Socialist Legislators Are Taking on Rhode Island’s Ultraconservative Democrats

Sam Bell
David Morales

They vote against party leaders, fight for Medicare for All, and invite Democratic Socialists of America to help draft legislation. Meet Rhode Island’s socialist state legislators, Sam Bell and David Morales.

Rhode Island State Representative David Morales and State Senator Sam Bell. (Courtesy of Daniel Crowell)

Interview by
Daniel Crowell

In 2018, Senator Sam Bell was the first member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) to be elected to the Rhode Island General Assembly. Representative David Morales followed in 2020, becoming the youngest Latino state legislator in the country at age twenty-two.

Daniel Crowell, cochair of DSA’s Providence chapter, sat down with Bell and Morales to discuss the dirty tricks of the Rhode Island political establishment, the relationship between their offices and DSA, how they’re standing up to an ultraconservative and corrupt state Democratic Party in order to win real gains for the working class, and the renewed prospects for socialist politics today.


DC

Why did you run for office?

DM

It is important to have people in government who understand what it’s like to live paycheck to paycheck. Having watched my single mother work multiple minimum-wage jobs, I saw that economic struggle. And as I got older, I began to understand this was the consequence of policy. The government was not looking out for the working people who were busting their ass to provide for their families but couldn’t because of low wages.

I was encouraged by members of Providence DSA to run for office and take socialist ideas to the State House, where we could advocate for them collectively and pass laws that would transform the lives of Rhode Islanders.

SB

I ran for office because I was angry about what was happening in Rhode Island. We had a very right-wing state government despite everyone running as Democrats. It’s easy to focus on the social issues — the Senate president is pro-life, and endorsed by the National Rifle Association, and voted against marriage equality — but the real damage came from the brutal right-wing economic policies passed by Democrats. When I watched what the 2006 tax cuts for the rich did to the state economy, when I saw the pain caused by the cuts that paid for them, it made me really angry.

DC

People outside the state might be surprised to hear the Democratic leader of the State Senate is pro-life. How would you explain what’s different in Rhode Island politics?

SB

The thing to learn from Rhode Island is that there really isn’t much of a bottom to how bad the Democratic Party can get. In a lot of states, Democrats and progressives are fighting against incremental encroachments of neoliberalism within the party, but I think people should know if you don’t defeat that, it won’t stop there. It’ll go all the way to opposition to many of the core issues that even conservative Democrats often hold strong on.

DM

Because of how small a state we are, we have generations of families that have held power in government. We’ve seen a lot of corruption.

DC

David, I believe you experienced some intimidation during your Democratic primary campaign.

DM

Yes, that is correct. There were multiple times I was followed while I was canvassing. I would have cars following me home, I would have cars parked outside my house. There was this very severe instance about three weeks out from the election when I woke up and — lo and behold — a tire was missing from my car, a window was smashed, and my license plates were missing. The last person who ran against the incumbent also had their car vandalized.

SB

I’ll add that in the recent money-laundering trial of one of the former speaker’s consultants, it came out that they had in fact paid for someone to follow the speaker’s opponent. So it isn’t just idle speculation. Not in David’s race, but in a different race, there was proof documented in court that it actually happened.

DC

Sam, I don’t remember anything that extreme during your election, but I imagine you still had some dirt thrown at you.

SB

In my reelection, I was challenged by the then majority leader of the Providence City Council, and her campaign used some tactics I felt weren’t particularly lovely. This received national media coverage because of the practice of ballot harvesting, where people are sent to high-rises where a lot of elderly low-income people live and take away their mail-in ballots. Frequently voters are intimidated and they don’t necessarily know who they voted for. In my election, a ballot of a voter who had voted for me was taken by my opponent, and it was not returned until the story came out.

So we do have a lot of aggression and the machine will resort to a lot of dirty tactics. There was also a Twitter account set up to put out memes about me.

DC

I liked that.

SB

I didn’t particularly enjoy it at the time. But I did enjoy how they made Red Scare memes about how I wanted to turn Rhode Island into Venezuela — putting my photo next to Mao and Lenin and Marx.

DC

Since you were exposed to those red-baiting tactics, what do you see as the benefit of associating with Providence DSA and identifying as a socialist?

SB

I think the benefit is you’re on the right side. The benefit is fighting for a cause that is correct and a mission to help the people of our world.

DM

You also have the opportunity to mobilize. This past session we presented a lot of bold ideas, such as the statewide Medicare for All system. It would be the first one in the country, and we forced the House Finance Committee to listen until one o’clock AM because we had so much testimony from DSA members and working people. I believe that was unheard of until we had multiple DSA members elected to the State House.

SB

Having David as the only democratic socialist — or at least the only open democratic socialist — in the House has been such a breath of fresh air. It’s really been a huge shift.

I joined DSA in high school at a time when people were interested in theoretical ideas, but it wasn’t a mass movement. So it genuinely shocked me the number of constituents who wanted someone who identified as a socialist. I had a lot of constituents who really believed in the importance of talking about what’s wrong with capitalism, and wanted to address it on a level that I had assumed wasn’t going to be popular.

DM

I think it further proves that the fearmongering rhetoric, the Red Scare, is no longer credible.

SB

Yeah, those attacks — they didn’t work. And I was afraid they would work. It gave me a lot of belief in the people of our state and country.

DC

Both of you have also been very open to feedback from Providence DSA members. You even invite them to write legislation.

SB

It’s been incredibly heartening to see how strong the DSA chapter has become, how smart and engaged. It really strengthens us and makes us much better legislators.

DM

I definitely agree. I think Providence DSA embodies grassroots organizing. The vast majority of the twenty-five-plus bills I introduced were drafted by DSA members.

SB

I also think it’s important DSA was there to testify against bad ideas when typically it has only been lobbyists in the room. It changes the dynamics of legislative committees so much if you have a single person there to say, “Wait a second, this is terrible for the people of our state.” And DSA brought the sense that there’s a real movement out there to scare the power structures. When the power structures are scared, it forces them to the left, and that’s been the key to our success here in Rhode Island.

DC

Some would argue if you’re too antagonistic toward the Democratic leadership as a politician, you’ll marginalize yourself. They say you first have to win a left-wing majority. Sam, you’re well known for just saying no to leadership. What kind of success have you seen?

SB

Here in Rhode Island the leadership is so right-wing we have to take them on directly. There’s this strong culture at the State House that tries to bully people out of taking advantage of the power they have. When you stand up and fight back, it scares the shit out of them.

For the first two years I was pretty alone — just two of us voted against the Senate leadership. But now there’s a ton of senators who have unseated conservative incumbents in primaries, and while we still have the same conservative leadership, they’re scared of our power because we fight them. If we sucked up to them we wouldn’t have forced them to move to the left. The Senate passed a $15 minimum wage, a moratorium on charter schools, and driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants.

When I first ran, one of the big issues was the codification of Roe v. Wade in a state law guaranteeing the right to abortion. I truly believe if I’d voted for the Senate president, and we hadn’t shown there was real opposition, that bill would never have passed.

DC

Why do you think progressives have your back now? There are many politicians who call themselves progressive but shy away from fights once in office.

SB

I have to give a lot of credit to Senator Jeanine Calkin and the Rhode Island Political Cooperative, who recruited candidates and provided them with the support to win elections.

DC

I noticed the Rhode Island Political Cooperative did what some of us have been pushing for in the DSA. They had a binding platform and required their candidates to not vote for leadership.

SB

The Political Cooperative has kept their members from voting for leadership, although they don’t bind them on individual votes beyond a very, very broad platform.

The leadership vote is particularly important. You face so much intimidation. I’m glad that in my first race, I got on camera at the debate and said, “No, I will not vote for Dominick Ruggerio” [president of the State Senate]. I wasn’t used to being nervous, but when I first put on a suit and went into the Democratic Caucus to vote against him, it was really intimidating — looking at a group of very powerful people who are very, very angry with you. You need the protection of having made a commitment so you can’t turn around on that vote.

DC

I want to circle back to Medicare for All, because on the national level it seems to have fallen out of the conversation. The two of you have authored bills in the House and Senate to pass statewide single-payer health care. Why fight for this now, and is it feasible?

DM

Health care is a human right, regardless of one’s socioeconomic or immigration status. There is no reason this state cannot consolidate our health care system and ensure everyone has free coverage. As of September 2, every health insurance company in Rhode Island received approval to increase premiums. We like to brag about how many people in Rhode Island are insured, overlooking that they still do not visit the doctor because of how expensive it is.

SB

And it’s not just something we campaign on. It’s one of the top things we hear from our constituents over and over again. Just about every American has been harmed by the privatized health insurance system in this country. It’s a barbaric system and we have a moral obligation to fix it.

We really believe it’s possible. It will be a huge fight and it’s going to take a lot of progressives winning elections, a really well-thought-out plan, a supportive White House — but we can and will do it.

DC

What other legislation would you highlight, and what are the obstacles to passing a left agenda in this state?

DM

A really significant one is repealing our 2006 tax cuts for the wealthy. Over $1 billion in potential tax revenue was lost between 2006 and 2020. Medicaid was cut to fill the revenue gap.

In addition, we have hundreds of millions of dollars in corporate welfare, subsidies to developers that could be going toward health care expansion. We’re so focused on the idea that tax breaks are a form of economic development, even though they only help the wealthiest people profit from the most vulnerable in our state.

SB

I strongly agree with those two priorities. Repealing tax cuts for the rich and ending corporate welfare would do so much good.

When I got elected and started digging into how the government works, it stunned me how much of the state and municipal government is privatized in Rhode Island. I put in legislation to audit the privatization of Medicaid. A huge percentage of Medicaid is administered by private insurance companies, so we subject Medicaid recipients to some of the same profit-driven cruelty we have in the private insurance market.

The government should maintain and build roads. It’s all done by private contractors here. They even do the designs. We spend millions and millions of dollars paying private companies to run the government. Rhode Island is an extreme case, but this applies across the country.

One other thing I’d add is we need to address the housing crisis. I understand some of that is prevented by the Faircloth Amendment, and I hope Representative [Alexandria] Ocasio-Cortez succeeds in repealing that brutal restriction on the expansion of public housing, but we have to spend more money at the state level to combat this crisis.

DM

In addition, we should ask why we cannot have a free public transportation system in Rhode Island. From my estimates, making buses free would be roughly $30 million if not less, which is a drop in the bucket of the state budget. At the bare minimum, we need to make sure transit services are available across the state, more so in our rural areas.

SB

Combating the housing crisis and providing free transportation are crucial components of a Green New Deal. That means real investment in a transportation system that is less reliant on cars, in more efficient buildings that pollute less, and in our state park system so we can preserve open spaces and we’re able to sequester carbon. It’s one of the most important things we would do if we ever seized control in the state.

DC

Building trades’ unions sometimes say they’re in favor of decarbonization, but they believe a Green New Deal will not guarantee jobs with comparable pay to the fossil fuel industry. How do you think we can work with labor to win major transformations like a Green New Deal or Medicare for All?

SB

Well, we certainly need to keep prevailing wage language in legislation, and I believe we’ve done a pretty good job of that. There is a problem, though, in that construction labor is run by very right-wing people. They pretend to support working people but they don’t, which is why they fought to have their workers exempted from the paid sick days law. Often these unions spend all their political capital fighting for subsidies for luxury housing. They’ve fought to build nonunion hotels, all sorts of nonunion businesses, and nonunion stadiums.

I think we need progressives to seize control of labor unions and contest their elections. When a group of progressives seized control of the Rhode Island Hospital local of UNAP [United Nurses and Allied Professionals], we got one of the largest strikes in the history of Rhode Island. Without that strike, without workers showing their power, the health care sector would have taken out all its financial pain on workers. So it really matters when we get people in charge of our unions who believe in fighting for workers and don’t just support the political establishment.

DM

It’s not enough to go to the State House, advocate for a bill, and say, “Oh, and by the way the labor unions support this.” We need to make sure they’re fighting alongside us. A few smaller labor unions in Rhode Island are willing to stand with us, such as the Carpenters, but that doesn’t go for the vast majority of local unions.

It’s going to require a conscious effort to talk with the rank-and-file members as well. All too often we get caught up with the leadership when the real power comes from the rank and file. I’m very impressed to see Providence DSA make efforts to cautiously connect to our local labor unions and build those relationships. When the rank and file is passionate about an idea and sees how it will benefit them as workers, we’ll see a shift.

DC

Any final thoughts?

SB

First, I encourage people around the country to look at the success the right wing has had in a blue state like Rhode Island, and think about using some of those same tactics in red states — working within the power structures of the Republican Party. There has been some success in states like Alaska. People who want change should not give up just because they live in a red state.

Second, sometimes Rhode Island politics spills onto the national level. We had a very conservative governor, Gina Raimondo, who did a lot of damage to the state. Now she’s commerce secretary. We saw what happened in the policy details — the degree to which conservative policy was pushed despite a hype machine arguing the opposite. It’s important that people at the national level scrutinize what Raimondo is doing in her position as commerce secretary.

DM

If you have Democrats in every level of government, do not assume they will look out for the interests of working people. With the American Rescue Plan we’re about to see a lot of pet projects. A lot of mayors will go on a power trip with this federal money and not prioritize the actual needs of people.

Are people able to go to the doctor? Can they get housing without breaking the bank? Can they earn a decent wage as opposed to working forty hours a week and still struggling to pay bills? It is not enough to use the loose term “progressive.” Challenge your elected officials to demonstrate how it is they are progressive.