A Progressive Wave Rolls Through Rhode Island With 4 Working Families Party Wins

The winning candidates believed “the Democratic Party wasn’t representing their values.” They were right.

Theo Anderson

The Working Families Party doesn't field candidates but works to push the Democratic Party to the left by endorsing certain Democrats who share progressive priorities and values. (Rhode Island Working Families Party/ Facebook)

The Work­ing Fam­i­lies Par­ty (WFP) of Rhode Island won four key vic­to­ries in the state’s Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry elec­tion this week, defeat­ing con­ser­v­a­tive incum­bents by endors­ing can­di­dates who sup­port a $15 min­i­mum wage, paid sick leave for work­ers, racial and gen­der equal­i­ty and oth­er pro­gres­sive issues.

'These victories create some very real momentum that we can build on.'

A teacher from Prov­i­dence who was born in Jamaica, Mar­cia Ran­glin-Vas­sell, scored the nar­row­est and most-sur­pris­ing upset, defeat­ing House Major­i­ty Leader John DeS­i­mone with a plat­form that empha­sized bet­ter pub­lic edu­ca­tion. She won by 17 votes.

That’s a huge upset — a very big deal,” said Geor­gia Hol­lis­ter-Isman, state direc­tor for the Rhode Island WFP. DeS­i­mone was a long-serv­ing and very pow­er­ful fig­ure in the House.”

The oth­er WFP-endorsed can­di­dates who won were Jea­nine Calkin, Jason Knight and Moira Walsh. Each believed the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty was­n’t rep­re­sent­ing their val­ues,” Hol­lis­ter-Isman said, and had faith that if they took that direct­ly to the vot­ers, it would get a lot of sup­port. And they were right.”

These vic­to­ries cre­ate some very real momen­tum that we can build on,” said Hollister-Isman.

WFP does­n’t field can­di­dates but works to push the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty to the left by endors­ing cer­tain Democ­rats who share pro­gres­sive pri­or­i­ties and val­ues. An arti­cle about it in The Atlantic this year called it the pugna­cious, relent­less pro­gres­sive par­ty that wants to remake Amer­i­ca,” not­ing that the par­ty has been instru­men­tal in push­ing issues such as gov­ern­ment-man­dat­ed paid sick leave and a $15 min­i­mum wage to the fore­front of the nation­al Demo­c­ra­t­ic agenda.”

WFP was found­ed in the late-1990s and began as a region­al par­ty, work­ing to elect pro­gres­sives in Con­necti­cut, New Jer­sey and New York. It now has chap­ters in about a dozen states and in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. In addi­tion to endors­ing can­di­dates, it sup­ports them by help­ing to build their ground games and get-out-the-vote operations.

I could not have done it with­out the Work­ing Fam­i­lies Par­ty,” said Knight, who is seek­ing to rep­re­sent Dis­trict 67 in Rhode Island’s House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives. Knight served in the Navy from 1988 to 1996 and is now a crim­i­nal defense attorney.

Knight said he entered the race — his first polit­i­cal cam­paign — to help dis­rupt and reform the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty machine that con­trols the state’s politics.

When I entered the (mil­i­tary) ser­vice, I did it pri­mar­i­ly out of a sense of duty to the com­mu­ni­ty I live in, with the idea of giv­ing back,” Knight said. And when I decid­ed to run this spring, the impulse came from basi­cal­ly the same place.

We have a real prob­lem with a per­cep­tion of cor­rup­tion. One of the per­cep­tions in this state is that you have to know a guy to get things done. And I want to bat­tle against that. I want to strive for a high lev­el of trans­paren­cy and open­ness, and encour­age oth­er peo­ple to do the same,” said Knight.

Walsh, who works as a restau­rant wait­ress, decid­ed to run after tak­ing part in a suc­cess­ful cam­paign to raise the min­i­mum hourly wage for tip work­ers. It had been $2.89 since 1996. The Rhode Island leg­is­la­ture vot­ed to raise it by $1 over two years, in spite of a strong busi­ness lobby.

I real­ized how much fun it was mak­ing peo­ple do the right thing even when they did­n’t want to,” Walsh said. There was some­thing real­ly sat­is­fy­ing about hear­ing all these excus­es from leg­is­la­tors as to why we could­n’t do it, until they did­n’t have any oth­er option but to say yes. And I real­ized I want­ed a more cen­tral way to make a difference.”

Walsh will run unop­posed in House Dis­trict 3 in the gen­er­al elec­tion in November.

Theo Ander­son is an In These Times con­tribut­ing writer. He has a Ph.D. in mod­ern U.S. his­to­ry from Yale and writes on the intel­lec­tu­al and reli­gious his­to­ry of con­ser­vatism and pro­gres­sivism in the Unit­ed States. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @Theoanderson7.
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