PROVIDENCE, RHODE ISLAND — State Rep. Marcia Ranglin-Vassell (D) on Tuesday knocked on the door of a voter with a campaign sign for her opponent Holly Taylor Coolman, an anti-choice Democrat who ended up winning the state party’s support.
A middle-aged white woman answered and Ranglin-Vassell introduced herself to her neighbor: She’s a Jamaican immigrant who’s lived in the Providence for decades; she’s a high school teacher who’s made improving public schools a priority. She’s also fighting to raise the minimum wage.
The woman replied that Taylor Coolman’s just a friend of hers and that she’s a registered Republican — but “not a bad person,” she added. Though she can’t vote in the Democratic primary Wednesday, she did like what Ranglin-Vassell had to say about allocating more money to schools. Hers was one of hundreds of doors Ranglin-Vassell knocked on over the last couple of days, despite her fractured spine.
“For me, I like to look at the big picture and my big picture is we got to look after women and children,” Ranglin-Vassell told ThinkProgress afterward, while sitting in her nephew-turned-field director’s car.
“My fight — and people have it a little wrong — is expansive … What I do, I connect the dots. I connect the dots with poverty, gun violence, environmental justice, asthma — the teachers who may be absent because they are sick,” she said.
And abortion. Her platform, she said, is about giving people, especially those who are marginalized, the ability to choose a better life for themselves in whatever way they see fit.
Taylor Coolman, on the other hand, ran because Ranglin-Vassell is pro-choice, and the former likely hopes to grab single-issue voters. She pleaded with Ranglin-Vassell as her constituent, asking her by email in February 2017 to withdraw support for legislation to codify Roe into state law.
“Thank you for your email and your thoughts,” replied Ranglin-Vassell. “I want you to know that I would never sign a bill that I did not believe in… I am in no position to judge a woman based on her choice.”
Ranglin-Vassell’s unapologetic support for the Reproductive Health Care Act provoked a primary challenger and cost her the establishment support. The Democratic District Committee endorsed Taylor Coolman, meaning she got their financial backing (enough to buy a bus station sign) and an asterisk by her name on the ballot.
Ranglin-Vassell is among several progressive incumbents who has irritated the party over the past two years, enough to have them endorse and promote their challengers. Now, this group of progressive women are hoping to keep their seats. Without them, Rhode Island won’t be able to protect the constitutional right to abortion.
SCOTUS, the State House, and abortion rights
State House races matter. They mattered in Virginia last year, when residents elected enough local representatives to expand Medicaid through the state legislature. And they prove critical now, in Rhode Island, as a more conservative Supreme Court nears.
Should Judge Brett Kavanaugh be confirmed as a Supreme Court Justice and any of these 13 anti-choice bills make it to the Court, only the 10 states that codified Roe will guarantee the right to abortion prior to viability or in cases of life endangerment.
Massachusetts eliminated its anti-abortion laws over the summer, leading Rhode Islanders to question why their more conservative neighbor can get rid of the right to choose, while Rhode Island, which is run by Democrats, hasn’t.
The Reproductive Health Care Act would not only codify the protections of Roe into Rhode Island state law, but would also eliminate, for example, an archaic law requiring that the husband be notified if their pregnant partner wants to terminate the pregnancy.
The legislation continues to be blocked by Democratic leadership, as critical committee chairs refuse to move it out of committee.
“I see no effort nationally to change the Roe v. Wade standard … so I don’t think it’s a real concern,” said Rhode Island House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello (D) during an interview in May 2018.
President Donald Trump’s promise to appoint a Supreme Court Justice who’d overturn Roe didn’t seem to faze the Mattiello — or perhaps he just didn’t care.
The problem of Rhode Island’s anti-choice Democrats
Rhode Island earned an “F” grade from NARAL Pro-choice America in 2016, which sometimes shocks people, given that Rhode Island is one of seven Democratic trifectas — meaning the party controls all three positions in government. But, here, they are Democrat in name only, according to various progressives who spoke to ThinkProgress.
Some prescribe the state party’s views on abortion to Catholicism. But activists are convinced that it’s because most voters don’t know they’re electing anti-choice Democrats.
“Many listen to the church’s teachings but I don’t think that’s the big issue in Rhode Island. The biggest issue is the gap between what Rhode Island thinks and what elected officials believe,” said Craig O’Connor, with Planned Parenthood of Southern New England.
“They are afraid of moving the [Reproductive Health Care Act] bill forward and asking their colleagues to stand on the issue.”
The bill barely has enough votes to pass the House, but it’s unclear if it has enough votes to pass the Senate. Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) said that if the legislature sends the bill to her desk and she’s reelected, she would sign it into law. But the last abortion bill Rhode Island passed in 2015 restricted abortion coverage (and Raimondo signed it).
“We can see things that they don’t because we experience things that they haven’t.”
Melanie DuPont is running for state Senate, hoping to unseat incumbent Steve Archambault (D), who refused to fight for the pro-choice bill. After meeting with her elected official for over an hour and realizing he wasn’t going to fight for reproductive justice, she decided to run.
“The Rhode Island [Democratic party] platform is six pages — it’s a desolation of what the national platform, what the national party offers,” DuPont told ThinkProgress. “And so we have a lot of Democrats whose standard for supporting reproductive justice is much lower than you’d imagine and you wouldn’t know that until you start prying into the details.”
Rhode Island Right to Life has endorsed dozens of Democrats for local office, including House leadership. They endorsed state Sen. Michael McCaffrey (D), who’s blocked the Reproductive Health Care Act in committee. McCaffrey’s reputation as a “Democrat in name only” is why Jennifer Rourke is running. On the campaign trail, Rourke learned McCaffrey’s constituents are actually concerned about Roe and choice.
“One door I knocked on [on Monday] and the gentlemen said ‘my wife is very adamant about a certain issue and I just got to ask you where you stand… How do you feel about a woman’s right to choose?’ And I said, ‘it’s my body my decision’ and he said, ‘Okay, you have my vote,'” said Rourke.
The views of these progressive Democrats running for office reflect the experience and, therefore, the priorities of the candidates. The fact that the majority white, majority male legislature has blocked a reproductive health care bill for years isn’t surprising, various Rhode Islanders told ThinkProgress. It’s also not surprising that the establishment is set on supporting and reelecting these people or people like them — even if it means, at one point, backing a Trump supporter.
“We need women and, specifically, women of color [to pass the Reproductive Health Care Act,]” said DuPont.
“We have a population that is 51 percent female, and yet the [state] Senate, for example, is only 31 percent female. And so, [what] we are missing are the voices of women and people of color and what we have in the State House is not represented of what we have in the population.”
“So what happens, then, is we start to think that white male lens is the only truth and base of validity — and we know that’s not true,” she added. “We have a different life experience… and different life experience means different means, different suffering. And we can see things that they don’t because we experience things that they haven’t.”
This includes reproductive health care. But by framing it as reproductive justice — that is, understanding the intersectionality of identities — these progressive Democrats may hold on to their seats and capture more.