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Aaron Regunberg: RI-CAN Shows its True Colors

Friday, September 14, 2012


On Tuesday, to my very pleasant surprise, State Representative Jon Brien lost his election to represent Woonsocket at the State House. Even though I’d heard his challenger was running an aggressive and effective campaign, I had not expected this result. I’d figured Brien was relatively safe—in no small part because I knew he was receiving significant outside support from RI-CAN, Rhode Island’s premiere organization lobbying for what I call corporate education reform. (I like to differentiate between what I call community-driven education reform—which comes from the parents, students, teachers, and other stakeholders who are members of a school community—and the kind of policy changes first proposed by far-right think tanks and now being promulgated in large part by Wall Street hedge-funds.)

According to the latest Independent Expenditures filing report, 50CAN—the parent organization of which RI-CAN is a part—spent at least a whopping $11,225 in support of Jon Brien through September 4th (money that was donated by several billionaires from out of state, including the head of Purdue Pharma, the pharmaceutical company that has made billions off the sale of the often-abused drug OxyCotin). Considering that the average competitive campaign for state representative in Rhode Island raises less than $30,000, that is a huge expenditure, and one that I believe goes a long way towards revealing the true priorities of this organization.

Here’s a prime example. RI-CAN’s stated goal is to ensure every student in Rhode Island gets a great education, with what seems like a particular rhetorical focus on the Latino community. Pretty hard rhetoric to argue with, right? (At least until you hear the specifics of the plans they are pushing, the majority of which I would argue have very little to do with that goal).

Yet here they are, going all-in for Jon Brien, who may just be the most anti-immigrant legislator in a State House full of folks vying for that title. Brien was vehemently opposed to in-state tuition for DREAMers, and worked furiously against the passage of Grace Diaz’s state-level DREAM Act for years. Hard to see how 50CAN or RI-CAN can legitimately claim to be representing the educational interests of the Latino community while spending at least $11,225 to elect the same man who’s fought tooth and nail to limit college access to so many Latino youth. Or was it Brien’s hardcore support for E-Verify that won RI-CAN’s endorsement (because everyone knows it’s easier for students to achieve in school if they face the constant fear of their parents’ deportation)?

The best thing folks with real progressive values can say about Jon Brien is that the guy’s honest about his opinions. He’s one of (if not the) most conservative

members of the Rhode Island General Assembly, and he’s not afraid to make that clear. He’s a proud member of ALEC (the right-wing corporate-legislation organization that gained infamy for its introduction of the “stand your ground” gun laws in Florida and other states), and a proud follower of Ayn Rand. And I have a certain amount of respect for that authenticity, because it makes it easier to have a real, grounded debate about the merit of the ideas and issues he represents.

What I have no respect for is an organization that claims to be representing the interests of all Rhode Island children doing everything in its power to support a legislator who’s done so much against the interests of some of Rhode Island’s most vulnerable youth. I have no respect for an organization claiming to carry the mantle of progressive change doing everything in its power to support RI’s most conservative representative. I think it’s time for the folks at 50CAN and RI-CAN to grow a backbone and just admit the truth. If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and swims like a duck, it’s a duck. If you are pushing ideas proposed by the Cato and Heritage Foundations, funded by conservative billionaires, and supporting the most far-right legislators in the state, then guess what: you’re the right wing, and after this election it’s not much use pretending otherwise.


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RI Taxpayer


It's impossible to debate someone who can't, or won't differentiate between immigrant and illegal.

barnaby morse

Completely agree with you. RI-CAN's 2 top directors Mary Ellen Butke (before her recent resignation) & Anna Cano Morales clearly do not support public schools since their own children are in charters or private schools. Ms. Morales' (who is also the president of the CF Board of Trustees) endorsement of charters is very evident and a complete conflict of ethics but this is RI after all.

shawna amitrano

If your opinion is based in fact and political agenda, you should mention your lack of respect for the NEW, who lobby and contribute to candidates who will promote their labor agenda, and of course they do this on the backs of ALL the public school students in RI.
Funny how you don't call out both sides, just the one you do not agree with.

shawna amitrano

NEA is what I meant, auto correct got me!

Aaron Regunberg

Damn autocorrect! Hi Shawna, sorry that I didn't make myself clear--I wasn't writing this piece to critique the general act of groups contributing to candidates that will promote their agenda. I was trying to point out, first of all, that if your agenda is truly to ensure all kids get a great education, then Brien is not someone to be supporting, as a number of his positions are explicitly not good for the education of all children. And second, I was arguing that this should provide even more evidence that RI-CAN is a right-wing organization. Which, ya know, is fine--if you're conservative, then be conservative. But being conservative while pretending to be progressive just seems dishonest to me.

Art West

Love the language in this piece, particularly the adverbs and adjectives: "vehemently opposed," "worked furiously against," "hardcore support for E-Verify," and more.

Ed Jucation

According to RI-CAN's website their goal is "Fixing poverty by fixing schools". Maybe they should have used the $11,000 to fix some of the schools instead of wasting it on a politician who doesn't agree with their beliefs. Only in Rhode Island.

John Ward

RI-CAN is not only conservative, they're elitists; and that's worse.

John Ward

RI-CAN is not only conservative, they're elitists; and that's worse.

Captain Blacksocks

Liberals just seem to have a brain tumor in the part of the brian that distinguishes the words "legal immigrant" from "illegal immigrant." It is irresponsible of any elected official to claim that they represent the interests of RI's tax-paying citizens, and then turn around and support programs that channel those tax dollars to non-citizens.

The word "illegal" needs to have some meaning here, or the whole system of government is just a joke. I'd rather see liberal be honest and say "all illegals should automatically be made legal." That is the only way they should be getting access to any tax dollars.

Ed Jucation

Agrees with the Captain. It is also "illegal" to be chronically truant from school yet RICANT is silent on this issue. In Central Falls, where Anna Cano-Morales sits on the Board of Trustees, a student GRADUATED with 115 days absent and 45 tardies. Why didn't anyone go after the parents, as they violated RIGL 16.19.1 and can be fined $50 per day their child is absent and unexcused? I guess it would be politically incorrect to do so as many of these chronically absent students come from a culture where education is not valued. Hey, why not spend taxpayer money on a month-long vacation to "my country" and miss a month of school? Don't worry, if the child fails school public assistance is always an option. Only in Rhode Island.

Joseph Fazio

RI-CAN, as they say in Texas, is all hat and no horse. Hey register as a lobbying group and line up with all the rest of the political edu-wonks that want a piece of the Race to the Top money. Let's take the finger test. Point to one action, program, grant, or project these so-called saviors have done for the kids of RI. Take your time, look around. Can't seem to find anything except press releases? Finger pointing? Oh well, another great RI institution built on sand.

Michael Byrnes


Be interesting to know what are those positions that Jon Brien supports that are explicitly not good for the education of all children. I do not know much about RI-CAN but even if it is right wing (whatever that is) RI-CAN seems to support the education of children without getting bogged down as to whether it is a public, private or charter school. Isn’t that the issue that we should all be concerned with? I have heard Anna Cano-Morales speak and her and her family’s success is a great model for many in our State. She came across as a caring, concerned and contributing member of the community, but then my view could be in error because I did not know she was not a progressive.

barnaby morse

Actions speak louder than words. If both directors of RICAN support the education of ALL children, why are their own children not in the public school system? Why is RICAN's agenda to push charters? Why is Morales the president of the Board of the CF school district..just to turn the district into a charter system?

Michael Byrnes

I said that Anna Cano-Morales supports the education of our children no matter whether the school is public, private, or charter. Maybe the directors do not send their children to public schools for the same reason that mothers line up for a chance to get their children into charter schools or parochial schools in the hopes of obtaining a higher quality education. In this sense the directors actions do speak much louder than words. Instead of criticizing Ms. Cano-Morales, who has taken on what most would see as a thankless task, one would think that anyone interested in improving the lot of our youth would praise her efforts.

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