‘I’m in it to win,’ declares blast-from-the-past RI gov candidate Matt Brown

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Former R.I. Secretary of State Matt Brown stunned Rhode Island’s political class on Tuesday when he filed to run for governor – a move he says he only began to consider a few weeks ago.

Brown was seen as a rising star in 2002, when he was elected secretary of state at age 32, before he all but disappeared from the local political scene after an aborted run for U.S. Senate in 2006. “I never thought I would run for something again,” he told Eyewitness News during an interview Wednesday at his home on Providence’s East Side, where he lives with his wife and two children.

The 48-year-old former Democrat, who plans to run as an independent, said no specific issue or event spurred him to enter the race. “I think it’s a feeling that the problems we have I feel like are really entrenched – not just in our state, but in our country,” he said. “I think Rhode Island and Rhode Islanders are hit especially hard by these deep problems.”

“I’m talking about a massive concentration of wealth that leaves a lot of people out,” he continued. “I’m talking about environmental destruction that is a real problem for us but also our kids and our grandkids. And I don’t see a political system that is putting forward ideas that would actually solve those problems.”

If Brown does go forward with his campaign – he will make a final decision “within several weeks,” he said – his inclusion on the November ballot will further complicate the math for the gubernatorial race. And it’s sparked instant concern among Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo’s supporters, who fear Brown’s message will siphon off left-leaning voters she needs to win.

A WPRI 12/Roger Williams University survey Monday showed Raimondo and her strongest Republican challenger, Allan Fung, both polling under 40%. The same two candidates both fell far short of majority support four years ago, when one in five Rhode Island voters backed Moderate Party nominee Bob Healey.

Eyewitness News political analyst Joe Fleming said Raimondo allies are right to be concerned about Brown.

“I think it’s going to really hurt the governor,” Fleming said. “His message is going to appeal to progressive voters, and I think those are voters who right now would be voting for the current governor. … If he can raise the money and get out there, he could have an impact on this election.”

“At the same time, for the other side, [independent] Joe Trillo will be taking voters from the GOP nominee, so it works both ways,” Fleming said. “The question is, which of the independent candidates will take more voters from the major-party candidates?”

Brown expressed no concern about the electoral math, saying the contest for governor is “an open race” and insisting he is more than a message candidate. “I’m in it to win,” he declared.

Brown demurred when asked his opinion about Raimondo’s job performance. He also declined to identify himself as a progressive or a moderate, labeling himself “a problem-solver,” and said he is just beginning to hire staff and line up prominent supporters.

“Tomorrow we’ll start getting around the state and put these ideas out,” Brown said. “I want the campaign to be about things we can actually do to solve these problems.”

In a letter to voters published on his website, Brown offered a number of specific policy proposals he will be campaigning on: to build a “local renewable energy system” by 2035 that pays dividends to residents, as Alaska does with oil; to create a state-run bank, like North Dakota has; and to seek to let Rhode Islanders buy cheaper prescription drugs from Canada.

“We have a really historic economic opportunity here to build a local renewable energy system,” Brown argued. “Rhode Island, because of the wind, largely has the capacity to not only produce all the energy we use in the state but twice that amount, so we could export energy to other states. It could be a source of revenue for the state.”

Brown grew up in Providence, attending the private Moses Brown School on the East Side, then attended Columbia University before going on to Yale Law School. (Raimondo is also a Yale Law graduate.) In 2002, he mounted a successful Democratic primary challenge against incumbent Secretary of State Ed Inman – who had been appointed to complete Jim Langevin’s term after the latter’s election to Congress – and went on to win the general election.

Brown jumped into the 2006 race to unseat then-Republican U.S. Sen. Lincoln Chafee, competing against Sheldon Whitehouse for the Democratic nomination. But Brown’s campaign was derailed by controversy over an unusual multi-state fundraising agreement involving the Democratic state parties in Hawaii, Maine and Massachusetts.

After dropping out of the Senate race and finishing his term as secretary of state, Brown co-founded a nonprofit called Global Zero that lined up prominent world leaders to oppose nuclear weapons. (He earned $299,000 as its president in 2016, IRS filings show.) Brown said he and his family spent about five years living in Washington, where the group was headquartered, but moved back to Rhode Island “several years ago.”

Brown said he disaffiliated from the Democratic Party about five years ago, and said that decision – as well as his independent candidacy now – flowed from his past work in areas he sees as nonpartisan. He cited Global Zero’s support from prominent Republicans such as former Secretary of State George Schultz, as well as his earlier work founding the Rhode Island branch of community-service group City Year.

In his letter to voters, Brown argued that being elected governor as an independent would allow him to work with politicians and voters from both parties. Yet former Gov. Lincoln Chafee said the same thing before his election as an independent in 2010 – only to become a Democrat three years later, complaining that his lack of party affiliation left him isolated in the governor’s office.

“That was his experience. I don’t think it’s going to be my experience,” Brown said. “I think this is a different era. … There is a feeling of real distress about the big gap between the problems that we have and what our political system is capable of doing. And I think people are frustrated about that, and they’re very concerned and they’re even anxious and they’re even despairing about that. So I think this is a different era where I think people are looking for a different way of doing things.”

Local Republicans did not offer Brown a warm welcome to the race on Wednesday, though.

State GOP Chairman Brandon Bell quickly blasted out a caustic news release headlined “Aloha Matt Brown!” that sought to remind people of the fundraising flap which helped doom his 2006 Senate bid.

“Just like you and over 60% of Rhode Islanders, we don’t approve of the job Governor Raimondo is doing,” Bell said, referring to the new WPRI/RWU poll’s findings. “However, like Raimondo, you have engaged in some shady fundraising schemes to get more campaign money from your wealthy donors.”

A spokesman for the Brown campaign brushed off the attack, saying in an email: “The FEC looked at this complaint a dozen years ago, determined there was no basis for it and dismissed it.”

Brown becomes at least the 10th candidate to file for governor, along with Raimondo and two Democratic primary challengers, Paul Roselli and Spencer Dickinson; Republicans Allan Fung, Patricia Morgan and Giovanni Feroce; Moderate Party Chairman Bill Gilbert; and independents Joe Trillo and Luis Daniel Muñoz.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook