A spectre looms over the RI Democratic Party right now that might have the establishment trembling — the spectre of progressive women. If you follow local primary politics or Rhody Twitter, you know the state party set its hair on fire during its recent endorsement controversy. Its infamous gravitational center was Michael Earnheart, an ex-Republican and pro-Trump supporter crowned with the endorsement in House District 3 over incumbent Moira Walsh. Incumbents Rep. Marcia Ranglin-Vassell [District 5], Sen. Jeanine Calkin and newcomer Bridget Valverde also were snubbed in favor of more questionable choices. For a party that calls itself the liberal party of women, it sure falls short when it comes to women in the party.
Leading the charge on women’s issues in RI is the local branch of the National Organization for Women (RI NOW). They have three primary areas of focus: legislation, creating a political action committee and building community. “There’s so many different ways to help campaign,” says Hillary Friedman, president of RI NOW. “It might be donating, it might be volunteering, it might be having people at the state house.” Issues RI NOW is tackling this year are the 2018 elections, the Reproductive Healthcare Act (RHCA), sexual harassment and equal and fair pay. Friedman sees access to abortion as incredibly important, but access to contraception, in her view, gets less attention but is equally important. She points to a bill passed in the last session that allows women to fill their birth control prescriptions for up to a year at time as progress on the issue.
Rep. Moira Walsh describes herself as “very much just a citizen.” She got her start lobbying as an activist, and wanted to be a more efficient cause for change. Her constituents have been supportive of her since the endorsement scandal, and they appreciate her calling out the toxic culture up on the Hill. Walsh cites Rep Edith Ajello putting forward a reproductive healthcare bill for years and getting denied, something that Moira sees as emblematic of the state government’s culture at large. “We don’t give women anything unless we absolutely have to,”she says. “And we’re saying this year you have to.”
But it’s not just reproductive health that Walsh fights for when representing her district. A lot of her job, she says, isn’t necessarily legislative. She’s often the point person on communication with giant corporations like National Grid who no one else can hold accountable. “A lot of my work is basic grassroots in the community,” Walsh says. “Making sure people feel safe.” Her goals now involve trying to turn around years of mass incarceration, keeping an eye on recidivism rates and toning down some of the probationary fees. “My primary focus is on building a sense of community in District 3 and giving everyone a second chance that they deserve.” The opioid crisis is another issue near and dear to Walsh’s heart. This year, she wants to start a commission filled with medical professionals to work toward effective solutions to the opioid crisis rather than locking up people who need help.
Rep. Walsh also sees the need for basic tender loving care in her district. “There’s sidewalks deteriorating, a bridge has been shut down for almost six months,” she said. She wants to get funds allocated for non-primary streets, making them safe for the people who walk to work. In her first primary run, she found bus passes for elderly citizens to be one of the top issues. Ideally, she’d like RIPTA to be run more efficiently, and funded another way besides the gas tax. “A lot of what we need to do revolves around the stigma,” Walsh says. “People speak of RIPTA as if only homeless people and vagrants use it, as opposed to hard-working, tax-paying citizens.”
Sen. Jeanine Calkin [District 30] was also elected in 2016, and in this year’s election cycle found herself with a challenger who got the party endorsement. Her campaign asked for June 17 meeting with the endorsement committee, but it got pushed back to June 27. A letter from the chair of the Democratic party [Joe McNamara] was dated June 25, making it seem he decided to endorse her opponent before even meeting with her.
“Getting endorsements is great,” Calkin says. “But we need to talk to as many people as we can … making sure they know that I’m working hard to represent them.” Although she didn’t get the party endorsement, Calkin did earn endorsements from the RI Working Families Party and Our Revolution RI, the progressive political organization that rose from the ashes of Bernie Sanders’ failed bid for the Democratic nomination.
“I am a lifelong Democrat,” says Calkin. “Sometimes I refer to myself as a FDR Democrat — someone who believes in supporting working families and fighting for our unions and regular working-class folks just trying to get ahead in life.” In her district, she finds that affordable housing and healthcare are problems that force adult children to live with their parents, or elderly parents to live with their children
But these aren’t the only problems affecting District 30. Calkin also mentions environmental protection, affordable college and worker protections. She believes income inequality is an issue we don’t talk enough about in Rhode Island, and Calkin has championed bills to phase in a $15 minimum wage over five years. “It’s a very scary time for women in the state because of what’s happening in the federal government,” says Calkin.