RI Democratic Endorsement Controversy Keeps Swirling

Jul 3, 2018

Marcia Ranglin-Vassell on the stump in 2016, when she scored a major upset by defeating House Majority Leader John DeSimone. Democrats did not endorse her current re-election campaign.
Credit Ian Donnis/File Photo / RIPR

Fallout from Democratic endorsements -- including one for a former Republican who supported President Donald Trump in 2016 -- continued swirling Tuesday, as some prominent Democrats voiced their support for incumbent Rep. Moira Walsh.

In related news, state Senate candidate Bridget Valverde added to the criticism of the endorsment process, pointing to how the Rhode Island Democratic Party endorsed a former state senator with a criminal record, Greg Acciardo, rather than her.

Valverde unveiled a run in February for the seat held by Sen. Mark Gee (R-East Greenwich). She drew a connection between what she called a flawed endorsement process and a lack of progress on legislation affecting women, wage equity, abortion and efforts to reduce sexual harassment.

"And it's clear that some in party leadership would rather just silence women's voices than take our concerns seriously," Valverde said. "That's just what we're seeing right now with these endorsements. [RI Democratic] Chairman [Joseph] McNamara and some of the local district committees, they endorsed these totally ridiculous candidates over really qualified women who have been building strong campaigns, just to try to stop us from getting things done."

Kevin Olasanoye, executive director of the RI Democratic Party, did not respond to messages seeking comment Tuesday. On Monday, he rejected the idea that the party was hostile to women, pointing to support for a number of women candidates.

But Valverde and other progressives cited what they call a pattern of Democratic endorsements going to people out of step with the Democratic Party. In one such case, Michael Earnheart, a former Republican who voted for Donald Trump in 2016, got the party endorsement over Rep. Walsh. In other cases, Democrats did not endorse progressives Rep. Marcia Ranglin-Vassel of Providence or Sen. Jeanine Calkin of Warwick, who both face Democratic primary challenges.

Valverde, the vice chair of the RI Democratic Party's Women's Caucus, said she was suprised that Acciardo got the RI Democratic Party's endorsement after he entered the race near the end of the filing deadline for candidates last week. "Since Mr. Acciardo hasn’t been involved in our community, the only thing we really knew about him is that he’s part of the same old boys’ network that has blocked so much progress for Rhode Island," she said.

A lawyer in Johnston, Acciardo served as a state senator for eights years in the 1990s. He did not respond to two telephone messages left at his office.

According to Providence Journal archives, Acciardo in 1994 "pleaded guilty in a Massachusetts court to a charge of vehicular homicide stemming from a fatal head-on car crash in Rehoboth the year before and was sentenced to a period of probation. Alcohol, drugs and speeding had been ruled out as factors, and prosecutors, with the concurrence of the family of the victim, Claire Russell, did not seek prison time." In 1998, he "was sentenced to serve three years in prison after he was convicted by a jury of two counts of harboring a criminal. A little more than two years later, the Rhode Island Supreme Court overturned the conviction." Acciardo was convicted in 2009 of operating under the influence.

The genesis of Acciardo's campaign remains unclear.

Following an inquiry by RIPR, Senate spokesman Greg Pare said, "The Senate president did not play a role in any endorsements, and he has not met with either of the Democratic candidates in District 35."

In related news, Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza issued a statement backing Rep. Walsh, and U.S. Rep. David Cicilline, General Treasurer Seth Magaziner, and Sen. Donna Nesselbush (D-Pawtucket) were among those tweeting in support of Walsh. The controversy also attracted more national attention, this time from NBC News.

On Monday, the Democratic Party's Olasanoye said the party backed Earnheart -- who backed Trump in 2016 and now identifies as a Democrat after previously being registered as a Republican -- since he requested the endorsement and because Walsh had not organized her own district committee.

In a statement, Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza said, "The Democratic Party supports a woman's right to choose, improving public education, ensuring access to healthcare, and economic opportunity for all. I believe that our endorsed candidates should support those principles, just as Representative Walsh's record does. I am proud to support her, and find it hard to believe that her opponent, someone who openly supports our President, would hold Democratic values in the same regard. The Trump agenda is reprehensible, it focuses on separating families, vilifying immigrants, and treating women and the lgbtqia community as second-class citizens. It is now more important than ever that the Democratic Party support candidates that uphold our values and principles."

Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo had remained silent on the issue until issuing this message Tuesday from her Twitter campaign account: "Endorsed Democrats should be candidates who embrace our party’s values and stand against the Trump agenda. If I’ve learned anything, it's that being in the trenches fighting for change and helping people keep up and get ahead matters more than any endorsement."