He may not have the Democratic Party’s endorsement, but Laufton Ascencao, running for state representative in District 68 (Bristol, Warren), knows exactly how to win races despite tall odds.
He told me one of his first political litmus tests was during his time in Pittsburgh in 2013. There, while doing college organizing for the Obama campaign, he met Bill Peduto, a progressive candidate for mayor running a race where “no one gave the guy any chance of winning.” After Ascencao joined Peduto’s team, the race turned dramatically, not only winning the mayor seat by 12 points but electing a progressive slate to the Pittsburgh City Council as well.
Ascencao’s track record of similar campaigns is extensive: he campaigned for Obama in rural Maine, and ran additional races in Virginia, Ohio, and Louisiana. Here in Rhode Island, he has worked in environmental advocacy with Energize RI, organizing with the Working Families Party, on top of managing campaigns for two of the biggest names in Providence’s progressive caucus: Rep. Marcia Ranglin-Vassell (District 5, Providence) and Rep. Moira Walsh (District 3, Providence). When I spoke with him, it became rapidly evident that Ascencao thinks with the focused energy of a seasoned strategist.
For him, a mistake many candidates, even progressives, make is that for most voters, “it’s often not about the policies you’re pushing, it’s about the values and the story you’re telling.” Part of Ascencao’s own story is that he grew up in a family mired in poverty, where he was working a full-time job as early as the age of 12. This story is central to how he asserts the real importance of a $15 minimum wage to voters in his district.
What this also means is that he does not try to cater to supposedly ‘single-issue’ voters, preferring instead to support a progressive platform across a wide swath of issues, from a full assault-weapons ban, to carbon pricing, to reproductive rights. I told him I wondered if spreading his messaging across so many different arenas had the potential to lose voters who were less progressively-inclined on specific issues.
He countered with a story: “I knocked a door not too long ago, there was a man who was progressive through-and-through, but he was born and raised Catholic, and he was pro-life. As soon as that went there in our conversation, I won’t lie, I got a little nervous. But he said, that’s just one issue in a whole bunch, and I agree with everything else you’re saying, so you’ve got my vote. That happens a lot—you don’t have to demand perfection from everyone, but you do have to demand something.” Sen. Maryellen Goodwin (District 1, Providence) is someone Ascencao counts as an unlikely ally in a similar way; while not a “perfect values match,” she earned his respect by “putting her all” behind the campaign for paid sick leave.
Ascencao also sets himself apart through his attachment, or lack thereof, to party politics. During his work on the Obama campaign in Maine, he had to navigate an environment that was openly hostile to the Democratic brand. Here in Rhode Island, however, many candidates seem to compete to define the party ethos, each one claiming that they’re ‘traditional’ Democrats in their own way. That approach doesn’t make much sense to Ascencao: “Voters, in my experience, are not able to parse through and tangle apart all of this stuff, and so often they just get very annoyed with the party. Here, if you knock a door, you should not be selling a future for the Democratic party. It’s a mistake a lot of people make. What you should be doing is selling a future for their community and for their state.”
Certainly, one motivation behind this choice is Ascencao’s own skepticism towards the party; he says that he openly tells voters that the State House is corrupt. I asked him to point me toward examples. “Every single piece of this puzzle is made to make you look to those in charge and ask for permission on what to believe,” he says, from “crazy and archaic” district committees and an endorsement process “obviously rigged in favor of incumbents,” to the experience of officials once elected, when “the Speaker and other leadership has so much power to choose the committees you sit on, the bills that move forward.”
Ascencao says he has received no encouragement from the Democratic Party structure, and he does not deign to speak to what is driving the campaign of his endorsed opponent, Bristol Town Councilor and Bristol Marine-owner Andrew Tyska. Tyska entered the race after incumbent Rep. Kenneth Marshall, previously criticized for campaign spending on personal expenses and undisclosed campaign contributions, dropped out.
What Ascencao will speak to, however, is his cautious optimism for progressives in the state. I asked him point-blank if he expected a so-called ‘blue wave’ come the September 12 primary. His answer, couched in both idealism and rational political thinking, was true to form: “To be honest, I think there were not enough races this year. There should have been more elections, more races, more primaries. But I think the people who are running and are progressive are likely to win most, but certainly not all, of their races.”
He added that Rhode Island’s true ‘blue wave’ might not lie entirely with campaign wins, but rather in the people these campaigns spur to organize. “If you keep that infrastructure up, if you keep people engaged and coming, that’s a hard thing to beat,” he said. “Boots on the ground will always be the most important thing. That’s scientifically and numerically proven, it’s not just me.”