The RI Democratic Party has told us repeatedly that they are a “big tent.” Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena said it was a big tent. State Rep. Arthur “Doc” Corvese and party chair Rep. Joseph McNamara said it was a big tent.
Finally, we’ve learned just how big the tent is and its dimensions when the party endorsed a Trump-supporting ex-Republican over the progressive incumbent, Rep. Moira Walsh (along with a few other progressive female incumbents who saw their opponents win endorsements). RI Democratic Party executive director Kevin Olasanoye attempted to defend the endorsement by claiming the endorsed candidate was “a lifelong Democrat.” Unfortunately, he appears to have been a Republican from 2014 to March of this year.
Anyone on who has been on the left-wing of the party for more than a cycle or two knows that this particular maneuver (very often deployed against female legislators) is routine for the RI Democratic Party, something that makes life difficult for Democratic incumbents who don’t get along well with leadership and/or push bills that would advance liberal-progressive priorities. Sometimes the party recruits challengers, others it takes advantage of what’s there In the best case, it’s an extra hurdle to clear. In the worst case, it’s a roadblock that ends the incumbent’s time in office.
Which makes it surprising that the decision to not back incumbents ended up earning national coverage in Slate and Splinter, and from others in the national press. And then, for incumbents from the federal delegation, state executive office, the General Assembly, and former staffers to denounce the move was extraordinary. This simply isn’t done.
And all this right after we were declared a model of civility for the nation!
The stated reason for backing right-wing challengers over the incumbents is to appeal to Trump-curious voters who strayed from the Democrats in 2016. Routinely, the fear from center-right Democrats in Rhode Island has been that by acknowledging and supporting the priorities of the party’s left-wing base will cost them votes. This is foolishness, and we’ve known it’s foolishness for a long time. Both liberal and conservative state legislators vastly underestimate how liberal their constituents are. In a state like Rhode Island, where General Assembly Democrats govern like they’re in Mississippi rather than next door to Massachusetts, there’s a lot of room to move left.
Endorsing right-wingers could not have been better-designed to stir up a hornet’s nest of progressive anger. Since 2016, progressives, to a fault, have been laser-focused on the mechanics of party control. With no presidential race, it makes sense that they would focus on the state level parties. Coming so soon after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s primary upset in New York had inspired hope among the Democratic Party’s left-wing, it seems calculated to insult. And it comes after a spring spent emphasizing the need to compromise in the name of the big tent.
Such calls for a “big tent” were always transparently lopsided in terms of who had to make the compromises in service of the big tent. What kind of big tent is the Rhode Island Democratic Party building, if it covers those who are opposed to it, but not the party’s own base?