“I’ve spent most of my life starting and running non-profit organizations,” he said. “I was literally born into activism.”
His mom went into labor with him while his parents were at a 1969 anti-Vietnam march in Washington D.C, he told me over coffee. “As my dad tells it, a train of hippies made a pathway to make way for the pregnant woman,” he explained. “They made it to a cab, made it to the hospital, and I was born.”
In high school, Brown followed his mom to anti-nuclear marches, organized pro-peace events at Moses Brown, and shared his home with a Black student from apartheid South Africa. Before he was secretary of state, from 2002 until 2006, he helped launch City Year, a service organization that pairs college grads with inner city youth, in Providence – the first ever expansion of this now-nationwide organization. And since serving in office and has been running Global Zero, a nuclear non-proliferation non-profit organization.
“I’ve always been an activist,” he said. “I did politics for four years.”
He’s returning to politics this year to challenge incumbent Governor Gina Raimondo in the September Democratic primary. Though Raimondo is the favorite, Brown has overcome such odds before – namely when he won his first campaign for secretary of state by upsetting the establishment-favored incumbent in a Democratic primary.
“I was kind of an outsider, community service person taking on the establishment,” he said. “And we won.”
Brown said he pulled off that win just like he hopes to pull off another one this year. “The grassroots was hugely supportive,” he said. “That’s important here in Rhode Island more than it is in just about any other state because of how tightly packed-in we all are. Shoe leather here makes a big difference.”
While Brown showed a knack for harnessing the grassroots in 2002, in 2006 he stumbled in trying to navigate campaign finance rules. That year ran and lost a primary for the US Senate seat that Sheldon Whitehouse went on to win. During the campaign, he had to answer to the Federal Elections Commission about a complaint involving fundraising for state-level political action committees.
“That was a problem,” he conceded. “It wasn’t a legal mistake. The FEC looked at it and determined there was quote ‘no basis’ for the complaint, that everything we did was allowed and lawful. But I have should have seen that it would look bad and be a political problem, which is what it became. That didn’t help the campaign, but I think it was going to be tough anyways.”
This year, he says he plans to raise money through small, individual donations and says he’ll accept the public funding match. He won’t take money from corporate PACs. “The goal is to have enough to get the message out and win, I’m confident we’ll have that,” he said.
It was between his experience as a community organizer with City Year and going to Yale Law School that first inspired Brown to seek elected office. “I kept coming up against the fact that all the things we were trying to change – help kids in public schools, help build a playground, help out at a soup kitchen – it was all import and good,” he said. “But all the problems we were trying to solve were problems in my view because the political system was failing.”
He still thinks the political system is failing. In fact, the problems he first noticed 20 years ago as a community organizer at City Year have become worse, he says.
“For a long time now, in the country and in the state, government has played a role in shifting money and opportunity and economic power from people in communities to big corporations and big banks and the wealthiest small sliver at the top,” Brown said. “I’ve got a number of ideas that essentially try to reverse that and break up that system and get money and economic opportunity and power back to communities and back to people.”
His big ideas include starting a state bank and becoming the first state to run entirely on renewable energy. Through a mix (60/40) of offshore wind and solar power, he says the Ocean State can generate twice its power needs and send an annual rebate check to every resident. He wants the state to become a major investor in offshore wind, not unlike hedge funds currently underwrite existing offshore wind farms, such as the Block Island Wind Farm, he said.
“As we build this new energy economy, which is going to be the energy economy for hundreds of years, it’s important that we do it in a way that is economically beneficial to people, and not just to corporations and banks the way the fossil fuel industry was run,” he said.
The public sector bank would be modeled on North Dakota’s, which he says earns that state $30 million every year. Brown said he would like to see all of the state’s $2.5 billion in liquid assets invested entirely in Rhode Island companies and projects.
“If you invest the money in Rhode Island, we’re also creating jobs here,” he said. “We’re not creating jobs in China and Dubai like we are now. That could be clean energy, that could affordable housing. The bank earns some interest. These are projects that are profit making. That’s a source of revenue that’s not raising property taxes.”
And Brown’s position on current policy issues offers a starkly more progressive approach than Governor Raimondo. He wants a $15 minimum wage, to legalize cannabis, and state-level protections for the right to an abortion. He also wants to repeal the recent corporate tax cuts and the less recent tax cuts to the state’s highest income earners.
“They have had their taxes cut for a long, long time and by the way they also just a got a huge federal tax cut from Trump, and they [corporations] got recent tax cuts from Governor Raimondo,” he said. “What that has meant is we’ve left our schools unfunded, Medicaid has been cut, this is bad for people and in the long run it’s really bad for the economy.”
About a fracked gas power plant in Burrillville, Brown said. “We’ve got to block that and make Rhode Island the first state in the country that produces all of its energy from renewable resources.”
He called Raimondo a supporter of the Burrillville power plant. Later in the interview, he declined to say who he voted for in the 2014 gubernatorial election. In 2016, he voted for Bernie Sanders in the primary and Hillary Clinton in the general election, he said.
His strongest criticism of Raimondo, whom he said is not progressive on economic issues, came for her policy of offering corporations tax breaks to locate employees and operations in Rhode Island – a criticism that will also hit Raimondo from the conservative right as well as the progressive left.
“The current governor her economic development strategy is to give money to corporations, literally just give it to them – take taxpayer money and give it to corporations,” Brown said. “What I’m talking about is investing it. To take money from people in this state, many of whom don’t have any money to spare, and give it to corporations that have more money than they know what to do with, it just makes no sense.”
So far, Brown has been getting his message out at house parties of 20 to 25 people. It was through these events, he said, that he decided to challenge Raimondo in the Democratic primary, rather than running as an independent.
“I listened to voters when I went out during the exploratory period,” he said. “I saw among Democratic voters the same frustrations I have and the same desire and drive to do something about it.” He said he hasn’t spoken with party leaders, such as Joe McNamara, yet and that he made no deal with the party to run as a Democrat. He also said he saw no strategic advantage or disadvantage to it.
“I don’t see an advantage to one or the other, strategically. I think campaigns are so unpredictable. These things are a little mysterious. There’s an art to it.”
His first public campaign event is on May 14, at the Southside Cultural Center.
He knows Raimondo will be able to outspend him and while he hopes to siphon away some endorsements, he’s resigned to the idea that she will get more institutional support than him, too. But, he was quick to point out who really has the power in a democracy.
“The current governor has the advantages of incumbency and the advantages of a massive fundraising machine, but she’s never had strong support from the voters,” Brown said. “And ultimately campaigns are decided by voters, not by donors and not by political endorsements.”