With just weeks remaining before the first votes are cast, the race for the Democratic presidential nomination has entered a critical stretch.
Rhode Island voters won’t have their say until April, well after the early contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. But as candidates take to the stage this week for the sixth televised primary debate in Los Angeles, local Democratic leaders are keeping a close eye on the campaign – and urging for party unity in the bid to defeat President Donald Trump next November, even as they tout their own preferred hopefuls.
“I think it’s going to be extremely important that we maintain a level of civility, and those candidates who attack other candidates I think will end up on the losing end of the ledger,” said state Rep. Joseph McNamara (D-Dist. 19, Warwick, Cranston), who serves as chairman of the Rhode Island Democratic State Committee.
This year’s crop of Democratic candidates has been historically large and diverse. Former Vice President Joe Biden remains atop most national polls, which show U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, as rounding out upper tier of candidates.
The rest of the field includes U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Michael Bennet of Colorado; U.S. Reps. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii and Julian Castro of Texas; businessman Andrew Yang; billionaire activist Tom Steyer; former U.S. Rep. John Delaney of Maryland; and author and activist Marianne Williamson.
In recent weeks, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick have made late entries into the race. More than a dozen candidates have already dropped out, including early favorites such as U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California, U.S. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas.
On stage for the Dec. 19 debate will be Biden, Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Steyer and Yang.
John Donegan, who is in his first term representing Ward 3 on the Cranston City Council, said he is supporting Sanders for the nomination. He also backed Sanders in 2016, when the Vermont senator defeated former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the Ocean State’s primary.
“I’m still feeling the Bern,” he said, noting that his wife, a graduate of the University of Vermont, has been a fan of Sanders dating back to his time as mayor of Burlington.
Donegan described Sanders as “true to his word” and “authentic,” and said the senator has consistently championed progressive policies and priorities throughout his time in politics.
“He’s fought for working families his whole career, he’s fighting for our climate, for our future…I come from a union family, and that’s important to me,” the councilman said. “What I see in Bernie Sanders is someone who’s been consistent about the issues during his political career and who genuinely has the best interests of the American people at heart.”
He added: “Let me say this, we are the only major country on Earth that fails to take care of its people. We have a corrupt finance system, more people in jail than any other country, and are dealing with massive inequality in wealth. We need a political revolution that isn’t about one person but that is about us, millions of people coming together to make change. Bernie is the only candidate on the stage promising that transformative change we need.”
Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena, whose overwhelmingly Democratic community supported Trump in 2016, has a sharply different perspective on the race. A vocal supporter of Clinton in 2016, he favors Biden – who he describes as a “John Kennedy Democrat” – for the nomination this year.
Polisena said he fears that the nomination of Sanders or Warren would lead to an easy reelection campaign for the president.
“Every time progressives on the national level, but mostly locally, do something outrageous, it just pushes moderate Democrats as well as unaffiliated voters closer to the right. This is not a socialist country, and some of these people want socialized medicine and Medicare for All, and it’s not going to work … I think if it’s Elizabeth Warren who wins or Bernie Sanders wins, President Trump can go to Disney during the election and come back a winner. This country’s not ready for a progressive.”
The mayor also reiterated his support for Clinton, saying: “As I said, obviously if Hillary was running, I’d support Hillary, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
Polisena’s son, first-term Johnston Town Council member Joseph Polisena Jr., echoed his father’s support for Biden and concerns regarding Warren and Sanders. He also expressed an interest in Buttigieg’s candidacy.
“I’m a Joe Biden supporter…I like Pete Buttigieg. My only concern about Pete Buttigieg is his experience,” the District 3 councilman said. “But I’m a Joe Biden [supporter].”
McNamara, too, said Biden and Buttigieg are the candidates in which he has most interest. Both have made fundraising trips to Rhode Island in recent weeks, and McNamara said he has met each of the men previously.
McNamara said he had lunch with Buttigieg during a Democratic National Committee event in Atlanta four years ago and was “impressed with him.” He did question, however, whether the mayor would be able to effectively compete in the South and Midwest.
McNamara said he views Biden as best qualified to handle foreign policy and restore the nation’s reputation abroad, which he said has been damaged during Trump’s presidency.
“I think Joe Biden has the experience, certainly, that our country needs at this point in time, especially his knowledge of international affairs … We have a lot of work to do to rebuild our international reputation,” he said.
McNamara also spoke highly of Booker and Yang, noting the latter’s ties to Rhode Island as a Brown University graduate.
Booker, he said, “gave one of the best speeches that I’ve ever heard” at the last Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia – and, the next day, came to greet the Rhode Island delegation during breakfast after McNamara ran into him at a hotel.
Yang, McNamara said, is “very, very impressive” and “extremely intelligent.” He also spoke of Yang’s support among millennials and the enthusiasm his candidacy has generated among younger voters.
Like the Polisenas, McNamara expressed some skepticism regarding Warren and Sanders. Warren’s message, he acknowledged, is “appealing” to many voters, although he said he believes “her explanation of Medicare for All was not as thoroughly vetted as it should have been.”
He also questioned whether Sanders – an independent and self-described democratic socialist who has long caucused with Democrats in the Senate – is generating the same energy and enthusiasm in this year’s campaign as he did in 2016.
The latest entrants into the field, Bloomberg and Patrick, drew mixed reactions.
“I don’t know how much the late entrants will impact the race,” Donegan said. “They’re not going to qualify for any of the debates.”
McNamara said he views the late entries of both candidates as indicative of a flawed decision-making process.
“I’m not that impressed with either one,” he said.
Polisena, meanwhile, said Bloomberg is his second choice among the current field. While he disagrees with Bloomberg on gun control issues, he said the former mayor – a billionaire who has previously been registered as a Republican and an independent – presents and intriguing alternative to Trump.
“Bloomberg has money. People like that he’s not going to be on the take, just like Trump. Trump’s a billionaire, just like Bloomberg. The lobbyists aren’t going to get to him,” he said.
Looming over the race – and the national landscape as a whole – are the impeachment proceedings against Trump currently underway in Congress.
On Dec. 13, the House Judiciary Committee voted along partisan lines to send two articles of impeachment to the full House of Representatives. A vote to approve those articles – and thus send the matter to the Senate for a trial – was expected this week before lawmakers departed Washington, D.C., for the holidays.
The impeachment articles accuse the president of abusing his power and obstructing congressional investigations. Republicans have almost uniformly stood by Trump during the current controversy over his dealings involving Ukraine, and it appears unlikely at this point that the Senate trial will result in his removal from office.
Citing conversations with members of his community, Polisena said he believes the impeachment process will “backfire” on Democrats.
“Everybody I talk to – men, women, people of all races and creeds – they’re just tired of it,” he said. “I’ve spoken to some young people, and a young person said to me, ‘I don’t really like the president, but they should cut the stuff.’”
He added: “People come in here every day and they’ll start a conversation, and I listen, and I’m telling you, they're voting for Donald Trump, all the people I talk to. The Democrats have to be careful. They virtually have done nothing for the past three years … On both sides now, not just Democrats, they’ve done nothing, but the Democrats seem fixated on the impeachment process. I would have said let it work its way out and vote him out next year, next November, but maybe they’re smarter than me.”
Polisena said he believes Democrats would be wise to focus on issues most directly connected to the day-to-day lives of Rhode Islanders and all Americans.
“As I said, we have a lot of problems in this country, but I don’t see anybody in Congress, both sides, doing anything to do stuff for America. I’m telling you, I hear people, they’re tired of it. They want to see some action,” he said. “If the Democrats were doing stuff like road projects and getting on the cost of prescription drugs – they talk, but they’re like ventriloquists. Their lips are moving, but the sound’s coming from another spot.”
U.S. Reps. David Cicilline and Jim Langevin, meanwhile, have framed their support for the impeachment process as reluctant but necessary.
“This was not a decision I came to lightly. But after hearing the evidence, the facts are beyond dispute. President Trump abused his office and undermined our national security, all with the goal of soliciting foreign interference in an American election in order to help his re-election … Donald Trump has given us no other choice than to move forward with impeachment,” Cicilline wrote in a message to supporters following his vote in the House Judiciary Committee to advance articles of impeachment.
He added: “This is a sobering moment – after all, not one of us came to Congress to impeach a president. But in our country, no one is above the law, not even the president.”
“Today is a sad day for America. While impeaching a president is by no means good news for the nation, as elected officials we must uphold our oath to defend our Constitution and preserve our democracy,” Langevin said in a statement announcing his support for the impeachment articles.
Beyond the impeachment debate, McNamara said he, too, would urge a greater focus among the presidential hopefuls on key policy areas.
“I would like to hear more debate about economic policy and education,” he said. “Both are extremely important, and the future of our country is linked to education and training.”
The party chairman said he is pleased that two of the hopefuls have already visited Rhode Island during the current cycle. He said he looks forward to a “vigorous campaign,” and believes a “clearer picture” of who the nominee will be will emerge in the next few months. He also said African American woman are an “incredibly important constituency” for the party heading into the 2020 election.
Donegan said he sees a “fluid back-and-forth and a real robust debate emerging about the issues, and I think that’s really encouraging.”
“I think any of the Democratic candidates would be a significant improvement from Donald Trump,” he said. “It’s kind of unfortunate that the Republican Party is falling in line behind Trump.”
Steven Stycos, a citywide member of the Cranston City Council, said he remains undecided in terms of a presidential candidate. But he echoed Donegan’s sentiment in terms of contrasting the entire field with the current president.
“All Democratic candidates would be vastly superior to Donald Trump, in terms of honesty, integrity, personal behavior and politics,” he said.