After Backlash, RI Democratic Party Withdraws Two Controversial Endorsements

Jul 5, 2018

Rep. Moira Walsh, in a picture on her personal web site.
Credit Moira Walsh

After a backlash that attracted national attenion, the Rhode Island Democratic Party has rescinded endorsements for two primary candidates, including one for a former Republican who supported Donald Trump in 2016.

In a letter to Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, RI Democratic Party Chairman Joseph McNamara said the party was withdrawing endorsements for Michael Earnheart and Greg Acciardo, a Democratic running for the seat now held by Sen. Mark Gee (R-East Greenwich.)

In an email Thursday, Earnheart said he still considers himself a better candidate than Rep. Moira Walsh (D-Providence).

"With a strong focus on improving the economy and the business climate of our state, I feel strongly that I am the most qualified candidate to represent the people of District 3 in Providence," Earnheart said. "However, I do not wish to be a distraction. Democratic Party Chairman Joseph McNamara informed me today of his action to rescind my endorsement, and I accept his decision. With this behind me, I will take my case directly to the voters in the Democratic Primary in order to move our state forward in a positive direction."

But a number of Democrats in Rhode Island and elsewhere were troubled that the state party would back someone like Earnheart, who backed Trump in 2016. Earnheart has said he was attracted by Trump's stances on business, but is now a Democrat.

Walsh said she believes she was being targeted by Democratic leaders due to her stances on issues like equal pay and Kristen's Law. She credited a backlash against the Earnheart endorsement with turning the tide.

"You guys called, emailed and carrier pigeoned the dem party until they finally caved," Walsh tweeted. "I officially have a fair race. To be clear RI Dem Chair gets no brownie points for the take backsies. I won’t forget what happened here."

A state Democratic Party official initially explained the endorsement for Earnheart by saying he sought the party's support, while Walsh did not, and that Walsh had not organized a district committee of supporters, as most state lawmakers do.

Earlier this week, Walsh said the endorsement would give Earnheart an edge since it indicates a preference on the ballot for Democratic voters and includes free access to voter lists.

Another Democrat running for the seat, Bridget Valverde, has charged that Acciardo is unfit to run because of his criminal record. (Acciardo has not returned telephone messages from RIPR).

On Twitter, Valverde said, "Happy to see that RI Dem Chair listened to the Democratic voters. Rescinding these endorsements is simply a first step. I look forward to working with the party to actively support candidates like," Walsh, Rep. Marcia Ranglin-Vassell (D-Providence) and Sen. Jeanine Calkin (D-Warwick.)

In a statement, McNamara said he recommended withdrawing the endorsements in the best interests of the Rhode Island Democratic Party.

"As a policy matter, the people in each district should decide who gets chosen when no district committee exists, because they’re the people closest to the candidates and have more information about those candidates than the state party could ever have," McNamara said. "In practice, what we’ve learned over the last few days only reinforces my belief that this is the right policy going forward."

Some district committee endorsements have also divided Democrats in the current campaign season.

In his statement, McNamara expressed regret about the controversy that followed the party's endorsements: “Over the last four years as chair, I’ve worked really hard to make sure our party is more open and transparent and is a place where all Democrats can feel they can have a voice and make a difference. I regret that these endorsements are inconsistent with that work and believe the actions we have taken today brings us closer to where we aspire to be."

Earlier in the week, McNamara told The Associated Press that he didn't know Earnheart supported Trump when he got the party endorsement and that it was "difficult to do a complete history" of the candidate.

Kevin Olasanoye, executive director of the RI Democratic Party, said the party was not aware before making its endorsement that Acciardo had a criminal history.

Olasanoye denied that Walsh was targeted because she has taken stances against the Democratic leadership in the House. "The fact that she did not ask for the endorsement .... put us in a little bit of a bind when making the decision. That's not to excuse the fact that this is the right policy approach to take, but it is, I think, a significant factor in making the decision. I think the chairman recognizes now in hindsight that was the wrong way to approach it, and we've corrected that."

This story has been updated.