The Co-op Faces a Test of the Strength of its Opposition

Following his vote for Rep. Joseph Shekarchi to be the Democratic Party’s nominee for Speaker at Thursday evening’s House Caucus, the RI Political Cooperative announced on Twitter that it had booted Potter from its association of candidates and stripped references to him from its website.

There’s not really a term for this situation in American politics, but in British politics, you might call this “removing the whip,” where a rebellious politician is kicked out of the party. There was a pretty prominent example of it happening recently in the UK. It can have dire consequences, forcing politicians to gain access to the ballot without the resources of the party.

Now, in America, our political parties are not strong enough to do that. For instance, though quite a few RI House Democrats either skipped the meeting, abstained, or voted for the opposition candidate Liana Cassar, they will not be kicked out of the Democrats. That’s due to the nature of politics in America, where candidates essentially run on their own with a network of support, only really loosely affiliated with the parties.

The Co-op, by virtue of being a non-profit corporation, does have the ability to do that. It doesn’t have to associate with any candidate it doesn’t want to, and it doesn’t have to provide the services candidates might want to pay it for if they feel the candidate doesn’t align with their missions and value. And this particular play, denying politicians access to services, isn’t actually out of the norm for RI politics; I’ve heard stories of defiant legislators being refused service from campaign firms looking to stay in the good graces of legislative leadership.

The difference here is that the Co-op is emphatically not leadership, it’s not really in a position of power. It’s a fledgling opposition movement. And the problem that any opposition movement in RI faces is “how do you get a stick with which to thwack candidates into line in between elections?” Legislative leadership has plenty of sticks, like preventing passage of legislation or making one’s time in office as unpleasant as possible or the aforementioned blacklisting. But for those outside of leadership, there aren’t a lot of options.

In my read of the situation, what the Co-op project is doing is providing a bunch of carrots (the array of services it offers) and then using denial of those services (and the threat of a possible primary) as its stick. And, in a lot of ways, that’s what plenty of the Co-op’s peer organizations implicitly do as well.

You just don’t usually see such an open repudiation of a candidate from an extra-party organization like the Co-op. And for good reason; there are plenty of other organizations that Potter can likely turn to for support, and those organizations are all aware of that. There’s no guarantee that, having been repudiated by one progressive group, Potter won’t still be embraced by half a dozen other progressive groups that don’t agree with the Co-op’s strategic thinking.

But, since the Co-op appears to be trying to build a sustained opposition within the Democrats, this seems to me like a necessary move. It will be a test of how strong the Co-op genuinely is. A big question will be who pays the bigger price over this: Brandon Potter or the RI Political Cooperative?

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