The Co-op is a Party Within a Party

Yesterday’s news that the RI Political Cooperative was launching its 2022 campaign, with 50 candidates running for local to statewide office, and former Secretary of State Matt Brown leading the ticket (and State Senator Cynthia Mendes supporting him as the Cooperative’s lieutenant governor candidate) seems to have sent observers into celebrations, conniptions, derisive laughter, and cries of dismay. It also turned what had been a progressive factional cold war into a full-blown progressive civil war in Rhode Island.

I am among the observers who think the decision to announce where their candidates would be running nine months before the filing deadline is a poor strategic move, and that it gives the party leadership the opportunity to mobilize against both pro-Cooperative and anti-Cooperative progressive factions. First, they can now spend the next few months recruiting candidates in districts with progressive vs. progressive battles. Second, since this comes as redistricting begins, General Assembly leadership now has all sorts of opportunity to draw progressives into matchups with Cooperative candidates in what might be essentially brand-new districts, increase potential conservative or moderate primary voter shares in what should be easily-held progressive districts in the hope that progressive splits allow a conservative candidate to win with a plurality. They’ve literally hired a guy with license plates that read “GMANDR” to draw the lines.

In short, we should be united against our common enemy; the Judean People’s Front!… no wait… conservative Democrats holding the state back and any Republicans who might be holding seats Democrats could win (to their credit, the Cooperative is contesting a few of these).

Anyhow, while I think it would’ve been better strategically to only announce this as everyone drew papers in June, retaining an element of surprise and limiting the chance that conservatives could mobilize in time or draw districts to disadvantage progressives any more than they would otherwise, let’s talk about why this makes sense from a Cooperative perspective and what makes the Cooperative different from any other player in Rhode Island’s progressive movement.

So, my theory, is that the impetus to announce now! now! now! is mostly because, as Ted Nesi points out, Matt Brown’s campaign is skint and in debt and his opponents are flush with cash. Brown needs this announcement to excite out-of-state money, and build fundraising in-state as well. He needs to be able to receive donations in two calendar years to avoid RI’s $1000 limit on campaign contributions from hampering his ability to fundraise too much.

He also needs something to get voters excited about his candidacy, because I think Brown was a beneficiary of the Democratic “not-Raimondo” vote in 2018, but is otherwise a pretty unappealing candidate to your average Democratic primary voter in Rhode Island. Those voters have more than a few options to choose from this time around (Nellie Gorbea, Seth Magaziner, Dan McKee, and Luis Daniel Muñoz) with at least one other potential challenger in the wings. Brown can’t depend on the anti-Raimondo vote in 2022, and he can’t cast himself as the only credible opposition candidate either. It’s not for nothing that progressive ire has focused on Matt Brown, because he is absolutely the biggest, weakest part of the Cooperative ticket. It’s wild to me that it’s Brown-Mendes and not Mendes-Brown in terms of order on the ticket (if you have to pull Mendes out of the Senate, at least have her run for something valuable and have Brown play the support role).

That said, the Cooperative may have waded into a legal grey area in terms of campaign finance on this whole ticket thing, and that’s going to cause headaches for them as I imagine they’re going to get hammered by complaints.

And this gets to why the Cooperative is such a strange and divisive beast in the RI progressive movement. I‘ve previously noted progressives in RI have a serious problem in that they’re diffused into a frankly dizzying array of organizations with varying agendas. For instance, a huge complaint with RI’s union movement is that it often throws progressives under the bus when their interests diverge (and it’s notable the Cooperative has almost no union support to speak of). There is a veritable soup of environmental organizations in RI, and the Cooperative is attached at the hip with only one of those: the Sunrise Movement. This has led to a green split too, as the majority of the green movement celebrated the Act on Climate spearheaded by Sen. Dawn Euer while Sunrise panned it as a half-measure (despite having supported it only a year before). Sen. Euer is now on the Cooperative target list.

The Cooperative has approached this problem by deciding there will be only one progressive agenda: its own. This greatly simplifies the approach its candidates have; they don’t have to sign on to any other groups’ agendas, other groups can either get on board or not. And this has largely worked because instead of treating this sort of intransigence as a sign of things to come, most pieces of the progressive movement treated the Cooperative and its candidates as just another player in the swirl of progressive organizations.

The Cooperative also did something which I think is admirable in terms of bringing democracy to Rhode Island: they decided they were willing to be an organized opposition, which meant losing constantly. By vocally opposing leadership at every point they could, they’ve drawn a clear distinction between their candidates and their agenda and those of the Democratic leadership’s. This is hard for non-Cooperative progressives to do, especially if they care about things like getting legislation passed so their constituents get the support and benefits they need. The incentives inherent in a single-member district system with open nomination contests like Rhode Island scream not to do as the Cooperative has done. 2022 will be a test to see if primary voters care about what state legislators are able to get accomplished.

And this gets to just a really unremarked aspect of the Cooperative: they’ve built a parasite political party. To illustrate this, take the RI Democratic Party’s press statement from Senior Advisor Kate Coyne-McCoy:

This is a blistering clapback at a candidate whose announcement video declares that the RI Democratic Party is “the most corrupt political machine in America.” (Oh progressives, please don’t use conservative talking points.) And if we lived in a state or country with proper political parties, this would be a totally fine way to greet Brown’s announcement. A hostile candidate from an opposition party enters the race trashing the ruling party, and the ruling party trashes him back.

But we don’t. We live in the United States, and specifically in Rhode Island, where political parties don’t have the ability to control who runs on their ballot line. If Matt Brown wins the nomination, it doesn’t matter if the official RI Democratic Party apparatus hates his guts, he is their nominee and there’s nothing they can do about it. Instead, this statement breaks with the veneer of impartiality we expect from the state party when it comes to their nomination contest, and worse for them, plays directly into Brown’s hands. He called them corrupt, and here they are breaking norms to attack him. Is there anything they won’t do to strike at this champion of the people? How low can they get?

This is why I referred to the Cooperative as a parasite party. The Cooperative will get access to RI Democratic Party resources, tools, voter lists, etc., because they are running as Democrats. If they don’t get them, they’re going to howl and trash the Party as corrupt and conniving, even as they run to replace the very same leaders they’re getting those resources from. If their candidates aren’t endorsed by district committees, they’ll use this as further evidence of Democratic corruption.

And you know what? This is totally the right way to go about it. The unity of the Cooperative and its shadow party organization is what progressives in RI should’ve been building for the past decade. If Clay Pell was smarter, maybe he would’ve organized this after 2014. It’s a full court press, and the Cooperative needs to press hard.

That said, the opaqueness of the Cooperative makes me very hesitant. As best I can tell, it’s not a real cooperative. In a genuine cooperative, everyone has a piece of the ownership, directs it together, takes votes, and makes decisions together. To me, the Cooperative reads as a vehicle for Matt Brown to run for governor. I find it hard to believe that a genuine vote of its members would pick this guy to be their standard bearer. If they had, it seems like that would be in the press release.

That opaqueness is everywhere in the Cooperative. How did the Cooperative pick its candidates? How do they determine who gets to run for what? How does it establish membership? When it kicked out Rep. Brandon Potter for voting for Joe Shekarchi as Speaker during the House Democratic Caucus, what was the vote of Cooperative members and which members got to decide? Was there some sort of adjudication process or decision-making body that did that instead? The Caucus was open to the press, the process by which the Cooperative booted Potter was not. Similar questions have occurred to me after they announced Geena Pham was their candidate in Senate District 3 the day Goldin’s resignation was confirmed. What is the Cooperative’s selection process?

Proper political parties have these processes, and they sort of have to follow them and account for them. For all its faults, the RI Democratic Party is pretty transparent in how candidates become nominees, and gets into trouble when it fails to be transparent. The Cooperative has not had to be transparent at all, no one has frankly asked it to be, and the press has barely squawked.

It might be the lack of these processes (if the Cooperative is as top-down as I think it is, a CINO, cooperative-in-name-only) that allows it to move so rapidly, where its counterparts in the RI progressive movement have to do the hard work of meetings, interviews, and discussion before deciding to commit resources. But if Matt Brown (and friends?) are just handpicking candidates as seems to be implied by Sen. Mendes’ part in the announcement video (“Why would Matt Brown, the former Secretary of State, want to get coffee? He wanted me to run for office?”), what makes the Cooperative leadership different in terms of leadership from the leadership of the RI Democratic Party, which has drawn the ire of progressives for exactly that sort of handpicking? If the Cooperative wins the progressive civil war and ousts the Democratic leadership, will we have exchanged a moderate oligarchy that seemed to be heading towards some level of acceptable openness in the party with an invigorated progressive oligarchy? Is that what being a progressive is in Rhode Island?

Even that would be relatively fine if achieving control of the Democratic Party in Rhode Island didn’t also mean achieving control of the state. But this is the bed the RI Democratic Party made long ago, and they’re probably too short-sighted to change now. Maybe this is on-brand for me, but I continue to believe the solution to this sort of problem is to move towards some method of proportional representation (I discussed a few potential proposals here, and what that might look like in RI here). The Democratic Party could protect itself from interlocutors like the Cooperative if it allowed other parties to form and contest on their own ballot lines and rewrote the laws to create a more vibrant party system. Yes, it might mean losing some seats, and possibly losing its ability to pass budgets or override a gubernatorial veto, but this is the cost of having a ballot line you can control, and candidates you can discipline.

They’re unlikely to do that, even if it might finally end the ceaseless, tiresome battles for the soul of Rhode Island’s Democratic Party. In the meantime, RI’s progressive movement, which last cycle seemed so close to seizing power finally, now seems destined to collapse into infighting and possibly a cycle or two of recriminations.

I do hope I’m wrong.

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