, and it’s contributed to the breaking of the backs of our hospital providers – they’re now bankrupt, they’re closing, and they’re looking to sell themselves to out-of-state corporations, which would be a disaster for the quality of care in the state and a disaster for our economy.”
Brown reiterated his goal of making Rhode Island the first state that gets all its power from renewable energy, and said he wants the state to generate enough so some can be exported, with the profits distributed to Rhode Islanders as Alaska does with its oil and gas royalties.
Brown closed with a pitch based on science.
“I think we need to remember, we know now from DNA studies, recent DNA studies from all around the world, that we actually all started out together,” he said. “There were as few as 1,000 of us, human beings, struggling to survive on the African savannah. And we did survive, and we went north and we went around the world.”
“But in the process, we found every possible way to divide ourselves against each other,” he continued. “We found race, we found religion, we found nationality, ethnicity, and politics. And so now we are divided, and that makes us powerless. … [W]e’re going to have to make sure that people recognize that now, because these problems are so big, that the only way to solve them is to find a way over these divides.”
Grace Farmer, a self-identified Democratic voter from Providence, said she is undecided about the primary and attended Brown’s event to learn more about his platform, though she said she’d known him for many years.
“It’s a hard job,” Farmer said of the governor’s office. “It’s not just ideas. It’s management.” She criticized Raimondo for the UHIP computer fiasco, the “Cooler & Warmer” tourism debacle and the rollout of truck tolls.
One attendee already in Brown’s corner was John Hamilton, who chairs the Charlestown Democratic Town Committee, which has not yet endorsed as a group.
“I believe the Democratic Party for a long time has been leaning too much toward big money, and, basically, Wall Street Democrats,” Hamilton said, adding that he considers Raimondo one of them.
Brown, Roselli and Dickinson are three of the nine candidates who have filed to challenge Raimondo this year. The others are Republicans Allan Fung, Patricia Morgan and Giovanni Feroce; independents Joe Trillo and Luis Daniel Munoz; and Moderate William Gilbert.
Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook