As the deadline to run for elected office came and went Wednesday afternoon, there are more than a few political newcomers—many young, and many centered around social justice—that could constitute the makings of a progressive wave in Rhode Island.
Most notable might be the governor’s race, where Matt Brown promises to give incumbent Governor Gina Raimondo a run for her money in the Democratic primary. While Raimondo has secured the party’s endorsement, Brown will be able to tack left of her on issues that are resonating with Democrats across the country, like health care and income inequality. Raimondo, best known for leading pension reform efforts, can be called a prototypical mainstream Democrat. She’s made some progressive moves, like free community college, but some on the left will not trust her in part because of her ties to Wall Street and in part because of her record of defending the proposed Burrillville fossil fuel power plant.
Senator Sheldon Whitehouse also has to fend off a challenge from the left in a Democratic primary. Political newcomer and peace activist Pat Fontes is running against the three-term Senate incumbent who, in past elections, has traditionally been the progressive in the race. Fontes says her motivation to run came after Sen. Whitehouse failed to give a satisfactory answer regarding his military policy at a town hall event this spring. Sen. Whitehouse, in his position on the Senate Judiciary Committee, will be instrumental in the inevitable confirmation hearings for the next Supreme Court justice following the announcement of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement on Wednesday, according to Ted Nesi on Twitter—which might provide Fontes an opportunity for a more aggressive push on a much larger stage.
Congressman David Cicilline, who has in many ways inherited the mantle of most progressive member of the Rhode Island delegation from Whitehouse, doesn’t appear to have drawn any competition, so he may get to run unopposed. Congressman Langevin, perhaps the least progressive member of the delegation, will face Salvatore Caiozzo in the general election.
Rep. Aaron Regunberg is challenging Lt. Gov. Dan McKee in the Democratic primary for that office. Regunberg helped start the Resist RI organizing group, as well as the extremely active Providence Student Union, and helped pass legislation for paid sick leave and raises to tipped minimum wage for restaurant workers. McKee may be best known for supporting charter schools while mayor of Cumberland. The winner is to face a Republican in the general election. If it’s Regunberg, there could be progressive majority among statewide elected officials. General Treasurer Seth Magaziner will run against Mike Riley while Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea must best Pat Cortellessa to win re-election.
The state Senate
In state Senate races, the progressive left has some opportunities to boost its numbers.
Sam Bell (District 5, Providence), an outspoken activist and former board member of Indivisible RI who led a historic campaign against the NRA during his time at Brown University, against incumbent Paul Jabour and Democrat Nick Autiello—a former Republican now running as a Democrat, a surprising former McCain and Giuliani supporter, and on record for his concerning comments regarding President Obama, according to this op-ed at Uprise RI.
Melanie DuPont (Johnston, North Providence, Smithfield), a vocal proponent of a $15 minimum wage and LGBTQ rights, will run against Stephen Archambault, a moderate (but fiery!) Democrat who has held the seat since 2012.
Bridget Valverde, vice chair of the RI Democrats’ Women Caucus, is running for District 35 (East Greenwich, North Kingstown, South Kingstown, Narragansett) in a Democratic primary, and then potentially against Republican Dana Gee. Gee stepped in to run in the place of her husband, incumbent Mark Gee, because “it’s the year of the woman,” or for the less lofty claim that the district “need[s] a Republican to keep the seat,” according to East Greenwich News.
Paul Roselli made waves this month when he announced he was dropping out of the race for governor (shifting his support behind Matt Brown); Roselli is instead running for Senate District 23 (Burrillville, Glocester, North Smithfield), newly vacated by incumbent Paul Fogarty after two decades. In order to take Fogarty’s place, Roselli needs to beat not one, but two Republicans: Jessica De la Cruz, a first-generation American born to Portuguese immigrants, and Burrillville Town Council President John Pacheco.
Also vying for a seat is Jonathan Hernandez for District 6 (Providence), pitting an environment-based platform against incumbent Harold Metts—who himself carries a mixed track record, as notable for his stance against housing discrimination as it is for his religious opposition to gay marriage—and newcomer Carlos Cedeno.
Senator Gayle Goldin, who has showed a deep commitment to reproductive rights in the last month alone, remains unchallenged in her District 3 (Providence) seat. Marriage equality and LGBTQ rights seems to be a key factor in many candidates’ wheelhouse: Donna Nesselbush, a senator from District 15 (Pawtucket, North Providence) who served as the lead sponsor for a ban on conversion therapy last year, also appears to have no opposition filed against her run for re-election. Dawn Euer, an attorney and social justice organizer who dominated the District 13 (Newport, Jamestown) special election last year, stands against Republican Matthew Perry—and if her previous broad support serves as any indication, Euer seems poised for a winning streak.
But other progressive Senators need to defend their seats. Incumbent Jeanine Calkin of District 30 (Warwick), one of the Senate’s most steadfast supporters of progressive environmental policy and women’s rights since she entered office two years ago, will fight off Warwick lawyer and Democratic newcomer Mark McKenney. Josh Miller (District 28, Cranston, Providence), after a strong showing on health care and environmental rights in his previous term, will defend his seat against Independent Cassandra Michael.
Many House races are characterized by the existing progressive caucus running to keep their hold on representative seats. At the core of this group is Edith Ajello, a longtime pro-choice activist who has not lost a race since 1992, and who is running unopposed for District 1 (Providence). Ajello has run four races without a challenger across her career. Fellow progressives who are also running races without challengers: Chris Blazejewski for District 2 (Providence), labor and cannabis advocate Scott Slater for District 10 (Providence), gun control supporter Jason Knight for District 67 (Barrington, Warren), Shelby Maldonado, who has shown herself to be one of undocumented Rhode Islanders’ strongest allies, for District 56 (Central Falls), and environmental progressive Lauren Carson for District 75 (Newport).
But there is at least one opportunity to pick up a seat, and knock out an ardent NRA supporter in the process. Lauren Niedel, state chair for the Bernie Sanders campaign, is running for Republican Rep. Mike Chippendale’s District 40 (Coventry, Foster, Glocester) seat. Chippendale may face consequences for his vocal support of the NRA, and his vitriolic tweet at Parkland survivor and gun control activist Emma Gonzalez.
Not everyone has a clear path back to their seats all but secured. Teresa Tanzi of District 34 (Narragansett, South Kingstown), who gained attention this session in her fight for legislation attacking sexual harassment—as she faced a frustrating stalemate and harassment herself—will run against Ewa Dzwierzynski, returning to the fray as an independent after losing on the Democratic ticket in 2016. And Rep. Moira Jayne Walsh is campaigning against fellow Democrat Michael Earnheart for District 3 (Providence), who appears to posit himself as pro-business and, given a recent tweet congratulating the Providence RIPD on a fentanyl bust, perhaps markedly distinct from Rep. Walsh’s vocal opposition to increased policing of controlled substances during her stand against Kristen’s Law.
One of the clearest examples of the wide, progressive/moderate faultline in the Rhode Island Democratic Party this election cycle can be found in the race between first-time incumbent Marcia Ranglin-Vassell of District 5 (Providence) and Holly Taylor Coolman, a Providence College theology professor. While Coolman’s campaign poster aligns her with supposedly “core democratic values,” she also takes this to mean a staunchly anti-abortion platform. Rep. Ranglin-Vassell, a former Providence school teacher and one of the House’s strongest voices for racial justice and women’s rights, could not represent a more distinct opponent to this self-proclaimed “pro-life progressive.”
Perhaps the most dramatic potential for a newcomer upset is Justine Caldwell’s race against Republican incumbent Anthony Giarrusso for District 30 (East Greenwich, West Greenwich). Giarrusso, who has held the seat since 2012, hasn’t had a challenger for his last two terms, and Caldwell, who has previously worked as an activist against housing and workplace discrimination for LGBTQ people, could mark a sudden and significant shift in the region. Caldwell has been quick to make this readily apparent, as seen in previous reporting on sparring between the two on this site.
Laufton Ascencao, an organizer with the Working Families Party and vice president of the Young Democrats, is also joining the cohort of young activists taking their skills to the State House. His opponents for House District 68 (Bristol, Warren), include Libertarian William Hunt Jr., who lost handily to incumbent Kenneth Marshall in 2016, and Marshall himself, who came under investigation this month for the misuse of thousands of dollars in campaign funds for personal expenses. Whether Marshall will be able to break out those cigars he illegally purchased for a potential victory party is anybody’s guess.
The messiest race might be for House District 13 (Providence, Johnston). Ramon Perez—known less for his support for driver’s licenses for undocumented residents than an incident where he passed out porn on the House floor, as well as making inappropriate comments with remarkably bad timing (i.e. during a sexual harassment training)—is running against returning Democratic challenger John Carnevale, who is still facing perjury charges from the Board of Canvassers for allegedly lying about living in the district at all. Buried under the perjury story making the rounds is an extensive history of charges against Carnevale of sexual assault and domestic violence. Neither are included here to assert any kind of progressivism, of course—which at this point, might be better served by a write-in.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article reported that Rep. Ranglin-Vassell was the only Black woman in the General Assembly—she is not. Thanks to Jordan Seaberry on Twitter for the revision.