In the midst of historic politically polarizing times nationally, Rhode Island is nearing a battle that could pose a serious challenge to its incumbent, dominant Democratic Party.
There are no signs to indicate that challenge is coming from a strong renewal of Republicanism or another opposition party. Rather, the Democrats’ biggest concern this election season should be their fellow Democrats.
Motivated to action by what they deem to be widespread complacency and monetary conflicts of interest that have stymied issues most important to them on Smith Hill, the Rhode Island Political Cooperative group is seeking to inject the general assembly (and municipal city councils) with enthusiastic, ambitious candidates who are unafraid to proudly declare their dissatisfaction with the status quo.
“We have a platform that we’ve been told by the [Democratic] party is purely aspirational and does not actually have to be adhered to by any member of the party or the party itself,” said Nick Delmenico, who works as the production manager of Johnston-based marketing and technology agency Xzito Creative Solutions and is running for State Rep. District 27 (Coventry, West Warwick, Warwick).
“If the party is not going to listen to us and change, then we want to become the party.”
That platform Delmenico mentioned will likely sound familiar if you’ve followed national political discourse coming from Democratic frontrunners Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. It’s a platform based on the concept that corporate interests – which have compromised establishment Democrats through self-serving agendas via flawed lobbying and campaign finance systems – have usurped the needs of working-class people.
If this fundamental problem is addressed, the co-op candidates believe it can open the door to fund core policies such as implementing Medicare for all, increasing the amount of affordable housing and achieving a 100 percent clean energy standard by 2030.
“We can have a Rhode Island for the people, is really what we’re aiming at,” said Janine Calkin, running in Warwick’s District 30 for the senate. “Not for the corporate lobbyists and the corporations, but for the actual, working families.”
Calkin, who won her race for the same seat in 2016 but was defeated by fellow Democrat Mark McKenney in 2018, has emerged as a leader within the co-op, both as an organizer and as someone with experience in feeling the frustration of pushing forward what she viewed as solid, progressive, Democratic legislation that ultimately never made it out of the committee stage.
Calkin founded Rhode Island’s group in support of Bernie Sanders during his presidential run in 2016, and followed up her victory for her senate seat by pushing legislation that embodied much of Sanders’ platform, including a bill that would set up a committee to discuss moving the state to a single-payer healthcare system, establishing a $15 minimum wage and bills that would set hard target goals for more environmental protection.
“There’s been some decent legislation that has been introduced but it never goes anywhere. At least for the last three years we haven’t had any good environmental legislation come out of the general assembly,” Calkin said.
In defending the ever-controversial single-payer healthcare stance, the candidates expressed their belief that the only ones who instinctively fight its implementation are insurance companies (who make immense profit from the current system) and those who haven’t been given an accurate description of what the system actually would entail.
“What we’re basically saying is we’re not changing anything about your doctors, nurses or hospitals. All we’re doing is changing who is paying the bill. It’s the go-between person. Instead of having Blue Cross or an insurance company – who is trying to make billions in profits – they’re job is to deny your claim until they have a reason to actually pay it,” Calkin explained. “What we’re saying is get rid of that middle man, have it be one single payer, such as a Medicare or system like that, and we all pay into that one system and they take care of the billing with the hospitals. It simplifies things on a tremendous scale when you do it like that.”
Delmenico mentioned his conservative-leaning father who fully supports the single-payer system, as he works in IT for a medical practice.
“He sees all the inefficiencies that run with all the insurance companies that they have to deal with,” he said. “He thinks it would save so much for them if they only had to deal with one entity to handle all these claims.”
Calkin, likewise, has personal experience that has pushed her towards advocating for a change in the healthcare system.
“I actually worked for a couple hospitals doing medical billing while going through school,” she said. “So I saw firsthand what it’s like to tell a person who is going through cancer treatments that their insurance company is not going to pay for their bill and what that does to them and how devastating it can be.”
The RI Political Coop is seeking to get 25 of its members elected in various capacities across the state. They already have 15 candidates declared – representing 10 senate districts that cover portions of Providence, East Providence, Pawtucket, Central Falls, North Providence, Smithfield, Johnston, Warwick, Cranston, Charlestown, Exeter, Hopkinton, Richmond, West Greenwich, Block Island and North Kingstown and two House districts that cover parts of Warwick, West Warwick, Coventry, Little Compton, Portsmouth and Tiverton.
The declared candidates are seeking to dethrone some powerful incumbents. They include representatives like Senate Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin, Senate Finance Committee Chairman William Conley Jr., Senate Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey, Senate Judiciary Chairwoman Erin Lynch-Prata, House Environment & Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Susan Sosnowski, House Oversight Committee Chairwoman Patricia Serpa and House Deputy Majority Leader Dennis Canario.
Additionally, the co-op is supporting local city council races, including Providence, Central Falls and one in Ward 9 in Warwick – a seat currently held by Council President Steve Merolla – where 2017 Toll Gate High School graduate and Rhode Island College student Zach Colón is running. He cites disappointment in how educational issues have been handled in the city as his primary motivation for throwing his hat in the ring.
“I would love to see a few more people come out and join us on the City Council side in Warwick,” Colón said. “If we have a team of three or four or even five people on the city council that is willing to work for strong, progressive issues that’s going to make our city better, make our education better, make our environment and climate better, we can do some real great stuff on the more local level.”
Education resonates with Jennifer Rourke, who was defeated by McCaffrey in Senate District 29 in the 2018 primary but did manage to make it a race (she lost 2,411 to 1,267 votes).
“The biggest thing that we need to fight for is fixing the [state funding] formula at the top so that the funding goes where it really needs to go,” Rourke said.
For the co-op, taking on these uphill challenges is the entire point.
“We’ve been up on the Hill,” said Kendra Anderson, seeking the Senate District 31 seat that belongs to Lynch-Prata. “Many of us are activists and we have been there time and time again and we have pressured our elected officials to do something, and they’re not. So, we just decided, okay, well what’s the next step? Run for office.”
And running for office is one thing, but being able to raise enough money so that a candidate actually stands a chance against an incumbent is another story. The candidates in the RI Political Coop are hopeful that their message and policies will inspire regular, working citizens to help support their campaign in a grassroots method similar to what has happened with the aforementioned Sanders and Warren campaigns.
“We’re running to truly represent every working family that’s living in our districts. That’s who we want to be funded by, so we don’t have to answer to the fossil fuel or corporate lobbyists. We answer to the people,” Calkin said, adding that she feels about $20,000 is a good target to reach for candidates seeking election in the general assembly.
And while voter turnout hasn’t been stellar in Rhode Island or across the country – just 55 percent of the voting age population casting a ballot during the 2016 presidential election nationally and just over 60 percent did in Rhode Island – the co-op feels that apathy over elections has a direct root in people feeling misrepresented.
“I think that people get apathetic when they have a government that doesn’t work for them. When they make promises and they don’t fulfill them,” Calkin said. “We are pledging to work as hard as we can to get these things passed, if we’re elected.”
The mere existence of the co-op demonstrates the widespread unrest and shifting priorities occurring in American politics, even among members of the same overarching party.
“I feel like it’s as if there’s a class divide within the Democratic Party and there’s the elite class which wants to protect their wealth and their status and they want to keep everyone else out and pay lip service to all the Democratic values and, ‘Vote for us and we’ll take care of it, don’t worry about anything.’ But they’re really not listening to us,” Delmenico said.
“I think we really see ourselves as Democrats and it’s like, you’re not really looking out for us,” he continued. “You’re looking out for your interests, not ours and everyone else’s in the state.”