PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) - Bowing to heavy pressure from progressives locally and nationally, the Rhode Island Democratic Party on Thursday rescinded its endorsement of two controversial General Assembly candidates.
In a letter dated July 4, Democratic Party Chairman Joe McNamara withdrew his endorsement of Michael Earnheart, a pro-Trump challenger running in the primary against incumbent Rep. Moira Walsh, and Greg Acciardo, a former state senator with a criminal record who is running against a progressive newcomer, Bridget Valverde, in Senate District 35.
Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea's office confirmed the withdrawal of the two endorsements had been accepted, but GOP Chairman Brandon Bell questioned whether doing so was legal, since the state law cited by Gorbea does not refer to endorsements.
McNamara - who was authorized to make endorsements in those districts because there were no local district committees to award them - said his decision was "in the best interests of the Rhode Island Democratic Party."
"As a policy matter, the people in each district should decide who gets chosen when no district committee exists, because they’re the people closest to the candidates and have more information about those candidates than the state party could ever have," he said in a statement. "In practice, what we’ve learned over the last few days only reinforces my belief that this is the right policy going forward."
"Over the last four years as chair, I’ve worked really hard to make sure our party is more open and transparent and is a place where all Democrats can feel they can have a voice and make a difference," he added. "I regret that these endorsements are inconsistent with that work."
The reversal by McNamara and other leaders of the state party, which is controlled by House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, follows an outcry that drew national attention, particularly the decision to spurn Walsh for Earnheart in House District 3. McNamara has since acknowledged he was not aware of Earnheart's support for Trump when he agreed to endorse him.
Earnheart said McNamara informed him of his decision Thursday morning, and he said he accepted it. "I do not wish to be a distraction," Earnheart said in a statement.
"With this behind me, I will take my case directly to the voters in the Democratic Primary in order to move our state forward in a positive direction," he said, adding that his campaign will "focus on improving the economy and the business climate of our state."
Progressives immediately celebrated their victory. Walsh tweeted: "You guys called, emailed and carrier pigeoned the dem party until they finally caved. I officially have a fair race. To be clear @RIDemChair gets no brownie points for the take backsies. I won’t forget what happened here."
"I think that this is just the first step in a very long process to fix our broken party," Walsh said in a follow-up interview. "It's abundantly clear based on them backtracking that they know what they did was wrong."
Walsh has repeatedly clashed with Mattiello and criticized him publicly for a campaign-finance violation earlier this year. Backing a Trump supporter against her was "more than just an oversight," she said. "I think it's intentional. I think that they were interested in endorsing anybody but me."
The Earnheart and Acciardo endorsements were not the only ones that caused controversy. Local district committees also endorsed challengers against two other incumbent progressive women, Rep. Marcia Ranglin-Vassell and Sen. Jeanine Calkin, as well as the comeback bid of former Rep. John Carenvale, who is currently under indictment. Those endorsements remain in place.
The controversy is the latest sign 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, but which is riven by huge differences in policy and perspective across its membership.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Matt Brown has called for McNamara, a longtime Warwick state representative, to resign over the endorsements. Mattiello backed McNamara for the post in 2014 after the previous chairman, former Rep. David Caprio, resigned over a beach-concessions scandal.
"The days of this kind of backroom establishment politics is over," Brown said Thursday. "The party urgently needs new leadership." He has also criticized Gov. Gina Raimondo for failing to explicitly support Walsh over Earnheart.
State Rep. Aaron Regunberg, who is challenging incumbent Lt. Gov. Dan McKee in the primary, said the endorsements had been "absolutely shameful," and criticized McKee for failing to speak out about them.
Prominent elected Democrats, including Congressman David Cicilline, also broke with McNamara and Mattiello on the endorsements, while no major figure spoke out publicly to support them.
State Rep. Lauren Carson, a Newport Democrat, wrote on Facebook that she was "deeply disturbed" by the party's moves.
"It has been clear to me since 2017 that women are determined to be at the table, equally, in ways that we never have been before, or we will lose our basic rights as members of society," she wrote. "I call upon RI Democratic Party leaders to take steps to heal these divisions and unfold the Big Tent that we often hear embraces our party in Rhode Island."
State Rep. Joe Almeida, a Democrat who co-chairs Providence's General Assembly delegation, wrote on the progressive website UpriseRI, "I don’t agree with Moria on everything, but she doesn’t deserve to be treated this way."
"This is not the Democratic Party I know and love; shame on them," Almeida wrote.
Not everyone was happy with the news. The Gaspee Project, a conservative advocacy group that has targeted progressive lawmakers, characterized the endorsement reversal as "the bloodless coup of the once-proud RI Democratic party by the extreme secular-left."
Kim Kalunian contributed to this report.
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