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Bernie voters look for an incumbent upset in Rhode Island with progressive candidate Matt Brown

"The system we have isn't working for us."

Credit: Amanda Michelle Gomez/ ThinkProgress
Credit: Amanda Michelle Gomez/ ThinkProgress

PROVIDENCE, RHODE ISLAND — Matt Brown has never met former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders (D), but the Rhode Island gubernatorial candidate has managed to win over the Vermont senator’s base.

On Monday, Sanders-turned-Brown supporters walked 12 miles from North Kingstown to beach-town Narragansett in high wind and rain (thanks to Hurricane Florence) to canvas for the progressive underdog.

One of those supporters was 71-year-old Bob Rafael. The retiree was happy to do it because Brown was only taking individual donations and, as he sees it, “the root of all political evil is money.”

Two years ago, these activists helped Sanders win the Democratic primary over Hillary Clinton in Rhode Island. Now, they see the potential for another anti-establishment candidate and political upset in Brown, who’s running against Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) in Wednesday’s primary election. 

Gubernatorial candidate Matt Brown talking with resident Bob Bowen. Bowen voted for Sanders in 2016 and has been following progressive candidates ever since, which is how he learned about Brown.
Gubernatorial candidate Matt Brown talking with resident Bob Bowen. Bowen voted for Sanders in 2016 and has been following progressive candidates ever since, which is how he learned about Brown.

Brown has a progressive vision for a DINO-run state (DINO, meaning “Democrats In Name Only”). He’s running on Medicare for All, the creation of a public bank, tuition-free college, and raising the minimum wage to $15 by 2022, while providing tax relief to small businesses — a reassuring sign for progressives in Rhode Island, who are frustrated with the slew of elected officials in the state who they refer to as Democrats in name only.

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“To an outsider, yes, we are a blue state,” said Alicia Kelley, who works with Our Revolution, a group aiming to bring Democratic Socialist policies and candidates to local politics. “But once they get to know what happens in Rhode Island, they see us as a purple state.” 

Raimondo should be in an ideal spot for reelection, given that it’s the year of the Democratic woman and the fact that she’s overseen an improving economy. Still, she’s one of the least popular governors countrywide. If you ask Brown supporters why, some say it’s because she’s cold — a sexist description reminiscent of the criticism Clinton received on the 2016 campaign trail. Others say it’s because she’s a venture capitalist (she did work for a Massachusetts venture capital firm before taking public office). And then there are those who cite her work as state treasurer in 2011, when she pushed for pension cuts despite major union opposition.

Brown is optimistic, describing the grassroots organizers as the momentum behind his campaign. They’ve accompanied him on his 60-mile walk across the state, which started Friday and ended Monday night, as he tried to win over voters. Others proved critical by donating to his campaign, giving him a chance against the well-funded governor. (Raimondo raised $7 million, and $1 million came from he Democratic Governors Association.)

“We’re winning big time,” said Brown, as cars driving along route IA honked after seeing his “Matt Brown for governor” sign.

“When you are doing a 60-mile walk you appreciate the honks,” he added.

Whether those honks translate into voter turnout is another story.

Recent polling characterizes the gubernatorial election as a tight race between Raimondo and Republican candidate Allan Fung, whom she narrowly defeated in 2014. But the recent uptick in attack ads — including one accusing Brown for engaging in money laundering during his unsuccessful Senate campaign — suggests the Raimondo campaign views her progressive challenger as a threat. 

Matt Brown speaking before voters at Crazy Burger. (Credit: Amanda Michelle Gomez/ThinkProgress)
Matt Brown speaking before voters at Crazy Burger. (Credit: Amanda Michelle Gomez/ThinkProgress)

Brown has garnered the endorsements of groups who’ve backed successful incumbent challengers elsewhere, including Indivisible, Justice Democrats, and Our Revolution. He’s also attracted some Raimondo supporters. Seventy-year-old retired nurse Andrea Penardo, for instance, voted for Raimondo in 2014 because she wanted to elect Rhode Island’s first female governor, but now she just can’t “connect with her.” 

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“She’s for fossil fuel,” Penardo told ThinkProgress over a sandwich and milkshake at Crazy Burger, where the Brown campaign ended its 60 mile walk on Monday.

Various Brown supporters brought up the fact that Raimondo supports a highly controversial proposal to build a $1 billion power plant in Burrillville, which town council opposes. Brown, on the other hand, is running to power Rhode Island with 100 percent renewable energy by 2035, and use wind and solar revenues to give dividend checks to every resident, kind of like how Alaska does with oil revenues.

Brown has previously served in public office as Rhode Island’s Secretary of State from 2003 to 2007. He left Rhode Island briefly to run Global Zero, a non-profit aiming to eliminate nuclear weapons worldwide, in Washington D.C. For this reason, Raimondo and others have described Brown as absent in local politics, a criticism he rejects. Brown does struggle with name recognition by comparison, and this is why it’s especially frustrating for him that Raimondo has refused to participate in a single debate with him.

“I’m hopeful because I believe almost everyone now argues that the system we have isn’t working for us,” he said. “If you’d look back a couple decades, you would have found different communities, people who are marginalized, the poor, people of color who would have said the system wasn’t working for them and they would have been right. Now, what’s different about our time, it’s almost everyone.”

This populist message worked two years ago. It may work again.