Earlier in the summer, RI Future’s Will Weatherly wrote an article entitled “Stage set for progressives to take over Rhode Island” that’s stuck in my mind. I’m unsure if Weatherly or RI Future owner/editor Bob Plain wrote the headline (Bob usually rewrote mine). Meanwhile, the Republican-led far-right Gaspee Project has been painting this as though progressives are about seize control of everything.
Can progressives “take over” Rhode Island, though? Do they have the numbers this year? Do they have the candidates? And can they do it where it matters? Namely, the General Assembly?
So I did a rough count. By my count, using a mixture of endorsements, stated positions, and sponsored legislation, and my own gut here’s my count of seats that could be won by progressive candidates for the General Assembly.
- Senate (38 total, 20 for majority): 16 progressives, 6 questionable progressives
- House (75 total, 36 for majority): 23 progressives, 12 questionable progressives
One of the more interesting things in this is that the Senate, which represents larger districts, has an actual chance of having a progressive majority (I use “questionable” to include those who have an inconsistent mix of endorsements and positions or could possibly go along with progressive legislative leaders). Meanwhile, the House total is one short of a majority.
Some of this is just the nature of Rhode Island politics: it’s a lot easier to be elected as a progressive or liberal in elections that have larger groups of voters. Which is why I think we see most of our statewide officers not resisting the progressive label.
Out of the above seats, I count a total of 10 occupied by Senate incumbents and 12 occupied by House incumbents. More than a few are occupied by non-progressive incumbents of both parties. Some of the progressive incumbents face challenges of their own.
To some extent, progressives don’t need to take a whole majority in either chamber; they just need to control the majority of majority party. But I have very little faith in the RI Democratic Party’s right wing to compromise and accept left wing leadership.
The simple math is that while progressives are likely to represent more and more of the Democratic Party in Rhode Island, in 2018 they are unlikely to control either chamber of the General Assembly.
That said, there is the potential for a much more diverse class of progressive leaders. I think the candidates progressives in RI are offering are much more representative of Rhode Island as a whole than those offered by the Democratic right wing or the Republicans.
The Situation for Statewide Office
Looking up the ballot, to me Matt Brown repeats the same Clay Pell problem of a person mostly unattached to the Democratic Party arriving unlooked for to challenge a more moderate and more popular Democratic leader (or leaders in Pell’s case). Brown and Pell (and Chafee to some extent in 2010), are symptoms of a progressive faction that hasn’t elevated compelling leaders.
If you could construct your ideal progressive challenger to Gina Raimondo, they would not look like Matt Brown. If you were restricted to only existing people in 2018, what are the chances you would’ve even picked Matt Brown over someone else? There’s also a faction of progressives who view Raimondo as the more practical progressive choice. That said, based on the attack ads that have come through my mailbox over the last week, I would not entirely write him off.
Brown’s likelihood of even shifting Raimondo to the left is low; she’ll be a lame duck governor with no reason to move left. There’s speculation that she could be elevated to a cabinet secretary if the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee wins or might take a run for Senate if Reed declines to seek reelection in 2020. Of course, by then, there could be other options. I think both eventualities seem unlikely. 2020 could hand Reed a chairmanship. And what cabinet position would you slot Raimondo in at? Commerce?
This is probably why there’s a lot more energy and progressive consensus around Aaron Regunberg for Lieutenant Governor. Let me reiterate my view that Lieutenant Governor is a dead-end position with a very low chance that anyone who occupies it will ever rise to governor from that office. However, Regunberg is absolutely one of Rhode Island’s best politicians and an experienced organizer and if anyone can make that office relevant to Rhode Islanders, it’s Regunberg.
Meanwhile, Treasurer Seth Magaziner and Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea both are potential leaders who might not be outright progressive firebrands, but would be good transitional figures between Raimondo and future progressive leaders.
The bottom line is that 2018 is not shaping up be the moment when sweeping progressive change comes to Rhode Island. But, if all goes well on Wednesday, and again in November, it could set progressives up for success in 2020 and 2022.
It could, at last, be the end of the beginning.