NORTH KINGSTOWN – After more than 20 years of having an open membership policy, the North Kingstown Democratic Town Committee has decided to limit the number of members who can join.

According to Democratic Town Committee chair Jim Grundy, the move was made for a combination of reasons, including an extraordinary amount of committee candidates. However, Grundy also said the decision was made in response to an organized effort by progressive candidates who were, he alleged, trying to use the committee “as a mechanism” to push an “ultra left agenda.” (This characterization was disputed by a current member and former vice-chair of the committee, as well as some prospective new members.)

Nearly 90 candidates for the Democratic Town Committee will appear on the Primary Election ballot, with voters being asked to choose 53 members to serve on the committee. Before this year, a prospective member only had to fill out the correct paperwork to serve on the committee, rather than going through a ballot process.

Grundy said a major reason for limiting the membership was that the committee could grow to a “size that is unmanageable,” with such a comparatively large number of candidates seeking a spot.

“A Town Committee is not the same as a meeting of the General Electorate,” he said. “It really is an organization whose sole purpose is to organize and coordinate support for candidates that believe in the state party and national party platform. Nothing more than that.”  

Had all who signed up been appointed, the committee could have grown to nearly 100 members, including 10 “vacant declarations,” which Grundy said would be an unwieldy amount.

Grundy also said that the overwhelming number of prospective members were, in part, representative of a push by progressives to join the committee and, according to him, alter the  platform to better serve progressive causes.

“What we as a Town Committee are dealing with [...] is a well organized push by a small group of individuals to use the Democratic Town Committee as a mechanism to push an ultra far left agenda,” Grundy said.

He said there has been a “clear friction” between the moderate and more progressive groups, adding that there has been “near zero participation from the progressive faction for the last year and a half.”

“Now with more than half of their members lacking any experience, they want to toss aside many members who have supported the Committee and its principles for decades,” he said.

He went on to allege that many of the more progressive candidates support defunding the police, gun control or confiscation, community banking systems and abolishment of municipal unions—all issues that go against the state Democratic party platform, according to Grundy.  

“Most North Kingstown residents, to the best of my knowledge, are middle of the road and temperate in their beliefs and values,” Grundy said. “This is evident in the mixed and balanced make up of most of our town councils for the last 30 years I can remember.”  

Both far left and far right candidates, Grundy continued, do “not reflect the beliefs of most of our neighbors.”  

“The progressive movement is just that,” he said. “A movement of progressives, not Democrats.”  

“The state platform, and in my opinion most Democrats, support our police and other first responders, respect the 2nd Amendment (the state platform uses that exact wording), respect equal opportunity for all and support labor,” he continued.

The most “contrary and controversial” position held by some candidates for the committee, Grundy said, was the “push to defund our police.”

A hashtag has started being used on social media, #53forChange, urging residents to vote for more progressive candidates, with mock ballots created to suggest which 53 candidates voters should choose. Grundy said that, from his point of view, the 53 candidates checked off on the mock ballot were not all “ultra left,” they are just the “best 53 in the opinion of the ultra left.”

He went on to say that, if North Kingstown residents are “happy with the quality of life they currently have,” are “supportive of our first responders” and are “appreciative of the gains labor has made,” than they should not vote for candidates pushing the #53forChange hashtag.

However, Tom Sgouros, a current member of the Democratic Town Committee and the former vice-chair, disagreed with Grundy, saying that the move to limit the amount of members was a reflection of the committee’s refusal to acknowledge the more progressive positions held by many of its affiliated voters.

“The fundamental issues are the same as at the state level: the party structure is dominated by the more conservative voices, even while the party’s affiliated voters move away from those positions,” Sgouros said. “To forestall losing control to the growing numbers of less conservative voices, the leadership has resorted to procedural maneuvers, including this recent closing of the membership.”

Sgouros is a current candidate for the Democratic Town Committee, and one of the #53forChange.

He also rejected Grundy’s characterization of the more progressive candidates’ platform (supporting defunding the police, gun control or confiscation, community banking systems and abolishment of municipal unions), calling it “absurd.”

“That is absurd,” he said. “I do not know what he bases that on.”

One of the #53forChange candidates is a state coordinator for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense, a grassroots organization dedicated to “fighting for public safety measures that can protect people from gun violence,” Sgouros said, adding that he also written about public banking and public financing in the past.

But Sgouros said that Grundy’s description of some of the #53forChange candidates was not accurate, going on to say that it implied that they had “signed on to some agenda,” which he said they did not.

“This is a group of people who feel that the current [Democratic Town Committee] is not reflective of the Democratic party platform, either the state or national one,” Sgouros said. “That’s really the beginning and end of it.”

He also pointed to the committee’s decision not to endorse current town council president Greg Mancini for reelection–a candidate Sgouros said represented the aforementioned “less conservative” voices among the Democratic candidates. Sgouros added that the committee leadership actively prevented its membership from taking public positions on state issues because they “might be construed as opposing the Speaker [of the House].”

While Grundy said the amount of candidates for the Democratic Town Committee was an organized push by a “small group” of progressives to alter the platform, Sgouros said the group was reflective of “the opinions of the town’s Democratic voters,” citing the recent Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests in North Kingstown as evidence.  

“Those BLM protests in town weren’t organized by Republicans,” he said. “Or independents, for that matter.”

Town council candidate Katie Anderson, who supports the #53forChange group, said on Facebook that voters should consider the 53 candidates for the Democratic Town Committee checked off on the mock ballot — candidates, she said, who want to ensure that the party “respects its own ideals and platforms.”

“In an unusual turn of events, the Democratic Town Committee decided to limit membership this year, and opted to bring the question of who can join to the polls,” Anderson said. “For the first time, voters will decide who gets to serve in our town’s Democratic party. This makes for one heck of a long ballot.”

“When you vote on Sept. 8, please consider electing these 53 individuals to ensure our party respects its own ideals and platforms,” she added.

Melissa Devine, Anderson’s campaign manager and a candidate for the Democratic Town Committee, also urged residents to vote for the 53 candidates marked on the mock ballot.

“In years past, you filed your candidacy papers to join, and that was it. You’d be a full member in January of the following year,” she said. “It won’t quite work like that this year, instead the committee has decided to limit membership, and now voters will need to choose 53 candidates.”

“Elections matter. The process matters,” she said. “I’m running this year, and so are a bunch of other really good people who support the party platform and value an open and inclusive process.”

Mancini said he thought the Democratic Town Committee should be as inclusive as possible, rather than limiting the number of members who can serve.

“The decision on the committee is a change in policy that’s been in place for as long as I can remember, and I don’t understand why,” he said last week. “I think as a party we want to be as inclusive as possible.”

The Primary Election will take place on Sept. 8.

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