The 2016 Democratic primary brought some surprising upsets by progressive Democrats. There were a number of contributing factors to this mini-wave, but it has become apparent that the arrival in the Ocean State of the Working Families Party had an immediate impact.
We spoke to the Working Families Party’s State Director, Georgia Hollister Isman to learn more about this organization and what it means to Rhode Island politics.
CG: Is the Working Families Party a "third party" in Rhode Island?
Georgia Hollister Isman: It doesn't have that structure in Rhode Island. Working Families Party started in New York. And the next couple of states were also states that have "fusion" voting, which means that you can vote for the same candidate on multiple party lines, so you can vote for the same person either as the nominee of the Working Families Party or on the Democratic Party line. If we were voting in New York for, say, Aaron Regunberg, you could vote for Aaron Regunberg the Democrat or Aaron Regunburg as the Working Families Party candidate. He would be listed twice and separately.
It is very important to get people to vote that way, because it is often the margin of victory. It proves to those candidates that they couldn't be elected without the support of people who care deeply about these working people's issues, and that they are an extraordinarily important part of their base. Only three states in the country have that structure, New York, Connecticut and Oregon. Working Families Party now exists in thirteen states, so in all the other states it is structured more like an independent political organization that endorses candidates for office in Democratic primaries running as Democrats. So we aren't structured as a third party here.
In some ways you should think of the Working Families Party like the Tea Party. The Tea Party is not actually a registered party with the FEC, but it is a force, and people know what it is. We have almost nothing in common with the Tea Party other than that!
We demonstrate political power through the volunteers we mobilize, or the support we can give political campaigns, or the people we can turn out for something, or the members we have in a district. We just don't have the mechanism of fusion voting to be able to say "This many votes are by Working Families Parties supporters."
CG: How long has the Working Families Party been in Rhode Island?
GHI: A little more than a year. This was our first election cycle. I have been here since April, so less than a year for me. We're still new. I am from Massachusetts. I grew up in Western Massachusetts and spent most of my political career working on similar progressive political organizing and bringing labor folks and other progressive allies together in Massachusetts. I ran something called Mass Alliance for eight years.
CG: How do you find Rhode Island compared to Massachusetts?
GHI: It is smaller. It is interesting to be in a new place. There are lots of things that are very similar, but a lot of things are possible in Rhode Island that are harder in Massachusetts, because Rhode Island is smaller. A state rep district is 15,000 people. Someone who is a union member or community activist who can't raise a ton of money and doesn't have a massive operation, they can absolutely run for office and win here. That is not true in a lot of other places. You have to have a much more serious operation than you do here. That's the thing that is most exciting being here.
CG: What has the WFP done in Rhode Island so far?
GHI: I got here in April, so a big focus of the work has been electoral. We spent a lot of time thinking about who were some candidates in the Democratic primaries that we could support who would really be champions for the values that we represent who were running against people who had... not been as much of champions in those things. We picked some incumbents to defend, some open seats, and it was very important that we picked some that were challenging more conservative Democrats. We picked ten candidates in the primary to support, and we had a really great primary season. We had four Democratic challengers to more conservative Democratic incumbents, and all four of those folks won. So that was a very exciting result, in addition to some open seats and incumbents. We feel like we've picked a crew of people who really represent what we want the State House to look like. We have definitely both substantively shifted a bit who will be up there and what things will be their priorities, and then also just as important politically proved that Democratic incumbents who have been there a long time have to pay at least as much attention to the issues and values on their left as they do to the ones on their right.
CG: Do you think you had the element of surprise this time around? Did you catch some people off guard?
GHI: Yes and no. The people who were challenged by strong progressive candidates for sure knew that they were being challenged by the left and that those people were running very serious campaigns. It is very difficult to sneak up on somebody with a grassroots campaign, because it involves knocking on doors for months ahead of time. I don't think people were paying very much attention to WFP, but I think if you were in one of those districts you for sure knew that there was a progressive challenger to a more conservative Democrat, and that person was running really hard.
CG: What kind of services or resources did WFP bring to the table for these candidates?
GHI: There are actually three categories. The first is that we have a statewide membership of more than three thousand people who at some point associated themselves with us around some work that we've been doing in Rhode Island, probably around minimum wage or sometimes just online. We've set up to do a lot of work activating those people in a more serious sense in the real world. Turning them into volunteers. We have spent a lot of time working with our members in these districts to get them active in these campaigns. In other districts to get them active where something exciting was going on.
Another piece is we have a PAC (political action committee), a regular Rhode Island PAC. We use that resource, like $1,000 a campaign, sometimes less, as needed. For Jeanine Calkin, who was running against William Walaska, we did a piece of mail that compared their record on a bunch of issues, including paid sick days and paid family leave. In other places we just sort of used it to pay for the time of myself or Abby, our organizer, as campaign advisors to some of these campaigns. They are smart people, but they are running for the first time, and they don't necessarily know how to do this. We give them the kind of professional expertise that they wouldn't necessarily be able to hire. In some places we actually wrote checks directly to candidates from the PAC money.
National Working Families party has an independent expenditure committee that also participated in Marcia Ranglin-Vassell case. That's a separate piece of the pie. There is a firewall between the coordinated state side and the national independent expenditure side. We didn’t even know that there was an independent expenditure side in our races until we saw people showing up in districts with WFP pins who weren’t us.
CG: How is the WFP funded in Rhode Island?
GHI: The WFP has a state committee that has affiliate organizations that pay dues. That's one source. In our first year we have also gotten support from the national Working Families Organization as we've started up. We've raised money from individuals in the state, both for the PAC and also just to support the general operation of the organization. We get grants for issue work that we do.
We're ramping up a big campaign around paid sick days which we're pretty excited about. We're hoping to do some work on automatic voter registration and also on higher minimum wage, specifically a minimum wage that gets to $15 and hour. Those are issue campaigns that we are working on alongside our campaign work right now which will become our main focus in just a few short weeks.
A lot of our affiliates are labor organizations. It includes Teamsters Local 251, UAW, UNAP, SEIU 32BJ, the Carpenters local. Those are the formal labor affiliates right now. We also have some community organizations and some individuals who are part of that as well. That hopefully will grow over time. Those are the people who signed up right at the beginning, but as we continue to prove that we're a group of people worth playing with and thinking about how you can be a part of WFP and use it to create political power on a progressive agenda, I think more folks will be a part of that.
CG: It seems like you had good timing arriving here the same time Bernie Sanders campaign did.
GHI: WFP was a very big supporter of Bernie Sanders across the country, and were involved a little bit here in Rhode Island, but it was literally my first couple of weeks, and I personally didn't do that much to be perfectly honest. It totally helped recruit candidates. Jeanine Calkin, an amazing woman who is going to be a state senator, she literally decided to run for office when being a Bernie volunteer, working on that campaign, organizing other people for almost a year. He got on TV at that time and said, "I hope my supporters will run for state and local office," and she was like "OK!" That's obviously the most direct example, but I think for other people it helped demonstrate that there is an appetite for much bolder policy change, reorienting priorities towards the needs of everyday working men and women, and that Rhode Islanders actually do support that. It demonstrated that Rhode Islander Democrats are pretty far to the left of the way they've been governed in the legislature.
I think in a big way Bernie Sanders demonstrated how far you can get by saying what you really want. We don't want a half measure. We actually want this bold policy agenda, and it's not a little bit to the left of where the other guys are. It is a lot to the left of where the other guys are. Obviously he didn't win the Democratic nomination, but I don't think he needed to in order to prove that there's political power there. In the same way a lot of the victories we had in the Democratic primaries here proved basically the same thing, that if you give people an option of somebody who is a bolder advocate for progressive change, they'll choose it! They prefer that, particularly with the Democratic primary electorate. WFP is all about this, saying "What is it that we are really trying to achieve? Let's fight for it and see how far we can get."
I think the real shocker of this election to a lot of people, not so much to me because I've seen it work on dozens of state and local campaigns before, is that voters are actually hungry for progressive change. That they're sick of being told that we can do a little bit better and they'd rather be told we should be trying to do a lot better, even if we aren't actually going to get there. Or we aren't going to get there right away, or with this congress, or whatever it is.
CG: If people want to get involved with WFP, what should they do?
GHI: They should -- I'll give you an email for our organizer and her phone number -- we have a website at http://workingfamilies.org/states/rhode-island/. Abby Godino, who used to work for the Carpenters and got involved with WFP as their representative to our state committee, is the person who works with individuals to figure out what's the best thing for them to do and to engage directly with the candidates or policy campaigns.
Abby is full time. I am here a lot, but not quite full time. I also have another totally different project I'm working on in Massachusetts, but Abby is here all the time. So we have one and more than a half staff in Rhode Island. We share an office at 188 Gano Street with a couple of other organizatio