PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Progressive Rhode Island Democrats are assailing the party’s old guard over a series of General Assembly endorsements that went to individuals including a Trump supporter and an ex-lawmaker under indictment.
The state Democratic Party – which is controlled by House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and chaired by Warwick Rep. Joe McNamara – endorsed House District 3 challenger Michael Earnheart, who has said he voted for President Trump, over Rep. Moira Walsh, who has broken with Mattiello’s leadership team at times.
And in House District 13, the local Democratic committee’s leaders endorsed former Rep. John Carnevale, who is currently being prosecuted for allegedly lying to city officials in 2016 about whether he lived there, over incumbent Ramon Perez and challenger Mario Mendez. (Carnevale is fighting the charges.) The National Organization for Women has also expressed concern about Carnevale’s 2011 indictment for sexual assault, a case that was later dropped when the accuser died suddenly.
“It is absolutely shameful that the establishment machine is lining up behind conservative, unethical and anti-woman candidates to run against real Democrats in races across Rhode Island,” state Rep. Aaron Regunberg, a Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, said in a statement Monday.
The controversy is the latest evidence of a deep divide in the Rhode Island Democratic Party, which holds every federal and statewide office as well as durable supermajorities in the state legislature, at the price of massive differences in policy and perspective across its membership.
It’s hardly the first sign, however. A longtime party leader, Joe DeLorenzo, was forced out last fall after mocking progressive activists and questioning state Rep. Teresa Tanzi’s account of sexual harassment at the State House. Party platform meetings have erupted into open hostilities. The Democratic Party women’s caucus, reactivated after Trump took office, has complained of mistreatment by leadership.
Progressive women have also been frustrated that their priorities got short shrift in this year’s legislative session, particularly a high-profile bill on abortion rights that the General Assembly’s pro-life leaders kept bottled up in committee.
In addition to Earnheart and Carnevale, Regunberg took issue with the state party’s endorsement of former state Sen. Gregory Acciardo over Bridget Valverde in Senate District 35, as well as the House District 5 Democratic committee’s endorsement of Holly Coolman over incumbent Rep. Marcia Ranglin-Vassell. Acciardo pleaded no contest to driving under the influence in 2010 and is currently seeking to have the record expunged; Coolman is pro-life, while Ranglin-Vassell is pro-choice.
Walsh, Perez and Ranglin-Vassell are all in their first terms. Acciardo and Valverde are seeking the seat currently held by Republican Sen. Mark Gee. (His wife, Dana Gee, is running to succeed him.) The state party also endorsed Mark McKenney, the challenger opposing Warwick Sen. Jeanine Calkin, another progressive lawmaker in her first term.
T. Kevin Olasanoye, executive director of the state Democratic Party, insisted that only Walsh had a legitimate bone to pick with the party over its endorsements, because in her case there was no local district committee and McNamara, as chairman, chose to give her opponent the endorsement. Walsh failed to ask McNamara for the endorsement, Olasanoye said.
McNamara’s decision quickly drew national attention.
A story on Slate.com asked, “Why did the Rhode Island Democratic Party endorse an alt-right supporter over a progressive incumbent?” Topher Spiro, a former staffer for U.S. Sen. Jack Reed who is now a prominent leader at the liberal Center for American Progress, called on Reed, U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Gov. Gina Raimondo to endorse Walsh and “call for a shake up” in state party leadership.
“This is totally unacceptable,” Spiro tweeted. “Deal with it swiftly.”
The first high-level officeholder to take sides was Democratic Congressman David Cicilline, who said he had reached out to Walsh to offer his support. “Rep. Walsh has consistently stood up for Democratic values,” he tweeted. “Something that clearly cannot be said for her opponent.” Within hours, General Treasuer Seth Magaziner and state Sen. Donna Nesselbush said they had donated to Walsh, too.
A spokesperson for Mattiello did not respond to a request for comment.
Sulina Mohanty, chairwoman of the Rhode Island Democratic Party women’s caucus, was among those criticizing McNamara.
“The party made a decision to endorse Trump supporters and criminals over women who have been dedicated and hard working leaders in the party and on behalf of Rhode Islanders,” she tweeted. She noted unendorsed candidates must pay $1,600 to access voter data, while endorsed candidates get it free.
“So many things that have happened over the past few weeks show an absolute lack of respect for women as leaders or people – in the ‘bluest’ state,” Mohanty added. “This is absolutely unacceptable and an embarrassment to our party and our state.”
Olasanoye argued the situations in the other districts are different from Walsh’s.
In Calkin’s case, he said McNamara endorsed McKenney over her because he expected the local district committee to follow suit, which he said it did. And in Carnevale’s case, he said, McNamara did not file an endorsement because he was unsure who would receive the district committee’s backing. (The party chairman is only allowed to award the endorsement if a local committee does not.)
Coolman, who is a Providence College theology professor, hit back at Regunberg’s suggestion that she is running on a “specifically anti-choice platform,” saying in a statement that “my pro-life position is actually only one issue in a larger platform.”
“Regunberg asserts that I’m not a ‘real Democrat,’” she said. “However, I am committed to core Democratic principles, including protecting workers’ rights, protecting immigrants’ rights, common sense gun control, environmental sustainability and access to health care for all.”
Barth Bracy, executive director of Rhode Island Right to Life, also came to Coolman’s defense. “Apparently for Regunberg a Democrat is not a real Democrat and a woman not a real woman unless she supports his extreme position on abortion,” he said.
In a news release, Valverde said she had received the unanimous endorsements of the Democratic town committees in both East Greenwich and North Kingstown.
“Gregory Acciardo popped up at the campaign declaration deadline and was immediately handed the official Democratic endorsement by Joe McNamara,” she said. “Since Mr. Acciardo hasn’t been involved in our community, the only thing we really knew about him is that he’s part of the same old boys’ network that has blocked so much progress for Rhode Island.”