Last night’s RI Democratic State committee meeting offered no surprises in the outcome — incumbent Governor Raimondo and Lt. Gov. McKee received expected endorsements — but the process of getting there provided moments of conflict that illuminated tensions within the Party.
The convention of the more than 100 members of the state committee — city and town chairs, district committee people, elected officials — took place in Shiners Imperial Room at Rhodes Place in Cranston, and ran to just over three hours.
RI State Committee chair Rep. Joseph McNamara tried to tee up the convention as a big tent. “The reason we are successful as a party is because we listen to each other,” said McNamara in his introductory remarks. “We respect each other and when we can find middle ground we often compromise and it moves not only the party forward but the citizens of Rhode Island.”
But after swift and unanimous votes to endorse Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Reps. Cicilline and Langevin in their bid for re-election, the factions within the party became evident as the agenda turned to nominations for Governor.
As an incumbent, there was a general expectation that Gov. Gina Raimondo would get the nod. Former Secretary of State Matt Brown, who is running against Raimondo in the primary, rose to deliver what was anticipated to be a standard speech asking for consideration. Instead, he took the opportunity to attack the Raimondo for violating the “core values of the Democratic party” and then withdraw his name from consideration.
Brown slammed Raimondo over UHIP, Medicaid cuts, DCYF, and took a pointed jab at the Partners-Care New England merger.
“This would be the biggest healthcare acquisition in the history of the state,” said Brown. “There are a lot of serious questions about this deal. Will our health care system lose jobs to Boston. Will we have to drive to Boston to get healthcare services of various kinds. Will we lose control of our local health care system. The governor was right a few months ago to say that she must stay at arm’s length from the deal. Fast forward to a week ago Friday morning when Governor Raimando went to Boston for a campaign fund raising breakfast where she collected two hundred thousand dollars for her campaign coffers. That fundraiser was hosted by Partners health care. Does anyone really believe that Governor Rimando can assess this deal fairly and look out for the interest of the public when she just pocketed two hundred thousand dollars from a fundraiser hosted by Partners.”
Then, in a surprise twist, Brown withdrew his nomination. “I’ve been around a while and I understand that the incumbent governor gets the state committee’s endorsement. I’m not here to contest that Mr. Chairman. I formally withdraw my nomination from consideration. But while I am not here to seek the endorsement of the committee I am here to ask each and every one of you for your support as leaders in your community as leaders of our state and as voters in September. I ask you to join me in our campaign to bring Democratic values back to the office of governor.”
Raimondo, in a speech that focused more on her record of achievements than on a response to Brown, took issue with his characterization.
“There were a number of lies and mistruths and what Mr. Brown just said and I’m not going to waste my time addressing them here,” said Raimondo. “But especially a couple hundred thousand dollars — is just a lie. You shouldn’t lie. You should at least tell the truth. If you want to be Governor you have to lead.”
She also took a swipe at his withdrawal. “I am here to ask for your nomination. I’m not afraid of the vote I’m here to ask for it. I don’t expect it to come to me I expect to earn it.”
She spent the remainder of her nine-minute speech focusing on her first-term accomplishments.
“When I to took office,” she said, “If you called the DLT on average you were on line on hold for 90 minutes. Now part of that is because there were so many people calling the highest unemployment rate in the country. And so we Democrats said let’s get to work. What do we stand for? We stand for the basic principle that everybody ought to have a chance. Everybody. Level that playing field. Everybody ought to have an equal chance to keep up and get ahead in today’s changing economy. That’s what we believe in. And I’m proud to have George Nee tell me I’m the only governor ever to put in three budgets in a row to raise the minimum wage. I’m proud to have that label that’s a core Democratic value. Under my leadership. You want to talk about Medicaid? I’ll tell you the facts. The fact is one of the first things I did as governor was to make sure we had our own state run health exchange. And today 96 percent of Rhode Islanders have health care and 98 percent of children do.”
Brown’s attempt to withdraw did not sit well with everyone, and following the nomination speeches, Barrington Town Committee chair Pam Lauria made a motion for a roll call vote. She explained her rationale to a reporter after the meeting: “I made that motion because I think that if you’re going to make that speech and say that you’re running, you don’t pull out and not have the consequence of a vote.”
Following Laurie’s motion, there was significant crosstalk and shouting from the floor, during which a motion to table was either not heard or not recognized, which prompted further outbursts. A group of presumably Brown supporters stood and turned their back to the podium as the Secretary, Rep. Corvese, conducted the roll call vote.
According to Roberts Rules, once a motion is before the body, only the sponsor may request withdrawal, so Brown’s renunciation of the nomination had no force. Only the person who made the motion could request withdrawal, but this was not made clear during the session, leading to speculation on social media that the vote was taken to punish or embarrass Brown. Brown pushed this narrative on Twitter, saying that the process had been a “sham” and “rigged.”
‘Party leaders held an endorsement vote between me and Gov. Raimondo at the convention tonight despite my publicly stating that I did not put myself forward for endorsement,” said Brown in a tweet at 10:41pm Sunday night, apparently overlooking the parliamentary process that had been followed.
The result, in any case, was not in doubt, with Raimondo prevailing 93-1 with 3 abstentions.
Contrast this with the Lt. Governor race, which, while equally contested, was conducted by the numbers. Incumbent Dan McKee spoke to attendees, focusing on what he stood for.
“I’ve been a Democrat all my life,” said McKee. “I’ve stood with the veterans. I’ve stood with the seniors. I’ve stood with the students. I stood with the small business people. I stood publicly to to admonish the Trump administration on the DACA students, publicly I stood tall and called out the Trump administration to protect those students. I stood up and called out the Trump administration when they called out the Haitian community and I stood with the Haitian community and I called out the White House and told them that any ugly or discriminatory or angry words spoken in my house your house or the White House is wrong.”
Rep. Aaron Regunberg, rather than attacking his opponent, offered a speech highlighting his accomplishments. Only once did he mention McKee, and only to remind attendees of his reaction at the 2014 convention. “I’m taking a different route than my opponent took four years ago when he questioned the legitimacy of this committee, pulled out of the process, and said he didn’t want your support.”
“I’ve spent the last four years as a legislator fighting to pass policies to help everyday Rhode Islanders,” said Regunberg. “But we need bigger change to level the playing field and that’s why I’m here today. I’ve been in the State House long enough to see how entrenched interests working for the wealthy and well-connected are holding us back. Drug companies, fossil fuel polluters, the NRA and other groups that can write big checks are too often drowning out the voices of working and middle class families. It’s time that we take real action to change that. To organize. To bring the people’s voice to the statehouse.”
The subsequent roll call showed a solid bloc for Regunberg, with McKee prevailing on a 93-36 vote.
The remainder of the state officer endorsements were quick and unanimous: Nellie Gorbea for Secretary of State, Seth Magaziner for Treasurer, and Peter Neronha for Attorney General.
The evening provided something of a Rorschach test for Democrats. Those inclined to see conspiracies and “Party” machinations to keep insurgent candidates outside the tent took to social media to complain about Brown’s treatment. (The strength of Regunberg’s showing however, might make that argument a bit more difficult.) Supporters of Raimondo no doubt viewed Brown’s jab-and-retreat strategy as a questionable move (It was unclear in the moment if even the people nominating him were aware that he planned to withdraw.) In any event, the process certainly did nothing to calm any simmering tension between the so-called “progressive” and “traditional” wings of the party.