A shock to the ruling Democrats on Smith Hill

Posted 9/16/20

Rhode Island's primary election delivered a shock to the system. For years, progressives have complained that the General Assembly's Democratic mainstream didn't adequately represent Democratic values. (It was grassroots campaigns initiated outside the

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A shock to the ruling Democrats on Smith Hill


Rhode Island’s primary election delivered a shock to the system. For years, progressives have complained that the General Assembly’s Democratic mainstream didn’t adequately represent Democratic values. (It was grassroots campaigns initiated outside the Statehouse, after all, that ginned up legislative support for same-sex marriage in 2013 and a state-based abortion-rights law last year.) In a time of pandemic, progressives scored a series of primary victories by out-organizing and out-working their opponents. While there’s still a general election in November, progressive gains will have consequences for the legislature in a number of ways: we’ll see a sharper debate on budget priorities and tax policy. The Rhode Island Democratic Party will face pressure to move to the left. And the progressive wins signal potential challenges to General Assembly leadership and the insular culture of the two chambers (more on this latter).

Mattiello’s bad week

If House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello was looking for encouraging takeaways from the primary, he didn’t get them. Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung, his GOP opponent in November, got more votes (1,083) than Mattiello (818), although neither faced a primary opponent. Rep. Chris Millea, a Mattiello supporter, lost by about 19 points to progressive Brandon Potter, in an adjacent Cranston House district. Though some other Mattiello supporters (including Reps. Pat Serpa of West Warwick, Deborah Fellela of Johnston, Joe McNamara of Warwick, Brian Patrick Kennedy of Hopkinton and Grace Diaz of Providence) won their races, the primary signaled an anti-incumbent trend among voters. As one observer noted, “They scared the s--- out of other incumbents.” And the Mattiello name did not help a cousin of the speaker, Giuseppe Mattiello, who got just 20 percent of the vote in a Democratic primary for the seat held by Rep. Robert Quattrocchi (R-Scituate).

Cranston clash

Fenton-Fung tweeted out a polished video last week with a simple tagline: “COVID-19 was a game-changer here in Rhode Island.” The spot strikes a bipartisan note by segueing between images of two former rivals, Gov. Gina Raimondo and Fenton-Fung’s husband, Allan Fung, as part of those making an effective response to the pandemic. In contrast, Fenton-Fung charges that Mattiello has been missing in action, in part since the General Assembly has yet to pass a budget for the fiscal year that began July 1. Mattiello fired back, accusing Fenton-Fung of taking his remarks from a Providence Chamber interview about being “a little more bored than I usually am” out of context, and he defended the legislature’s response to the pandemic. “What my opponent fails to understand is that we now must await clarity from Congress on specific state relief in order to enact a meaningful budget ….” Mattiello said in a statement. “When we do, the needs of Cranston and its residents will be addressed. All Cranston municipal aid, including education aid, will be fully funded.” But with the state facing a deficit of more than $800 million and the outlook on federal relief uncertain, can Mattiello really deliver on that pledge? As Fenton-Fung noted in a statement, the answer won’t become clear until after Election Day, since state leaders plan to come together on a budget after the election.

How the progressives did it

A lot of incumbents and the powers that be on Smith Hill were caught flat-footed in the face of a heightened progressive effort that culminated this week. So how did it happen? Campaigns matter, and a variety of factors contribute to a winning campaign. Cynthia Mendes’ upset of Senate Finance Chairman Billy Conley (D-East Providence) exemplified how progressive campaigns were better organized than most incumbents and willing to pursue more direct and repeated outreach with voters. Michelle McGaw of Portsmouth, who got nearly 80 percent of the vote in the primary for the seat vacated by Rep. Dennis Canario, reaped the benefit of announcing about a year ago and she started walking District 71 last January. Meanwhile, the infrastructure to support progressive campaigns has strengthened in recent years. The Rhode Island Working Families Party came on the scene in year. Last year, the RI Political Cooperative emerged with a pledge to shake up the status quo. Sunrise RI worked closely with the Co-op. And there were other groups, like Reclaim RI (founded by former Bernie Sanders volunteers) and the RI Democratic Women’s Caucus, along with such traditional supporters of liberal candidates as Clean Water Action, the RI Coalition Against Gun Violence, the Planned Parenthood PAC, and SEIU 1199NE.

Cranston clash, Part II

With 76.5 percent of the vote, Republican Ken Hopkins demolished Cranston City Council President Michael Farina in the GOP mayoral primary in Rhode Island’s second-largest city. Hopkins is now considered the favorite to succeed Allan Fung after Fung’s long run at City Hall. Supporters of Democratic primary winner Maria Bucci, who has a savvy campaign team, point to how the D primary attracted a lot more votes (7,604) than the R one (4,598). But Cranston remains a place where Republicans can win, the Hopkins family is well known for its association with schools and scholastic sports, and Fung is still a political bigfoot. The local validation is a likely source of satisfaction for Fung, who lost his two gubernatorial campaigns against Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo, as his time at City Hall draws to a close.

Popularity contest

Check this – all 10 of the top-five primary winners by percentage in both chambers of the General Assembly are either women or critics of leadership.

House: Rep. John Lombardi (D-Providence), who sits in the section right in front of the House rostrum saved for perceived troublemakers, got a whopping 90 percent. The other top five in the House: 2) Rep. Deb Ruggiero (D-Jamestown) 86.4 percent; 3) Terri Cortvriend (D-Portsmouth) 80.7 percent; 4) Michelle McGaw of Portsmouth, 79.8 percent; 5) Rep. Kathy Fogarty (D-South Kingstown), 75.6 percent.

Senate: 1) Maryellen Goodwin (D-Providence), 79.3 percent; 2) Alana DiMario of Narragansett, running for the seat vacated by Sen. James Sheehan (D-North Kingstown), 75.2 percent; 3) Sen. Sam Bell (D-Providence), the outspoken critic of Senate leadership, 72.3 percent; 4) Cynthia Mendes, 61.5 percent; 5) Meghan Kallman, running in a three-way race for the seat vacated by Sen. Donna Nesselbush (D-Pawtucket), 60.8 percent.

Meet Michelle McGaw

Michelle McGaw said she was inspired to run in part since she felt the former representative in District 71, Dennis Canario, was not responsive enough to constituents. She said Canario declined, for example, to support changes to House rules after being asked to do so in resolutions by the Democratic town committees in Portsmouth and Little Compton. “Reforms that were as simple as asking for enough time to read the bills before they had to vote on them,” McGaw said on Political Roundtable on The Public’s Radio last week. “And when I had a conversation with him, at that time he had said he was not going to support that because he was, in his words, 100 percent behind the speaker.” (Canario did not respond to a message seeking comment.)

Taking on ‘the machine’

Since first winning election to the RI Senate in 2018, Sen. Sam Bell (D-Providence) has emerged as a sharp critic of leadership, in a chamber that has long emphasized collegiality over public clashes. Some questioned the effectiveness of Bell’s approach, and he hasn’t passed much legislation. But Bell sent a strong message last week by defeating his Democratic primary challenge, Providence City Council Majority Leader Jo-Ann Ryan, with an overwhelming 72.5 percent of the vote.

Bell said the results of the RI Political Cooperative’s strategy justified efforts that he once questioned: “Crucially, they took on races not just against the most extreme conservatives, but also against powerful moderates who empowered the machine,” Bell continued. “That was a strategy I criticized at the time, but I was wrong. It was the right move. Because it sent the message that support for the machine comes at a heavy electoral price. And it worked. It worked because Rhode Islanders believe in the message of a Statehouse run by real Democrats.”

But who pays?

A top question for progressives is how they will advance priorities like affordable health care and single-payer healthcare with the state facing a massive deficit. If you ask primary insurgents like Cynthia Mendes, the answer involves raising taxes. “Our Statehouse loves, loves, to make sure we feel the pressure of that deficit,” she told me, “and that really shouldn’t be the way. That deficit exists because our Statehouse has put the top one percent, the people who make over $450,000 [as] a priority. They have given large tax giveaways to large corporations, because that’s who they talk to and that’s who they prioritize.” Yet most of the state budget goes to social services and public education. So it remains subject to debate if shifting the tax burden will deliver the revenue needed to fund new priorities. Ian Donnis is the political reporter for

The Public’s Radio, Rhode Island’s NPR member station. Listen at 89.3 FM or visit You can sign up for weekly email delivery of Ian’s column each Friday by following this link:

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