Rhode Island progressives are expressing outrage about some of the candidates endorsed in legislative elections, including a man who supported President Donald Trump in 2016 and is now running a primary challenge to state Representative Moira Walsh (D-Providence).
Walsh believes the state Democratic Party endorsed her primary opponent, Michael Earnheart, because of her outspoken opposition to House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello's stance on issues including wage equity and Kristen's Law, a measure to prosecute drug dealders for murder in cases where people die from overdoses.
"I think that the party did not learn anything from what has been going on nationally and instead of hearing all these progressive women say, 'we want equal rights,' they're hearing, o.k., 'let's just replace the progressive women so we don't have to hear those complaints anymore,' and it's not going to work," Walsh said.
Kevin Olasanoye, executive director of the Rhode Island Democratic Party, said the party would not back a number of women and progressives -- including Reps. Edith Ajello of Providence, and Teresa Tanzi, Kathleen Fogarty, and Carol McEntee, all of South Kingtown -- if the party was anti-woman. Olasanoye called the idea that progressive women are being targeted "categorically false."
In the course of asking for the state party endorsement, Earnheart described himself as a Democrat who backed Trump in 2016 because he didn't want to support Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, Olasanoye said. "I think if you asked him this question he would tell you that's one he wished he could have back, but that prior to the '16 election cycle he had always been a lifelong Democrat," Olasanoye said. (Voter records show that Earnheart was registered as a Republican for a few years before the 2016 election; his political views have become a subject of national attention.)
Earnheart tells RIPR he voted for Trump in 2016 because of "his pro-business, pro-economy platform. As a Democrat, I stand for business growth and protecting individual and civil liberties, including a woman’s right to choose, and robust education and economic opportunities for all."
Walsh did not seek the state Democratic endorsement. She said there was no endorsement when she ousted Rep. Thomas Palangio (D-Providence) in 2016. "That tells me that they care very deeply about me coming back," she said. "Whether we acknowledge it or not, we all know that the Democratic Party is beholden to Speaker Mattiello and they do whatever he tells them to."
In most cases, Democratic endorsements for candidates for state representative and state senator are determined by local district committees.
Olasanoye said state party made the decision for the seat held by Walsh (who did not seek the endorsement) since she had not organized her own district committee. Walsh said she took steps to organize a district committee, and that her paperwork did not get through to the appropriate people.
Earnheart's endorsement is only one of the choices that upset progressives.
State Democrats did not make an endorsement in the primary between Rep. Marcia Ranglin-Vassell (D-Providence), who staged a major upset by beating House Majority Leader John DeSimone in 2016, and challenger Holly Taylor Coolman. Olasanoye said Ranglin-Vassell did not run a slate of candidates for her district committee, and that the committee in House District 5 remains controlled by DeSimone supporters.
In another case, the district committee in House District 13 endorsed John Carnevale, the former rep who decided against seeking re-election in 2016 after a determination that he was not a resident of the district. Carnevale still faces criminal charges in connection with the case. He contends the case against him is without merit.
State Rep. Aaron Regunberg, a Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, pointed to these details -- as well as how Greg Acciardo, a former state senator, got the state party endorsement over Bridget Valverde, a progressive Senate District 35 candidate who serves as vice chair of the RI Democratic Party's Women's Caucus. The seat is now held by Sen. Mark Gee (R-East Greenwich.)
"It is absolutely shameful that the establishment machine is lining up behind conservative, unethical and anti-woman candidates to run against real Democrats in races across Rhode Island," Regunberg said in a statement. "The Democratic Party should be publicly condemning candidates like Michael Earnheart, a vocal Trump supporter running against State Rep. Moira Walsh, and criminally indicted candidates like John Carnevale. Instead, these campaigns are receiving the state party endorsement. The corrupt establishment ought to be ashamed of themselves. Rhode Islanders deserve better.”
Olasanoye explained the endorsement of Acciardo this way: "We had to make a decision about who we thought was best suited to win in the district based on what we knew. And we decided that we thought that we had someone who had already served in the state Senate before, who we felt confident was going to be able to win in the district versus someone who was new and had been working and was not an unknown commodity, but we had to make a decision about which candidate we thought was best suited to win in the general."
This story has been updated to include more information about Michael Earnheart's political history.