Indivisible Rhode Island came to praise Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, not to bury him. They brought a plate full of cookies and were sincere in their thanks over Whitehouse’s efforts to preserve the Affordable Care Act from yet another Republican-led assault. But even as George Carvalho, state director of Whitehouse’s office, received heartfelt gratitude (and cookies!) for 90 percent of the Senator’s work, constituents dominated the meeting with criticism of Whitehouse’s failure to make a public statement against Invenergy’s $1 billion fracked gas and diesel oil burning power plant planned for the forests of Burrillville.
The discussion began with praise for Whitehouse’s leadership on climate change in the United States Senate. A mom told Carvalho that both her kids “continue to be very concerned about the environment, as I am too, and we want to thank the Senator for his continued support on environmental issues because my son wants to be a marine biologist and he’d like for there to be something to study.”
This led to a woman asking if the Senator had seen Before the Flood (2016), a Leonardo DiCaprio narrated documentary about climate change. Carvalho noted that Whitehouse had met with DiCaprio about the issue.
The woman said, “I feel we are beyond…” before she was at a loss for words.
“The tipping point, yeah,” said Carvalho as the room fell into a temporary silence.
“On the environment,” said Narragansett resident and Indivisible Rhode Island member Jan O’Kelley, “just to begin with, I went out canvassing for Senator Whitehouse, right from the very first election for the Senate. I totally support him but I have some real real concerns. Not about him, but the impact of this one particular thing I’m going to say will have on him.
“There are a number of people in Rhode Island that call themselves progressives and they are progressive Democrats who have one issue, it seems to me, and only one issue of great importance and that’s the Burrillville Power Plant and it really frightens me and disturbs me to hear them talk about Senator Whitehouse.”
She continued, “I mean, we’ve all defended him. He’s a United States Senator, he’s not a state senator, it’s a local issue but he has to do something to appease those people. Because they kind of think he’s, in a way, almost a hypocrite.”
“Yeah, I know,” said Carvalho.
“And when I talk to this one particular fellow who kind of puts out a lot of this very well written and substantiated literature on him,” continued O’Kelley, “I say, ‘What you’re doing is, you’re hurting our great Senator who’s doing so much for us in Washington.’
“I’m afraid. You hear about the Judge [Robert Flanders] who may run in the primary in Rhode Island who has probably a lot of credibility in Rhode Island. I’m worried that people are going to hold the Senator’s lack of a position of Burrillville against him and not vote for him.
“Whitehouse’s lack of a position on Burrillville is damaging the Senator’s reputation. Really get that message to the Senator. It’s so important.”
Another woman agreed. “Whitehouse needs to lay the groundwork for a position against Burrillville. He can’t just announce this near the end of the campaign when it’s too late. He has seen some erosion of his support because of this.”
“I’ve felt that too actually,” said a third woman. “They are very passionate and people are getting the feeling that Senator Whitehouse is ignoring them.”
Steven Belaus, another Indivisible Rhode Island member from Narragansett, said, “Two months ago I heard people lay this message out to the Senator and he said, ‘Yup, I hear you, but…’”
Carvalho shook his head. “We haven’t changed our position. It’s a state issue…”
Moans and groans from those in the room.
“You understand that from our point of view that’s an inadequate response?” asked Belaus.
“Can’t you have some sort of meeting with these folks?” asked O’Kelley.
“We have met with them…” said Carvalho.
“My concern is that he’s not hearing the message,” said Belaus. “We need to see that he’s movable on this issue. It will certainly dim my enthusiasm for the Senator.”
“We can’t afford to lose him as a Senator, especially such a champion of the environment. Can’t he just say something?” asked a woman, “Can’t he just say that he’s against it?”
“We’ve never gotten involved in state level legislation,” said Carvalho. “We’ve never gotten involved in state regulations. The only thing, if we were to get a call on a constituent issue, then we would call over to the Department of Health or something like that and ask that they call back but we’ve never weighed in on State issues. We just don’t have jurisdiction.”
A man who had so far been silent spoke up. “I’m sorry, that is just not a good response. It’s a national issue with national problem with one particular site, Burrillville. To say it’s a local issue is just- illogical.
“It’s a local manifestation of a national problem. He’s not weighing in on something that’s happening in his own state that has national impact.”
“It’s like the Mayor of Cranston, Allan Fung, saying health care is not a local issue,” noted O’Kelley. “He just said that in the last few days.”
“Does the Senator ever talk to Governor Gina Raimondo about issues like Burrillville because they are of state and national importance?” asked a woman.
“They haven’t had a discussion on [Burillville] that I am aware of,” answered Carvalho.
“I just want to know who’s toes is he afraid to be stepping on if he says he’s against the plant?” said the woman. “Why is he so reluctant?”
“It’s just not what we do…” answered Carvalho.
“Well, maybe what he does needs to change because we don’t want to lose him as our Senator,” said the woman.
At this point I interjected. Normally I try to be quiet and listen, and I had demurred when asked to speak earlier in the conversation. I relate the following with my apologies.
“He does speak about Narragansett Bay. That’s a local issue,” I said. “He’s constantly speaking about the Bay. Nationally, locally, he talks about the Bay all the time. He doesn’t talk about Burrillville. So people in Burrillville necessarily believe there are two different standards at work here.”
“Why does he resist this so much?” asked a woman. “I’ve been to meetings, and I’m sure others have as well, where this issue is brought up and we try to defend him on his position, but I think he is being foolish. If there are people who are unwilling to vote for him because of this… we can’t lose our Senator.
“There has to be a way that he can show his commitment to the environment and show his commitment to a [power plant approval] process that isn’t so fraught- people don’t believe that this process is on the level.
“We know that Senator Whitehouse is on the level, so we need his leadership. There has got to be a way that he can support the environment and Burrillville.”
A man observed, “What makes it so strange is that he does speak about the environment, big time, and yet- Burrillville is symbolic, if nothing else.
“At the last town hall solar was brought up as an alternative, and his response was ‘well, there’s not enough open area in Rhode Island.’ If that’s not a subtle backing of the Burrillville Power plant… That’s saying there’s a reason why the power plant is useful.”
I jumped in again, unable to help myself now. “I should also point out that in Massachusetts national level representatives such as Representative Joseph Kennedy III came out against the Rehoboth compressor station and now that project is [on hold]. Kennedy didn’t say, ‘That’s a local issue.’ And Rehoboth is a pretty conservative area, it’s not exactly a hotbed of progressivism.”
“I live in Bristol,” said a woman, “but the fact that Whitehouse won’t speak out in this one area and his answers on Burrillville are very vague and unsatisfying, says to me he has some sort of personal financial interest…”
“No, not at all,” said Carvalho.
“He’s evading for a reason,” said a man. “He’s hiding behind ‘it’s a local issue.’”
“I don’t think we are evading,” said Carvalho. “You don’t like the answer, but that doesn’t mean we are evading the question.”
“Understand that that answer is going to get the Senator un-elected,” said a woman.
“I understand,” said Carvalho.
“He needs to do whatever he can to stay in the Senate right now,” said a woman.
“This is not a NIMBY issue,” said another, “This is throughout the state and it should be national.”
“The Dakota pipeline isn’t a local issue,” said a woman, “Nothing that happens with energy right now is a local issue.”
“We’d all like Senator Whitehouse to say something like that, and yet he won’t say anything at all…”
“Message heard,” said Carvalho.