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At least a dozen progressive candidates won state Senate and House primaries in Rhode Island this week. Several were backed by the Rhode Island Political Cooperative and Reclaim RI, grassroots groups that aim to increase working people's representation in the state capitol. (Photo: Will Hart/Flickr/cc)

Bernie-Inspired Organizers and Rhode Island Voters Deliver 'Crystal Clear Message' With Progressive Primary Wave

"No one is entitled to their seats," said Medicare for All advocate Cynthia Mendes after winning a high-profile race. "If you're not working for people, you will be replaced."

Julia Conley

State-level progressive candidates across Rhode Island celebrated victories Friday after 38,000 mail-in ballots were tallied in this week's primary elections in which more than a dozen centrist Democratic incumbents were rejected by voters in favor of challengers offering more visionary solutions.

The victories of candidates including Cynthia Mendes, a Medicare for All advocate and single working mother who beat state Senate Finance Committee Chairman William Conley, and Briana Henries, who faced homelessness as a child and campaigned on affordable housing in her state House race, follow tireless organizing by progressive groups established in recent years in the state.

Reclaim RI—established in May by former volunteers for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) 2020 presidential campaign—celebrated the victories of four of its endorsed candidates, including state Sen. Sam Bell, a Medicare for All supporter who easily retained his seat despite being challenged by an establishment-backed Providence City Council member.

The group led volunteers in knocking on "thousands of doors" during the primary campaign with the aim of ensuring working families in Rhode Island have a voice in the state capitol.

According to WPRI, turnout was high for an election without a high-profile statewide or federal race. Election officials reported an 11.4% voter turnout, higher than three of the last five presidential elections in the state.

"Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse should be paying close attention to the just crystal-clear message that Rhode Island voters have sent this week, an unambiguous progressive message."
—Daniel Denvir, Reclaim RI

Progressives posited that Rhode Island voters were adamant about securing power for lawmakers who will fight for single-payer healthcare, a Green New Deal, and a state budget which will demand that the wealthiest Rhode Islanders pay their fair share to fund schools and public services.  

"Rhode Island voters delivered," wrote Intercept journalist Ryan Grim on Friday. "On Tuesday, they went to the polls, and it took until last night to finish counting the ballots. But once they had, something stunning emerged: an historic romp by the progressive wing of the party, which tossed out more than a dozen members of the (allegedly) mobbed-up, right-wing Democratic establishment."

Eight candidates won their primaries with backing from the Rhode Island Political Cooperative (RIPC), a group started after the 2018 primaries in order to form a strong progressive coalition in the State House, which Mendes described as being "corrupt," overrun by "sweetheart deals," and controlled by "corporate sell-out politicians." 

"No one is entitled to their seats," Mendes told journalist Julia Rock of Uprise RI. "If you're not working for people, you will be replaced."

The RIPC charges candidates monthly dues in exchange for candidate training, volunteer recruitment, policy research, and other services that political parties with deep pockets generally provide for their endorsed candidates. 

Jeanine Calkin, a co-founder of the cooperative who served in the state legislature from 2016 to 2018 and appears poised to return to the capitol after winning her primary on Tuesday, expressed hope that following this week's success, advocates for working people can make their mark on Rhode Island's political system.

"Tonight is just the beginning," Calkin said in a statement. "We've got 16 general election campaigns for November, then Co-op legislators will begin working together to turn our policies into state law."

Looking ahead, RIPC co-chair Jennifer Rourke, who lost her primary, told WPRI, "Recruitment begins now for 2022."

Daniel Denvir, host of Jacobin's podcast "The Dig" and co-chair of Reclaim RI, told The Intercept that should they win November's general elections, the group's endorsed candidates will focus on defeating centrist lawmakers' push for austerity in the state budget.

Several months into the fiscal year, Rhode Island still has not passed a budget and lawmakers are waiting for the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate to send more funding to the state.

"I'm not incredibly optimistic that that will happen and so there are things we can do right here in Rhode Island," Denvir told Ryan Grim on The Intercept podcast "Deconstructed."

"After a decade of huge tax cuts for the rich in this state, it's time to make the 1% pay their fair share and not gut funding to cities and towns and schools," he continued. "And Gov. Raimondo, our neoliberal Democratic governor, has already started taking money from the funding targeted to the poorest cities and towns in this state... So we think 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."

Mendes also spoke on "Deconstructed" and expressed enthusiasm for the fight that lies ahead for herself and other progressives in Providence.

"We are not bought by the political establishment, we are not bought by corporate PACs so we're able to look at that budget with the people that we've talked to for months in mind," Mendes said. "And so the budget will go under some deep scrutiny and there will be a major shift going forward."

Denvir and other supporters and candidates credited grassroots organizing by Reclaim RI, the RIPC, and other progressive groups with securing this week's victories.

Denvir issued a warning to Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Rhode Island's two moderate U.S. senators, noting that "progressives won in all sorts of districts" across the state this week—signaling that voters are eager for representatives with far-reaching legislative agendas.

"Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse should be paying close attention to the just crystal-clear message that Rhode Island voters have sent this week, an unambiguous progressive message," Denvir told The Intercept. 

"Every single state legislator in Providence should [also] consider themselves on notice," he added. "There are very few legislators who are safe from a progressive challenge."

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