Progressive candidates won big in this week’s Rhode Island primaries, thanks in large part to an array of left-wing organizing groups that have sprung up there in the last few years to promote candidates for state and local office. One of the week’s winners was Cynthia Mendes, who defeated the state Senate finance chair. Ryan Grim talks to Mendes about her victory. Then, Daniel Denvir of Reclaim Rhode Island explains the organizing strategies that made it happen.
Newscaster: A very strong showing for the progressive wing of Rhode Island’s Democratic Party.
Newscaster: Ten incumbent lawmakers have been defeated in their Democratic primaries.
Speaker: We’ve sent a message that’s really clear: if you’re not working for the people, you shouldn’t be in the statehouse.
Ryan Grim: Welcome to Deconstructed. I’m Ryan Grim, D.C. bureau chief for The Intercept. For years, the story in local politics across the United States has been the same. Since maybe the 1820s, big city machines have effectively been in control and they’ve used that clout to heavily distort politics at a national level. Why do we have the Democratic Party that we do today? Well, it’s largely thanks to those untouchable local machines. But those machines have gotten rusty over the years.
Cynthia Mendes: We were done with inside deals and sweetheart deals and the things that our statehouse had been known for.
RG: That’s one of my guests today. Cynthia Mendes, who just ousted William Conley, Jr, the finance committee chair in the Rhode Island State Senate. She’s one of a wave of progressive candidates who stunned the party establishment this week in the state’s primaries.
Then, I’ll talk to Daniel Denvir of Reclaim Rhode Island, a fellow podcaster who put his boots on the ground and was part of this ocean state political earthquake. This week on the show: What happens when the political revolution comes for the statehouse?
RG: In the summer of 2016, two years before Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez ousted Joe Crowley in New York and kicked off a national insurgency in the Democratic Party, progressives in Rhode Island were organizing one of their own. House Majority Leader John DeSimone, was a right-wing Democrat typical of the Rhode Island party establishment. A Jamaican-born teacher from Providence decided to challenge him. She beat him by just 21 votes. Three other progressives ousted incumbents that year, too.
Rhode Island’s Democratic Party leadership is famous for its corruption, but also for its grit. DeSimone mounted a write-in campaign in the general election, but in the end, he fell short there, too. The party establishment has spent the last four years trying to win those seats back, mounting challenges to the 2016 upstarts. But this cycle, they found out they had bigger problems fending off insurgents everywhere.
On Thursday evening, the mail-in votes were finally counted and the results were conclusive. Establishment Democratic candidates were routed across the State. In the House, at least 10 progressive candidates won primaries, and in the Senate, another nine knocked wins against establishment Democrats, with fewer than 30 races in play.
The most unusual intervention in the primary came from a new organization called the Rhode Island Political Cooperative, founded by veteran Rhode Island lefties and built to recruit and provide infrastructure to an entire slate of candidates all the way down to the town council level. That cooperative relied heavily on help from chapters of the local Sunrise Movement. Two Sunrise hubs in Providence and South County played a critical role, with more than 10 full-time organizers dedicated to the operation, which generated thousands of volunteer voter contacts. Progressives owed much of their success to the organizing groups that had sprung up over the last few years, much of it flowing from the 2016 campaign of Bernie Sanders, including the new group, Reclaim Rhode Island, along with the Working Families Party, which is now four years into its effort to flip Rhode Island from a deep blue, deeply corrupt right-wing state to a blue and progressive one.
RG: The most immediate political problem confronting Rhode Island lawmakers is their state’s budget shortfall. The fight over how to deal with it has so far played out along familiar lines: The progressive slate argued for raising taxes on millionaires, while the Democratic governor and much of the party leadership has pushed instead for social spending cuts. To pass a budget in Rhode Island, you need a two-thirds vote in both chambers, which means that just a handful of lawmakers can block any given proposal.
If Democrats can’t model a decent path forward in dark blue Rhode Island, it’s hard to imagine them doing it in Washington. So what’s the plan? I’m joined now by Cynthia Mendes, a single, working mom from East Providence, who just upset the finance chair in the State Senate.
Cynthia, welcome to the show.
CM: Thank you for having me, Ryan. Excited to be here.
RG: So, Cynthia, tell us a little bit about yourself. How did you become politicized? What was the first moment in your life that you started to absorb the idea that there were politics at play in your life?
CM: So just existing in the world, right, I was aware there were politics at play. I never once ever, ever imagined that I would be involved in politics. That’s completely different.
You know, my dad was a minister. My dad gave up law school to become a minister and served his entire life. And so I grew up in a very service mindset. That was a lifestyle that I had and, as a single mom, I have with my daughter.
I had to think about the world that my teenage daughter was gonna grow up in, with the climate crisis we are essentially handing that generation. I had to think about my history and healthcare. I’ve worked in healthcare for 15 years; I remember giving treatment plans to mothers that would deny that because they had to choose between a medical deductible and their mortgage, and putting a roof over their family’s head. And that was a decision that working families in District 18 had to make on a daily basis.
RG: So what was the role of the Rhode Island Political Co-op, and your decision to run, and launching your campaign?
CM: Yeah, so the Rhode Island political establishment has made it really clear that the statehouse is this impenetrable force; you don’t run for office, you don’t get in office, unless you’ve been tapped on the shoulder by the political establishment. It’s virtually impossible. You can be an outlier, hack the system — maybe — and try to get in, but then you’re really ineffective because the corrupt leadership has a stronghold really on that statehouse.
And so, I was connected with Jeanine Calkin and Jennifer Rourke, who were the co-chairs of the Rhode Island political cooperative. And they’re women who have experienced that firsthand. Janine had made it into office and then lost her second term due to the establishment, and Jen had not.
And so they had this idea of like, let’s work together to help create a cooperative where people are able to get into office, and share resources, and share a platform. And then that was kind of the beginning. I was one of the first candidates who kind of jumped to join the club.
RG: Now, you’re a Bernie Sanders delegate. What role did Bernie Sanders play in the development of your politics?
CM: He was definitely an inspiration to me back in 2016, and even now, because of my experience of knowing what it looks like when we don’t have leadership that is going to fight for the basic universal health care, $15 minimum wage, reject corporate PAC money.
So let me ask you a little bit about some of the state level politics here. As, of course, you know, not every progressive group in Rhode Island got behind your campaign. And my understanding is that one of the reasons for that is that while nobody would describe William Conley, Jr., as some type of progressive champion, he was the lead sponsor of the millionaire’s tax, as the finance chair, the lead house sponsor was somebody that the Working Families Party had gotten elected to the House in 2018.
And so, you know, while he wasn’t perfect, the argument went, he was kind of the best progressive ally that progressives had in the Senate leadership. And so by taking him out, you’re sending a signal that, well, there’s no point in working with the left because they’re just going to come after you anyway, no matter what you do.
So, you know, what was your response at the time to that criticism? And how do you feel about it now in the wake of the election results?
CM: There are a few policies that came up and they came up late. So his proposing of the taxing of the top 1 percent came on after I announced my candidacy. And so it was convenient, the timing. So not a lot of people would actually say that he’s championed some of those things.
There’s also — Rhode Island has a history of corruption. Sweetheart deals, you hear weekly about those. And so there’s a deep level of distrust for the political establishment and they’ve earned that.
RG: And so, obviously, it’s a great thing when good people win elections. But none of it matters, of course, unless it translates into real you know, material gains for people on the ground. So what do you think is going to be the most immediate effect of this kind of progressive landslide that we saw across the state, in Rhode Island, and then more specifically, the big fight in Rhode Island, as obviously you know, is about the budget now. Are there going to be taxes on the rich? Is there going to be more social spending and help for towns and cities in Rhode Island? Are you going to join the people who are committed to voting against the budget if it’s not strong enough? And where do you think this is headed?
CM: Yeah, absolutely. So I think that the beautiful thing about running with a slate of candidates now, and a lot of us are showing that we’re going to be in the statehouse right now, we all have eyes on that budget in new and unique ways. And another way is that we are not bought by the political establishment. We are not bought by corporate PACs. We’re able to look at that budget with the people that we’ve talked to for months in mind. And so yeah, the budget will go under some deep scrutiny, and there will be a major shift going forward.
RG: Well, Cynthia Mendes, thank you so much for joining us here on Deconstructed.
CM: Thank you so much, Ryan, for having me. And I just wanted to thank my Rhode Island Political Cooperative family, as well, for running an amazing slate of candidates that have really challenged the political establishment here, and particularly for the Sunrise Movement, which was really instrumental in our ground game, the way that we were able to knock doors and to be able to have those conversations. It really wouldn’t have been possible without the partnership between the Rhode Island Political Cooperative and Sunrise Movement.
RG: Well, congratulations, Cynthia, and best of luck in the State Senate.
CM: Thank you, Ryan.
RG: Another group that threw its organizing muscle into the Rhode Island primaries this week was Reclaim Rhode Island. The group was founded just a few months ago by former volunteers and organizers from the Bernie Sanders 2020 campaign. Despite their efforts, Bernie himself declined to endorse any local candidates there, but they pulled it off anyway.
Daniel Denvir is the host of the podcast The Dig, author of the book “All American Nativism.” He’s also a writer for Jacobin Magazine. But more importantly, he’s the co-founder of Reclaim Rhode Island. Daniel, welcome to Deconstructed.
Daniel Denvir: Thanks so much for having me.
RG: Thank you for being here. And congratulations on the win by your slate. We just learned that you went 4 for 4 this election cycle. Tell us a little bit about Reclaim Rhode Island. Because you wrote a piece that was much-discussed in Jacobin several months ago, saying that Bernie Sanders ought to convert his presidential campaign into a movement that would elect grassroots progressives around the country. He hasn’t done that. But you guys in Rhode Island did. How did all that come together?
DD: Well, we did such hard work here in Rhode Island sending bus after bus to New Hampshire to canvass there, car caravans every weekend, then the same in southeast Massachusetts. We had two huge rallies that we organized on our own with very little help from the national campaign. And we never got the shot of really having a Bernie campaign here in Rhode Island because the whole world turned upside down: coronavirus, Joe Biden becomes the nominee, things looked pretty bad.
But we had built this incredible organizing infrastructure, incredible leadership, with an incredible volunteer base. And we didn’t want it to go to waste. And what I was hoping that the Bernie campaign would do nationally, what Bernie would do nationally is try to help facilitate the infrastructure that all of us had put so much sweat and so much time into building, to not let it go to waste and to build successor organizations. And that didn’t happen nationally.
But we did that here in Rhode Island, building off the model of Reclaim Philadelphia, which was a successor organization to the 2016 Bernie campaign. We formally founded Reclaim Rhode Island in May and we are building organizing committees in statehouse districts across the state — we just started that about a month ago and we already have like a dozen set up. We are fighting against an austerity budget. And we dipped our toe into the electoral fight for this week’s democratic state legislative primary elections, and we went 4 for 4.
We backed DSA’s candidate, David Morales, for the State House; we won that. We backed, with WFP Rhode Island, Leonela Felix; won that. We backed Meghan Kallman for State Senate; won that. We have helped defend Sam Bell, a progressive in the State Senate, who was targeted by the establishment, and we won that. And this was just an enormous, enormous week for the Rhode Island left: not just us, but the Rhode Island Political Cooperative had a huge number of enormous wins, Providence DSA again, Sunrise —this is just like a political earthquake in the state.
RG: So what kind of people did you organize and get out — or did you get out on the street and go knocking on doors?
DD: Yes. We were canvassing. Yeah.
RG: So what was that like, in the COVID era?
DD: Yeah, I mean, it’s with masks is what it’s like. And then kind of weirdly the same.
RG: Right. Joe Biden has said he’s not going to do it. I mean, do you think —?
DD: I think that’s absurd.
RG: What do you hear from people at the doors, when you’re knocking in the middle of a pandemic?
DD: Yeah. I mean, first of all, people don’t ask you, like, “Why are you knocking on my door during a pandemic?” You knock, you take a good six, eight steps back from the door, and you have a conversation with your mask on. And what you’re hearing is kind of what you’re hearing before the pandemic but intensified, which is that people are alienated from politics.
The biggest challenge is always giving people reason to vote and convincing them that voting matters. And in Rhode Island, I think what that looked like was targeting the machine. Because, in this state, we’re not only up against like neoliberal establishment Democrats, like people in other states are up against. We’re up against, straight-up conservative Democrats — like anti-abortion conservatives.
And so running an anti-machine message and tying that in with the progressive message around things like the budget. Because, like, do we need an austerity budget right now, that cuts services to the same working class people who’ve already suffered so much during this pandemic? Or do we need, in fact, precisely the opposite? And those kinds of conversations resonate.
RG: What kind of person did you bring out into your volunteer operation? Were these people who flowed out of the Sanders campaign?
DD: Our initial members, our earliest members were Sanders volunteers by and large. But, pretty quickly, we’ve expanded to bring in all sorts of people who are committed to social justice work in the state, who are committed to defunding the police. We’ve even brought Warren supporters on board. We are building a really powerful left united front. And I’ve never found it so easy to recruit people to an organization as right now. People really want to do something and to plug it.
One challenge is plugging people into canvassing having canvassed before. Having all these people who had experienced canvassing for Bernie helped, but we had a lot of people who hadn’t canvassed for Bernie. So we did a bunch of events, including one with Reclaim Philadelphia and another with New York City DSA on how to organize a canvassing operation, why knocking on doors matters, how, in these races with low-win numbers — for those who aren’t electoral nuts, a win number is the number of votes you need to win — we have such low win numbers in this state. So we really tried to convey to people concretely that every single conversation you have really gets us, concretely, one step closer to winning these elections.
And we did win them.
RG: Do you notice a change in people when they move from just Twitter activism to actually hitting doors, and phone banking? And what does that look like?
DD: Oh, I think people find it very refreshing because the discourse on the internet is obviously a total dumpster fire, and the way people interact with each other on the internet is precisely the opposite of how you need to interact with voters at the door [laughs]. Instead of yelling at people or trying to own them — I’m not saying I’ve never done that myself on Twitter — but instead of doing that, which is kind of about making yourself look good and racking up the likes, what you’re trying to do is get someone who likely has rather different politics than you to come over to your way of seeing things, or at least seeing their way of seeing things as being something that can be realized through voting for your candidate. And so it’s entirely about persuasion.
RG: So on this program, we spoke earlier to Cynthia Mendes, who ousted the finance committee chair. Reclaim didn’t actually endorse her and the Working Families Party didn’t endorse her. What were the politics behind that? And what do you think will be the effect of knocking the finance chair out?
DD: I think Mendes’ win is enormous and there was no particular reason that we did not endorse Mendes except that we’re a brand-new group. And so we started with a list of maybe like 16 candidates that we were considering endorsing, and narrowed it down to four. And the idea from the get-go —
RG: Is that a lot about capacity?
DD: Entirely about capacity. We did not want to issue paper endorsements; we wanted to work hard on four races, and show those candidates and our members that we have the capacity to win races. And now we’re planning on building more capacity for 2022, including running our own candidates, but including, again, supporting candidates supported by DSA, Working Families Party. We look forward to working really closely with the Rhode Island Political Co-op, who I should add, was closely partnered with the Sunrise Movement in all of these victories across the state.
RG: Rhode Island might be tiny, but it’s actually still a state, I have heard.
RG: Which means that it gets to send two people to the United States Senate. Do you think that they’re watching these results and wondering what that means for future Senate races?
DD: I certainly hope that Reed and Whitehouse are watching. We have win numbers for U.S. Senate seats in the state that are comparable to U.S. House seat win numbers. These are races that organized people can win. And Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse should be playing close attention to the just crystal-clear message that Rhode Island voters have sent this week: unambiguous progressive message.
RG: Last question. So what does this mean on the ground for the fight over austerity in Rhode Island? Do you expect that you’ll get a different budget? That working people’s lives will be different as a result of these others? And what needs to happen between now and the time that the budget is implemented for that to happen?
DD: I certainly think so. Because the budget, they’ve kept kicking the can down the road. We’re months and months into the fiscal year without a budget passed. State leaders are waiting on U.S. Senate Republicans in Washington to pass more funding to states, and I’m not incredibly optimistic that that will happen. And so there are things we can do right here in Rhode Island.
After a decade of huge tax cuts for the rich in this state, it’s time to make the 1 percent pay their fair share and not gut funding to cities and towns and schools. And Governor Raimondo, our neoliberal Democratic governor has already started taking money from the funding targeted to the poorest cities and towns in the state, based on her budget proposal for this year, which is not the current budget. So we’re already seeing Governor Raimondo, perhaps illegally, taking action to impose austerity before the budget has even been passed.
So we think that this election sends a clear message to those who are currently legislators in the Rhode Island State House, responsible for this year’s delayed budget, that people do not want austerity. They want the opposite. And we are currently organizing legislators to sign a no-austerity pledge, and we’ll have a press conference soon with currently sitting legislators to signal their opposition to an austerity budget.
But not only should Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse consider themselves on notice, but every single state legislator in Providence should consider themselves on notice. Because we won — the left, progressives won — in all sorts of districts this week. There are very few legislators who are safe from a progressive challenger.
RG: It feels like a signal to legislators all across the country, too. And we will continue to watch this. Daniel Denvir, congratulations on your wins. It looks like at least a dozen of the insurgents beat establishment candidates in this primary. Daniel is like, he’s the host of the podcast “The Dig,” author of the book “All-American Nativism,” writer for Jacobin. Daniel, thanks so much for joining us on Deconstructed.
DD: Thank you so much. And just a huge shoutout to Providence DSA, Rhode Island Working Families Party, Rhode Island Political Cooperative, and Sunrise. We couldn’t have done it without them.
RG: That’s our show! Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our producer is Zach Young. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Betsy Reed is The Intercept’s editor in chief.
And I’m Ryan Grim, DC bureau chief for The Intercept. I’m also the author of the recent book, “We’ve Got People: From Jesse Jackson to AOC, the End of Big Money and the Rise of a Movement.” The Rhode Island Democratic establishment should get a copy before it’s too late.
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