State Representative Aaron Regunberg is expected to announce his intention to run for Lieutenant Governor tomorrow. That’s an important development for progressives and all of those who seek a change in the status quo in state government for two reasons.
First, it will be a win for Rhode Islanders to have a choice like Regunberg on the ballot for a statewide position next fall. Regunberg has been a strong voice for forward-looking policies that help everyday families have a fair shake. He’s exceptionally popular here in the district, but even constituents who don’t agree with him on everything will admit: he shows up, he’s respectful, he works hard, he answers calls and e-mails, and he’s represented the district’s neighborhoods with refreshing dignity. He knows that the wall the old-guard statehouse leadership have built around the levers of power over decades stifles the will of regular Rhode Islanders, and it needs to be torn down. I look forward to seeing what he can do to shape the Lieutenant Governor’s office into a bullhorn for the voice of the people.
Second, Regunberg’s announcement will open up a House seat in one of Rhode Island’s progressive strongholds. The District 4 race will be unlike many others around the state, because the strongest competition will likely shape up between Democrats vying for votes within the progressive end of the spectrum. The question here is not whether we can keep a progressive in that seat, but rather, what kind of progressive. The progressive movement in Rhode Island has grown, and if we work for it, it will grow much more in 2018. Progressives in the State House will have a chance to go from a band of outsiders nibbling at the edges to a force that cannot be ignored or pushed to the fringe. This moment means we have the opportunity in District 4 to demand a candidate who not only has progressive values, but takes the next step and pledges to push for wholesale change, starting with the biggest problem of all: General Assembly leadership.
Those who view blue Rhode Island from afar might be surprised to learn that Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, leaders of the legislature and bosses of the state Democratic party, have sterling A+ ratings from the National Rifle Association, and were endorsed by the anti-choice Rhode Island Right to Life. Mattiello comes from a district where precinct totals for Donald Trump were over 60 percent. He made sure ethics reform legislation was a non-starter for years. His highest policy priority is tax cutting. He didn’t see any urgent need to protect reproductive rights at the state level last session. He refuses to call for the resignation of long-time state Democratic party official Joseph DeLorenzo, who made reprehensible comments about sexual harassment and called progressives “whack jobs.” In a rare consensus, seemingly every major Democrat in the state has called for DeLorenzo to resign or be removed this week. Except Mattiello. Instead, in a Friday news dump, Mattiello said he’d merely ask DeLorenzo to apologize, and that “These ideological attacks must stop and we must respect every viewpoint within the party.” Does that statement remind anyone else of “there are some very fine people on both sides”?
Speaker Mattiello is a conservative in everything but party affiliation, and he works actively to stamp down the grassroots. He runs a leadership team that dictates virtually every aspect of lawmaking and the culture in the House. Yet it’s rarely challenged, because it has long been considered an ironclad Smith Hill rule that any challenge to leadership is a one-way ticket to legislative Siberia. Leadership has even been known to hand pick candidates to run against those in their own party who would dare to perturb them. To get anything past the leadership machine, legislators have to make backroom deals, and agree to vote yes on things against their interest in exchange for the chance to get a bill they’d sponsored out of committee – and only if the bill isn’t too threatening. Those seeking change have managed to achieve incremental wins this way, which have been vitally important.
But we’re closing in on a year into the Trump era, and the need for all Democrats to push back at the state level has never been more urgent. Cracks in leadership’s armor are showing. Faced with overwhelming pressure, they have had to blink and allow ethics reform, free tuition community college, and paid sick leave to pass.
New, courageous progressive legislators like Senator Jeanine Calkin have shown that speaking up against leadership is no longer the political death sentence it once was. When will it be time to raise our voices to change the power structure? Why continue to quietly accept an entrenched leadership machine, which stifles good legislation and serve as enablers of a backward State House culture? When will it be time to stand up and rally with everything we’ve got for new leadership, and change the game for good?
I contend that the time is coming, and the place to start is House District 4 in 2018. No other district allows a progressive to stand on safe ground and wield a bully pulpit the way this one will. No other district is as insulated from the reach of leadership retribution. If voters here can’t put forth a bold progressive, who stands ready to speak truth to the old guard, and pledges to rally votes for a new leadership immediately upon taking office, who will?
When eager new candidates stroll down Hope Street and Camp Street, looking to earn your vote for state representative next year, ask them: will you pledge to vote for new leadership? Will you do everything you can to rally fellow legislators to change the statehouse culture, starting at the top? Or will you quietly play the leadership’s rigged game and hope for the best?