PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Just weeks after saying he wanted to run for governor as an independent, former Secretary of State Matt Brown announced Wednesday he will instead challenge incumbent Gina Raimondo in the Democratic primary.
“I’m running for governor because we have big problems in our state and in our country and I’m convinced that we need change,” he told supporters in an email, adding: “I will run as a Democrat.”
The news came as a relief to Raimondo aides and supporters, who had feared Brown’s progressive platform would siphon off some of the left-leaning voters she needs in order to win the November election. But it will still force the first-term governor, whose poll numbers have been weak, to take the Sept. 12 primary more seriously.
Brown, 48, stunned Rhode Island political observers last month when he emerged after more than a decade out of politics – and, for a time, out of Rhode Island altogether – to file for governor. He’d been elected secretary of state as a Democrat in 2002, then made a bid for the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination in 2006 before a campaign-finance scandal short-circuited his run.
Brown said last month he left the Democratic Party about five years ago and wanted to govern as an independent. “It was really a feeling that built up over time,” Brown explained during an interview on WPRI 12’s Newsmakers. He also declined to say whether he voted for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump in 2016.
“I’m not going to get into my voting record,” he said. “I think the privacy of the ballot is important. I think it’s an important principle of American democracy. I don’t want to open that up and got through all of that.”
On Wednesday, however, Brown’s campaign announced he would run as a Democrat rather than an independent. The news came after voters reported getting called for a poll testing how Brown would fare in the primary against Raimondo and two other Democrats already challenging her, Paul Roselli and Spencer Dickinson. Brown’s campaign has declined to say if it conducted the poll.
“There is growing energy and eagerness within the Democratic Party for change,” Brown said in a statement explaining his change of heart on an independent bid. “I’ve seen it all across the state. I look forward to joining forces with people in every city and town in Rhode Island to push for change that better reflects our values, to create an economy that works for everyone – not just big corporations, big banks and the wealthiest few – and to be bold in the face of big problems.”
Providence’s city clerk said Brown had not yet registered as a Democrat as of Wednesday afternoon.
Brown’s first stop after the announcement was an evening meeting in Burrillville to speak to residents fighting a proposed power plant there. The project has proven a political headache for multiple incumbent Democrats, with Gov. Gina Raimondo facing vocal criticism for initially supporting it – she now claims she is neutral – and U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse attacked for failing to oppose it.
(In fact, the power plant was also cited Wednesday by former Gov. Lincoln Chafee as one of the reasons he is now “very likely” to challenge Whitehouse for his old Senate seat in the Democratic primary. The surprise disclosure came after Chafee signaled for months he was strongly leaning toward challenging Raimondo, not Whitehouse.)
In recent years, Brown has been active with a group he co-founded called Global Zero, which has sought to eliminate nuclear weapons worldwide. He earned $299,000 as its president in 2016, IRS filings show. He and his wife, Marisa, have two children. They moved to Washington for a time when he was running Global Zero but now live in Providence.
A WPRI 12/Roger Williams University poll in late February showed a wide-open race for governor, with Raimondo taking just 38% against her strongest Republican opponent, Allan Fung, who receives 36%. Nearly one in four voters were undecided in a Raimondo-Fung race. Two other Republicans, Patricia Morgan and Giovanni Feroce, are also seeking the GOP nomination.
Brown could face a challenge in the Democratic primary, however. The poll showed 73% of Democrats have a favorable view of Raimondo, and 55% say she is doing an excellent or good job as governor. The governor has also raised millions of dollars to fund her campaign, while Brown only began fundraising in recent weeks.
Brown’s decision will still leave the November gubernatorial ballot crowded if all the currently announced candidates stay in. Along with the Democratic and Republican nominees, other candidates running are Republican-turned-independent Joe Trillo, Moderate Party Chairman Bill Gilbert, and independent Luis Daniel Munoz.