Dylan Conley said he learned some valuable lessons during his first political campaign this year, leaving the door open for another run at the Second Congressional District seat for which James Langevin recently won a new term.
Conley’s emergence onto the scene came with a rude awakening in the September primary. Conley lost by 40 points to incumbent Langevin, who drew 31,607 votes to his challenger’s 13,485. The rhetoric between the candidates was contentious at times, as Conley called out Langevin’s legislative record while the D.C. mainstay said his opponent was “naive” about those matters.
Conley said that building networks is key to a campaign’s success, noting that he joined the fray in 2020 and didn’t have an established plan years ahead of time.
“Coalitions win campaigns, not individuals,” Conley said during a phone interview Monday morning. “Building a coalition takes time. There’s a lot of different development of trust. People are going to give their free time knocking on doors for you, or they're going to donate, they need to know who you are. Building those relationships over time are absolutely critical.”
He reflected on the “amazing experience” of his congressional campaign, recalling interactions and conversations with folks whom he had never met and some familiar faces who helped him along the way.
Conley said that candidates have to make sure they are seeking office for “the right reasons.” He previously said he was running because he foresaw a generational shift in politics and he “couldn’t be on the sidelines” as protests over the death of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor sprang up all across the country this summer.
“You have to really believe in what you're doing because it is so hard,” Conley said. “There’s not much that comes from it other than hard work, and I think a lot of people may perceive that people run for office – maybe they do – because they want the spotlight to be on them, but the amount of effort that goes into a campaign versus the amount of attention a campaign actually gets, it’s a huge, huge gap. It’s way, way, way more work than what people understand.”
Conley, who aligns himself more with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, said he decided to join the race to address “serious long-term economic problems and systemic problems” of race, gender and sexuality.
He also looked to the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic, hoping families have enough money on hand to avoid living paycheck to paycheck for the foreseeable future.
“[These are] problems that for whatever reason the Democratic Party as well as the Republican Party continues to ignore,” Conley said. “We have working families and those are the exact people that are seeing the amount of cash they have on hand that they can spend on things other than rent and health care, being whittled down to the point that their lives are tough and quite frankly small businesses struggle because the average person doesn't have any spending money.”
Conley said that progressive successes at the State House this November raise an “interesting challenge” now that the wing has more representation. He referenced a song – “What Comes Next” – from the Broadway musical “Hamilton” to illustrate his point. The performance sees King George III sardonically ask newly independent America how it plans to govern and lead after England had been expelled from the Colonies.
Conley said progressives could find it “very difficult” to pivot from the tactics that got them elected to the strategies that could help achieve legislative goals.
“When you move from being on the outside looking in to being on the inside, different skill sets and different tactics become more important,” Conley said. “Working within a system, even to change the system, you’re still working within a system that exists and that’s really hard. It’s a lot easier to, from the outside, say this needs to change, that needs to change, than it is to actually achieve that change.”
Conley said he remains focused on the Second Congressional District seat, though he acknowledged Rhode Island could lose the seat in April after U.S. Census results are released.
However, if the Census yields bad news for the Ocean State, Conley said some people have urged him to join the Providence mayoral race.
“I think that’s an incredibly difficult job during the economic downturn,” Conley said. “I don’t know that being mayor of Providence is really an opportunity to develop economic growth in the way that is sort of the premise that I want to do as an elected official.”
While he never explicitly declared interest in running for the position, he said the position of general treasurer is “really critical and really important for Rhode Island’s near-term future.” He did say, though, that self-funding “huge sums” of his own money is a potential roadblock to statewide aspirations for plenty of possible candidates.
“I think historically you consider the position of general treasurer to be maintaining the state’s income, its bonds, its pensions, where I think you could very easily consider it much more of an economic minister-type position where your goal is to develop the economy of the state,” Conley said. “That’s something I think we would benefit from, something I would be interested in doing. It’s tough to run statewide.”