While most of the country was taken over by the far-right on Election Day in November, Providence, R.I., moved in the opposite direction, as David Segal was elected to the City Council from the First Ward. Segal, a member of the Green Party of Rhode Island, is a 23-year-old political newcomer whose campaign was able to defeat a Democratic Party machine candidate and a wealthy property manager running as an independent. After running an energetic campaign on progressive issues like a living wage, civilian oversight of the police, affordable housing, parking reform and an elected rather than appointed school board, Segal will now replace one of the most reactionary voices of Providence’s 15-member City Council.
When he entered the race as a Green Party candidate, Segal was the sole challenger against Robert Clarkin, a 13-year machine Democratic councilman who had run unopposed for three straight elections. Essentially, Segal had no chance to win. However, in early summer, Clarkin declared he would retire. Three candidates tried to fill the vacuum, appealing to the ward’s more conservative elements. Clarkin’s nephew, Kyle Diggins, ran on the Democratic ticket, property manager Harrison Bilodeau ran as an independent Rhode Island School of Design art teacher William Miller was the Republican candidate.
This presented a fantastic opportunity for progressives: in a four-way race, Segal had a very good chance of winning. It was clear that where Segal could not match Diggins in political influence and Bilodeau in campaign spending, he would have to make up with an organized campaign infrastructure.
The first task was a massive voter registration drive. Working class and immigrant residents were underrepresented among ward voters. Segal and campaign volunteers went door to door to register voters and hand out literature. The campaign also focused on registering students. With the help of several campus groups, around 600 new voters registered, a significant number in a ward where less than 2,000 votes are usually cast in City Council races.
In early October, with a month left before the election, the campaign shifted its focus to educating voters about Segal’s platform, and identifying those who promised to vote for him. At the center of this effort was a constant push to knock on doors and talk to all ward residents. Segal and three or four volunteers door-knocked daily, explaining to residents Segal’s platform and asking for their support on Election Day. In a similar effort on the campuses, every registered student received e-mails and phone calls. All supporters’ contact information was recorded and later used to mobilize voters and volunteers. Mailings and literature drops also helped increase Segal’s support.
Before the election, the campaign already had won two major victories. First, Segal’s aggressive campaigning forced the entire campaign to revolve around progressive issues. In the public debate between the candidates, the Democrat declared he was in favor of rent control; the Republican boasted that he was more “green” than Segal, the Green Party candidate; and Bilodeau, the ward’s largest property manager, was forced to discuss his plans for affordable housing. These candidates were not ready to discuss real issues and had to confront the issues that Segal put on the table. This is an important departure from the non-ideological cronyism that previously characterized ward politics. The campaign’s ability to shift the debate to the left demonstrates the potential strategic importance of the Green Party: sound organizing and a coherent presentation of issues can defeat conservative ideology and party machinery.
The other major victory was that for the first time in Rhode Island, a union local (Service Employees International Union Local 134) endorsed a Green Party candidate. This gave the campaign important legitimacy in a heavily Democratic ward. In addition, members of two other local unions assisted the campaign.
Over 150 volunteers were mobilized for a Get out the Vote (GOTV) effort on Election Day. In each precinct, a checker checked off on a list which of the supporters had come to vote. Every hour, a runner would deliver this list to GOTV coordinators who deployed volunteers to contact voters who had not yet voted and to staff an “omnipresence” publicity campaign.
This effort was enormously successful – the campaign was able to mobilize almost all of its supporters. Segal won with just shy of 40 percent of the total votes cast, beating his closest opponent, Democrat Diggins, by 8 percent. Perhaps the most exciting fallout from the election was the voter turnout – over 2,800 residents voted in the race, far more than anyone had expected, suggesting that Segal brought many voters to the polls who would have otherwise stayed home.
Now, progressives in Providence hope to get the City Council to vote on the proposed Providence Living Wage Ordinance, which has been stalled for a few years. The election of Segal and another new pro-living-wage candidate, Miguel Luna, to the council may shift the momentum towards passage of the ordinance. Segal’s victory demonstrates that progressive forces need to remember that electing allies can be a useful strategy in creating the conditions for successful mass movements.
Flavio Casoy is a student at Brown University. He can be reached at Flavio_Casoy@brown.edu