Warwick Representative Joseph McNamara announced Tuesday he would be seeking re-election as chair of the state’s Democratic Committee, focusing on a message that the Democrats must maintain the strong momentum established in the past four years and that much work remains ahead of the 2020 presidential election.
“We had the most successful Democratic election in the history of our state,” McNamara, who was first elected to be party chair in 2014, said in an interview Tuesday. “Not only did we win all of our Congressional offices, we won every state office, including the governorship, with over 53 percent in a three-way contest."
McNamara has no challengers as of the time, but he said he wouldn’t be surprised if two or three, or even more, of his colleagues announced their own bids in the coming weeks.
Locally, McNamara commented on the all-Democratic City Council and the fact that Mayor Joseph Solomon became the first elected Democratic Mayor of Warwick since Lincoln Chafee. He mentioned normally Republican strongholds of Barrington and East Greenwich both flipped to having totally Democratic town councils, along with sweeps in other Rhode Island municipalities.
McNamara said that the results have not been random, but the result of a widespread effort in the state to coordinate with city and town party chairs to focus their message and support viable candidates. He mentioned moving the state Democratic Party headquarters from a small spot in downtown Providence with two parking spaces to Metro Center Boulevard in Warwick, where “over 1,000 individuals have participated in phone banking and meetings,” he said.
He said that the party has grown its voter database to better identify and reach voters and continue to bring in “trainers” to help candidates prepare for elections, and build platforms based on research.
“We brought the Democratic Party into the 21st century,” he said.
While Rhode Island Democrats have a vice grip on the executive and legislative branches that does not mean there is no division among the majority party. Especially in recent years, a growing branch of Progressive Democrats have become more vocalized in their outspoken support of issues such as legalization of marijuana, enforcing stricter gun control and challenging Speaker Nicholas Mattiello – issues that more moderate and traditional Democrats have been less likely to outright support.
McNamara recognizes the varying views within the party, but does not see it as a “split,” rather he likened it to a Thanksgiving gathering where everyone may have different specific views, but are all still a part of the same family.
“I refer to it like a large couch on Thanksgiving where you can have Uncle Bernie sitting down way one end at the left, Uncle Joe sitting more towards the middle and another relative on the right,” he said. “Do we agree as Democrats on every single issue? No.”
He gave the example that all Democrats want to see universal, affordable healthcare, but that they don’t all agree on the best way to accomplish that goal. Similarly, he said all Rhode Island Democrats tend to agree that there needs to be more effort to equalize educational opportunity across all parts of the state, and that they generally support labor unions as a means to help people thrive financially.
“We have a wide variety and we also have some vigorous debates. It's invigorating. We have the same ideals but different ideas on how to get there…we have these debates but the goals are the same,” he said. “On all areas, we have more that unites us than divides us.”
McNamara focused on establishing “rigorous” curriculum that is consistent throughout the state as one of his primary areas of focus in the years ahead, as well as addressing student absenteeism rates – he cited that up to 42 percent of students in urban area schools are categorized as “chronically absent,” meaning they miss approximately 10 percent or more of the school year due to being absent.
He said that the continuing phasing out of the car tax was essential, and that for too many years some of the poorest people in Rhode Island have been paying some of the highest car taxes in the country for their vehicles, which he deemed an obvious “necessity” of life.
Regarding relations between those think politically different, both among those within the Democratic Party and those outside the party, McNamara emphasized that civility and mutual respect were of the utmost importance to him.
“I think I have an institutional responsibility to demonstrate civility and advise people in how to react, and one of the things that shocks me is the increase in elected officials using language that I don't think is appropriate as a retired educator and as an elected official,” he said.
McNamara said that receiving input from all sides of the political spectrum was essential, and that he always tries to get one member of the minority party to sign onto his bills as a co-sponsor, and is always willing to hear out ideas from dissident voices.
“Civility is something I think we have to work on,” he said. “When we can agree to disagree, but we do it in a civil manner – the institution and the citizens and our government all benefit from a more civilized and respectful discourse.”
On the topic of next year’s election, McNamara said that Democrats need to learn from the mistakes of the past and focus on the delegate selection process, and that they party will be assigning committees to look at that process. He mentioned voting in favor of changing the rules so that party chairs are not automatically deemed “superdelegates,” who can choose whomever they wish to vote for at the Democratic National Convention.
“Leaders of local parties shouldn’t be treated any differently than anyone else,” he said. “I think it makes the whole process stronger.”
Speaking of a recent trip to Washington D.C., McNamara said that the debate process for the Democratic presidential field would include 12 debates, which he expressed happiness about. He was optimistic that the party had grown stronger since 2016, when in-fighting between candidates and supporters of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders undoubtedly caused a rift within the party that contributed to Donald Trump’s victory.
“We see the mistakes that were made in our last presidential election and I believe we've addressed those mistakes and we'll be a stronger party for it and we'll also have a format that will give all of our presidential candidates an opportunity to demonstrate their competencies and communicate their platforms to the public,” he said.
In his announcement letter, McNamara writes that the stakes of the next election “cannot be understated,” and that defeating Trump in 2020 was a goal all Democrats need to unite behind.
“With your help, Rhode Island will do its part to take back the White House and continue to build a party we can all be proud of,” he wrote.