Matt Brown’s name began to circulate as a possible independent gubernatorial candidate as recently as late 2017, but, earlier this spring, the former Rhode Island secretary of state and senatorial candidate decided to join Spencer Dickinson in challenging incumbent Governor Gina Raimondo in a Democratic primary. While the bulk of Brown’s campaign has been steeped in so-called progressive ideals, like many progressive candidates throughout the United States who are running for office this year, Brown’s message is centered on one core position: That the Democratic party as a whole, including Governor Raimondo, has abandoned its core principles of standing up for the interests of working-class folks and the disadvantaged, instead moving sharply to the right, protecting the interests of big business and entrenched powers. More broadly and generally speaking, that the system is broken.
In seeking to return the party to its traditional roots, Brown has faced several key challenges: the name recognition that Governor Raimondo has built during her time as the state’s executive through a deft public relations strategy, the massive campaign warchest that Friends of Raimondo has amassed, the governor’s unwillingness to debate him, consistent right-wing and centrist media and layman suggestions that progressive ideals are one and the same with classic socialism and an often apathetic RI electorate.
Despite these obstacles, Mr. Brown has remained relevant in the gubernatorial contest, drawing on grassroots politics and volunteers to spread his message.
I first met Matt Brown earlier this year during a taping of The Bartholomewtown Podcast, and, like most of the gubernatorial contenders, have kept up with his campaign on a near-daily basis. I was curious about his mindset as primary day looms.
Bill Bartholomew (Motif): What is your greatest frustration in not having the opportunity to debate Governor Raimondo ahead of the primary?
Matt Brown: Debates are absolutely essential to democracy, and Gina Raimondo and I have very different visions. Voters deserve to hear us present our ideas and answer questions in an open format. Like the free press, debates promote accountability that is so crucial, especially in our current political climate. It’s hard to believe that we might see a Democratic candidate for Governor of Rhode Island refuse to debate in a primary election in 2018.
BB: What’s your message to Rhode Islanders who received the mailer that casts you as Trumpian?
MB: This is the kind of absurd, negative attack that Rhode Islanders are tired of hearing from establishment politicians who spend millions on advertising and have to resort to false claims to try to trick voters. It’s an effort to divert attention away from the real issue: the disastrous fiscal mismanagement of the Raimondo administration that has cost Rhode Island hundreds of millions in tax and pension dollars. At the end of the day, negative attacks on this campaign won’t matter, because voters know what I stand for and they’re ready for new leadership.
BB: Many of your recent talk radio appearances have been highly policy-oriented, steeped in progressive ideals, while in others, you’ve discussed coordination and logistics issues, such as the recent Interstate 195 traffic scenario. What do you believe is the biggest issue facing Rhode Island right now that Governor Raimondo has failed to address? Is it more of a policy or leadership-oriented issue?
MB: I think the source of Rhode Islanders’ greatest struggles is the system itself, which puts multinational corporations, Wall Street and the wealthiest 1% first while leaving the majority of people behind. The costs of everything people need — healthcare, housing, education — have skyrocketed, while wages have stayed the same. This makes life more difficult for the people of this state, who deserve respect and a chance to make a life for themselves and their families. Sadly, as life has gotten harder for most people, our government has done almost nothing to help them. Gina Raimondo, who built her career on donations from Wall Street, big pharma, big tobacco and the fossil fuel industry, is an extreme example of this system.
I believe government has one job, and one job only: to look out for the people. That’s why I’m not taking any corporate PAC or lobbyist money or fossil fuel contributions. As governor, my only priority will be to help meet the most urgent needs of Rhode Islanders. We can make sure that every single person can go to the doctor without fear of going broke, have a job that pays, get a home they can afford and get a quality education for their children regardless of ZIP code. We can lead the nation by becoming the first state to be on 100% renewable energy by 2035 and return the profits to the people. I know this is possible because I’ve spent my whole life making real change, from co-founding and leading City Year Rhode Island to co-founding and leading Global Zero, an international NGO dedicated to eliminating nuclear weapons, which was nominated for two Nobel Peace Prizes.
BB: You’re up against a massive warchest in Governor Raimondo’s campaign. How have you used grassroots and guerrilla resources to build your name recognition and expand your message’s reach?
MB: Absolutely. I’m very proud of our campaign, which belongs to the people of Rhode Island more than it does to me or any one person or group. We’ve been able to spread the message across the state thanks to more than 500 volunteers committed to taking back our state, through phone banking, door-to-door canvassing, house parties, social media, rallies and more. It’s what has made every great movement successful — when people have a voice, vision and hope, they can achieve incredible things. Our campaign, which has a distributed organizing model, is all about making that happen and putting our shared future back in the hands of the people.
BB: Do you endorse a candidate in the Democratic lieutenant gubernatorial primary?
MB: We have not.
BB: Has your campaign for governor been a rewarding experience thus-far? What have you learned about Rhode Island that you may not have understood prior to your campaign?
MB: This campaign has been incredibly rewarding so far. I ran as an underdog against an incumbent in my first campaign for secretary of state in 2003, so in some ways it’s familiar. But there’s a different energy in Rhode Island today. It’s clear that the system isn’t working for most people, and that’s true more than ever before. Many people in Rhode Island have been burned so many times by their own government that they have started to accept this as the new normal. My campaign is about building energy around the real possibilities ahead of us, and the fact that we can have a Rhode Island that works for the many. We just need the courage to act.
BB: Do you believe Andrew Gillum’s victory in Florida this evening reflects a broader pattern of Democratic voters wanting to return the party to traditional, progressive Democratic values?
MB: Yes, voters across the country are energized against corruption and a growing effort to come back to our true democratic values. From Andrew Gillum to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, powerful leaders are emerging to put people before profits and redefine what’s possible. They’re building political power and upending the system that has left so many people behind. It’s happening in Rhode Island too, which is why I have hope that we can have the kind of state we need and deserve.