For decades, Rhode Island politics have been dominated by a particularly corrupt and conservative state Democratic Party. The left has been chipping away at the machine’s influence over the years and has made some gains in recent election cycles, but still has a long way to go. On Tuesday, the last primary day of the season, Rhode Island progressives will get an opportunity to build on their movement’s success, and potentially unseat some of the most conservative, anti-choice Democrats in the party.
Arthur Flanders, a queer working-class man and first-time candidate, is one of the progressives taking on establishment politicians in the state legislature. He’s challenging Democratic Sen. Frank Ciccone — a conservative Democrat with strong anti-choice and pro-gun positions — in Rhode Island’s State Senate District 7. Flanders, a full-time ship builder, is running for the Providence seat as part of the Rhode Island Political Cooperative, a grassroots group running a slate of dozens of progressives for legislative and statewide offices.
The Co-op, as it’s known, was formed in 2019, to recruit candidates and build a progressive political infrastructure in hopes of winning a governing majority that’s willing to take on corporate interests in the state. The group backs candidates who pledge to support a Green New Deal, a $19 minimum wage, and single-payer health care, among other policies. They’re mounting challenges to entrenched establishment politicians, and join Matt Brown, a former Rhode Island Secretary of State, who’s running for governor, and Sen. Cynthia Mendes, who’s running for lieutenant governor. Some of the movement candidates face long odds. But other candidates, especially down the ballot, are running in low-turnout contests and pose real threats to the Democratic establishment. In the 2020 election cycle, the Co-op won 8 of its House and Senate races.
Flanders is trying to make the case that Ciccone, a nearly 20-year incumbent, has neglected and sold out the district over the years — and holds conservative views that are wildly out of touch with the community. Every legislative session for the last decade, Ciccone has co-sponsored anti-choice legislation, from bills that would further criminalize abortion and the health providers performing abortions to bills attempting to undermine insurance coverage of reproductive health. Ciccone was the primary co-sponsor of the Born-Alive Infant Protection Act in 2018, which was based on model legislation drafted by Americans United for Life, an anti-abortion group that has helped create hundreds of laws across the country.
Like a handful of other Rhode Island Democrats, Ciccone is routinely endorsed by groups like Rhode Island Right to Life and the NRA Political Victory Fund. In 2020, Rhode Island Right to Life congratulated Ciccone on his re-election, praising him as “a man who has been a loyal defender of the unborn for years.” Rhode Island Right to Life has endorsed or recommended 14 Democrats for state Senate and 21 Democrats for state House in the September 13 primaries. Flanders, on the other hand, has won endorsements from groups like the Rhode Island Democratic Women’s Caucus, Sunrise Rhode Island Youth, and Planned Parenthood Votes! Rhode Island PAC.
Ciccone also has stood against marriage equality. In 2013, he introduced legislation to hold a referendum letting voters decide whether to keep same-sex marriage legal in the state. The legislation would have allowed religious organizations and businesses like caterers and florists to refuse to provide services for a same-sex wedding.
Despite Ciccone’s deep ties to organized labor, and position as chair of the Senate Labor Committee, Flanders told More Perfect Union that the state senator does not truly stand with the working class. He pointed to a payday lending bill Ciccone introduced in the Senate in 2017 that would have lifted the maximum amount of interest that could be charged on a payday loan. A lobbyist told local media that they had brought the bill to the lawmakers on behalf of Axcess Financial, which owns Check n’ Go in Rhode Island. Rhode Island already lets the payday lending industry get away with charging triple-digit interest on loans, even as other states have made moves to crack down on the predatory practice.
“There’s just no need for that kind of exploitation of people who are already down on their luck,” Flanders said. “Like I’ve had experience with payday lending, and taking that loan out, and having to pay that back with the upcoming check literally just wipes you out and then it wipes out the next week’s check as well. So you’re just setting yourself up for failure, and they just laugh all the way to the bank for it.”
Flanders has been working manual labor jobs his entire life. He did dishes and restaurant work as a teenager before moving into carpentry, and spent several years as a lobsterman, landscaper, machinist, and even at a job milking cows at a farm. But he eventually made his way to General Dynamics Electric Boat, where he currently builds submarines for the Navy. His grandfather, who died from asbestos-related illness shortly after he was born, was also a shipfitter. A lifetime of physically demanding jobs has given Flanders serious job-related injuries, and as a type 1 diabetic, he describes being “held hostage” by his shipfitter job, which pays for his insulin. He was recruited by the Co-op earlier this year and ultimately decided to jump in the race because he was fed up with the exploitation, working for companies that see him as nothing more than a body “they can use up and then discard.”
The Co-op, and progressive groups like Renew U.S., are why first-time candidates like Flanders can run in the first place. “I’m at work at 5:00 in the morning to like 2:30 in the afternoon and then I have to go out and knock on doors,” Flanders said. “I don’t have the money or the resources to run a campaign like this. I’m not connected politically in Rhode Island.” The Co-op provides crucial resources to these campaigns, like access to data and a volunteer base. Renew U.S. also trained Flanders’s campaign manager, an 18-year-old who ran her first campaign when she was just 15, as a youth climate activist with Sunrise.
Jennifer Rourke, a longtime abortion rights activist and co-founder of the Co-op, is also running in a crucial state Senate race. Rhode Island Democratic Party leaders helped a conservative get on the ballot to run against her in the 29th Senate District primary, as More Perfect Union previously reported. Her opponent, Michael Carreiro, a white man, once wore blackface and made the photograph his Facebook profile picture, and appears to be a fan of Tucker Carlson. After the photo and some of his conservative social media posts were revealed, state Democratic Party leaders went out of their way to collect signatures and get him on the ballot anyway.
Top Democrats like Rhode Island House Speaker Joe Shekarchi are being targeted by progressives. Shekarchi refused to bring the Equality in Abortion Coverage Act, which would allow Medicaid funds to cover abortion, to the House floor for a vote before the end of the legislative session, knowing that the end of Roe v. Wade was near. He’s facing a challenge from Jackie Anderson, a labor and delivery nurse, in House District 23.
The Co-op is running these political newcomers so the working class can make the decisions that are going to affect them, instead of the corporate lawmakers that have long impeded progress in the state. “In Rhode Island, it’s a corrupt system that’s putting profits over people and I’m running to put people over profits,” Flanders said. “I’m tired of being exploited, I’m tired of people being viewed as human capital to be harvested for the gain of the few.”