Matt Brown, the upstart progressive challenging Governor Gina Raimondo in the Democratic primary this year, was quick to namedrop U.S. Rep. John Lewis when I interviewed him last month. Early on, we had digressed into discussing how Nelson Mandela and African National Congress managed to defeat apartheid in South Africa and by way of redirecting the conversation back to himself, Brown said, “It was the same with (Martin Luther) King and John Lewis, who is a friend of mine and has been a supporter of mine…”
As well he should have. Lewis, a central figure in the Civil Rights battles of the early 1960’s before becoming a longtime Georgia congressman, is literally a living legend and I dare say among the most respected elected progressives in the nation. If Brown could secure an endorsement from Lewis that would be significant, I thought. But he didn’t quite say Lewis was endorsing his campaign, just that they are friends. I don’t know about you, but I have plenty of friends I wouldn’t want as elected officials, so I followed up.
“Is supporting your campaign for governor?” I chimed in.
“I haven’t talked to him about that actually,” Brown replied. “I haven’t been in touch in years, but he’s a friend. He supported City Year, he supported me when I ran for Secretary of State…”
What, what!?!, I thought to myself. If you know Rep. John Lewis, and want to run for elected office, you must reach out to him AS. SOON. AS. POSSIBLE. Not after you announce, before you even decide. And certainly long before you get around to having coffee with me! If I was friends with Rep. John Lewis, I would probably ask for his advice and support on everything I did, and most definitely he would be the very first person I would ask to support my campaign for governor. My follow-up probably didn’t hide my surprise.
“Are you going to ask him for his endorsement,” I asked.
“Yeah, I probably will,” Brown responded. “We’re just getting started!”
But, as Rhode Islanders now know, Raimondo beat him to it. She secured an endorsement from Lewis earlier this month though Rep. David Cicilline, according to WPRI, which reported yesterday Lewis made the endorsement without knowing Brown was running.
Rhode Island Republicans, always eager to lob bombs at Raimondo, castigated the Lewis endorsement as an underhanded. Though surely, Rep. Pat Morgan, the GOP candidate who called the endorsement “Raimondo’s deceit,” is seeking endorsements from friends of her Republican rivals. To my way of thinking, it’s Matt Brown and John Lewis who deserve the blame here.
Lewis was wrong to use his considerable political clout to influence an election he obviously knew almost nothing about. If he did so as a favor to a friend, or for political purposes, that’s even worse. In getting caught red-handed lending his name to matters of which he was ignorant, Lewis did damage to the value of his endorsement and his otherwise good name. While last month I thought his endorsement would be significant in Rhode Island’s Democratic primary for governor, today it seems a lot less valuable to me.
But Lewis isn’t on the ballot in Rhode Island, Brown is. As an upstart, outsider candidate, one of the most important things Brown can show Rhode Islanders is that he has the organizational acumen to be governor – the elected chief executive of the state. He didn’t do that here. Failing to secure the support of an influential friend shows the opposite of organizational acumen. This likely will not be the last instance during the campaign when a competing interest tries to turn a potential strength into a sign of weakness and I can all but guaranteed that will happen to the next governor of Rhode Island on an almost daily basis. A big part of governing is organizing strong teams and navigating political pitfalls. Believing the right things isn’t often enough to produce good outcomes.
Brown knows this. This is what he said to me just before he name-dropped Lewis when we were talking about what he learned in late-night conversations with ANC members who knew Mandela: “I learned that the power that you have to change big things is entirely about how strong of a community you can form. You can only do big things like that if you’re able to somehow form very deep connections, loyalty, trust within a community.”