Matt Brown, a longtime activist for social, educational and environmental causes, wants to bring that mission to the top level of state government next year.
The former secretary of state says he’s mounting a primary challenge against Gov. Gina M. Raimondo because of what he thinks she represents – a corporate-backed government that benefits business interests over regular Rhode Islanders.
“The cost of everything people need, health care, child care, housing, college has gone up and up and up,” Brown said. “Wages and income are essentially stagnant, flatlined for decades. That means life is getting harder for people. And no one in government is doing anything about it.”
Brown, 48, has focused his campaigning on small, intimate events and settings of 25 people or less. And he’s running far behind the well-financed incumbent in fundraising, collecting just $57,000 through March 31. Raimondo pulled in $1.3 million during the same first-quarter reporting period.
“You have to raise enough to get a message out,” Brown said. “You don’t need to raise more than enough. And we’ll be able to do that.”
A resident of Providence, Brown previously ran for U.S. Senate against Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, in 2006, but dropped out before the election and threw his support behind him.
In 1994 he co-founded City Year Rhode Island, a nonprofit that places young adults in high-need public schools for a year.
After serving as secretary of state from 2003 to 2007, he co-founded Global Zero, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit focused on ending worldwide nuclear proliferation. He left the organization this year to focus on his campaign.
Initially, some thought you might choose to run as an independent. Why did you choose to run as a Democrat? I’ve been an activist for causes my whole life. What I’ve found is that within the Democratic Party, there is something growing, a kind of growing energy, enthusiasm, a budding movement, for the kinds of changes I’ve been working for and pushing for in this campaign.
You’ve been identified as a progressive candidate, is that accurate? It’s fair. For a long time in our state and in the country as a whole, government has played a role of benefiting big corporations and the very wealthiest at the expense of everyone else in our communities. That is certainly tied to what has happened over the last few decades in our country, which is the flooding of our political system and campaigns with campaign contributions.
Why do you want to be the governor? The deep trends are really worrisome. I think our government has not proven itself able to address the problems and get to the roots of them.
Do you mean employment, income inequality? All of the above. Extreme concentration of wealth, so that we have a situation where large corporations and the wealthy are making more money than ever but everyone else is really struggling. The cost of everything people need, health care, child care, housing, college has gone up and up and up. Wages and income are essentially stagnant, flatlined for decades. That means life is getting harder for people. And no one in government is doing anything about it.
You aren’t seeing any recognition of that so far in Raimondo’s policies? Her primary economic agenda is to take money from the taxpayers, who are struggling, and give it to corporations who have more money than they know what to do with. I don’t think that’s real economic development. If we have to pay the corporations, that’s not free-market economic development, that’s corporate socialism.
The argument in favor of corporate incentives is that they are attracting companies to the state and creating jobs. One of the state programs is the Qualified Jobs Incentive Act, which awards a credit to companies if they create jobs that exceed the state median salary. The state argues the tax credit only is awarded after the company has arrived and is producing revenue within Rhode Island for a period of time.
Is there something to that argument that the incentives are creating jobs? No. Nobody pays me to pay my taxes.
Would the companies come here without the incentives? There are people [such as] Amy Liu, [vice president and director of the Metropolitan Policy Program] of the Brookings Institution, and others who believe these are not incentives. Their argument is corporations make the decision on where to locate based on other factors. Not the incentives, [but] based on schools, infrastructure, governance, all sorts of other things, the affordability of housing. We ultimately need to create an economy that is self-sustaining, meaning taxpayers don’t have to pay corporations to open offices here.
If you are elected governor, it sounds like you want to revoke these agreements. What would you do? We have to look at them, but I certainly would stop giving them out going forward.
You were secretary of state. What are some of your previous positions and how have they prepared you for the role of governor? When I finished college, I … was a founder of City Year. I was the executive director of City Year 25 years ago. We get young people, aged 17 to 24, diverse racial, economic backgrounds, together for a full year of community service. We worked in low-income neighborhoods in the state, and it worked. Then I went to Yale Law School, came back, ran for secretary of state. I challenged an incumbent in the primary and won that election, and the general election with  percent of the vote.
How does secretary of state relate to being governor – what did you learn? I learned there, and also at City Year and Global Zero, which I ran afterward, how to get things done in government. As secretary of state, I had a legislative agenda. We got a lot of important bills passed, created the first central voter-registry system in the state. At that point, it was all separate, by towns. First in the country [electronic] motor-voter registration. And took on the lobbyist problem. The secretary of state oversees the lobbying. The lobbyists at that point, there was very little reporting of their activities. They were required to [register]. It just wasn’t being enforced. We wrote regulations and we enforced them.
Raimondo is very well-funded this year. How can you overcome that? You have to raise enough to get a message out. You don’t need to raise more than enough. And we’ll be able to do that. She’s at  percent approval [according to an April survey by Morning Consult], in an overwhelmingly Democratic state, at a time when around the country, there is a surge of support for Democrats.
Did that alone tempt you to run? Were you looking at those numbers and thinking, there is a vulnerability here? No, what tempted me to run was my feeling … over a number of years that the problems we’re facing are getting bigger and government doesn’t seem to be able to solve them.
You’re not intimidated by the fundraising, the incumbency, all of these things that are powerful for candidates? If this were a big state, it would be a different story. But in Rhode Island, as long as you raise enough money to get your message out, you can overcome that by meeting voters. The best way to communicate with people is obviously still in person.
You’ve proposed something called the Rhode Island Investment Bank, which would be a revenue-generating bank for the state. Explain how that would work. It’s something that North Dakota did, a little over 100 years ago. It’s been very successful. … There are about 20 cities and states that are looking at doing this, because people feel like we need a better way to oversee our finances. The way it works is that every year, Rhode Island taxes the taxpayers. About $2.5 billion of that revenue is deposited into big Wall Street banks. They then invest that money all over the world and they make a lot of profit from that. One place they don’t invest any of that money is here. So, the idea is you take the money back from the Wall Street banks, put it in this Rhode Island Investment Bank, that’s independent, not run by politicians or bureaucrats, like the way we do economic development now. You invest in things the big banks are not going to invest in, small businesses, women-owned businesses, clean energy, affordable housing. Important projects that are not getting the funding they need, that would create a lot of jobs, but that do make some profit. This is a bank, not a revolving fund. That profit is a new source of revenue, without having to raise taxes on the middle class.
How long would this take to establish? Not [long]. It’s a bank that doesn’t have branches or retail. It’s just a lending bank. We would partner with local community banks and credit unions. [They] would be kind of the lead to vet potential loans and then the bank would come in and back their loan with more capital. Right now, the Bank of North Dakota every year is throwing off about $30 million back to the state’s general fund.
On renewable energy, you’re opposed to both the Burrillville power plant and the Providence LNG plant. You’ve said you want Rhode Island to be the first state in the country to derive its energy needs from renewable sources. What is the timeline for that and how realistic is that? 2035. I’ve also said, we should not only be the first state in the country to produce all of our energy from renewable resources but we should be the first state in the country to be exporting the surplus. We have enough renewable resources to produce twice the amount of energy we use. The mix is 60 percent wind and 40 percent solar.
Can you ratchet up the state’s renewable consumption that quickly? Yes, we’re talking about 15 years. That’s a lot of time and this is moving very quickly now. We need to keep up with where the industry is. The technology is ready now. We need to move quickly. This is the energy economy of the future and we should be leaders in it.
There seems to be an argument in favor of the Burrillville plant that we can’t rely on renewable sources, that we have to make that shift gradually. That’s absolutely false. That’s propaganda. We don’t need to build a new natural gas plant. We’re using it now, of course, but we shouldn’t be building a new one that’s going to last for 40 years. We should be building the future of the energy system, which is renewable.
On tax policy, you’ve said you don’t favor tax incentives for corporations. You have a statement on your website saying you favor lowering taxes. What is your tax policy? No, I’m calling for repealing the tax cuts on the top tier.
So, the income tax? And corporate. So, we’ve been cutting taxes for the wealthiest in the state, and for corporations, for a couple of decades. The incumbent governor is still doing it for the corporations.
You would repeal those? What about individual taxes? I’m calling for repealing the tax cuts for the wealthiest. … Just in , there was a  percent tax cut that was put in place on the upper brackets. What’s happened is this is based on trickle-down economics theory, that you cut taxes for the wealthiest and the corporations and somehow that gets down to everybody else in the communities. And it’s never worked.
In terms of education and higher education, what is your position on the free tuition at the Community College of Rhode Island? Is college level the appropriate focus, or should we be investing more in K-12? The whole idea of state colleges is they were supposed to be really affordable, all of them. That’s gone now. The tuitions are really high. Across the board, it’s again, another sign of where the system is broken down. College is unaffordable, housing is unaffordable, health care is unaffordable. The key point here is this has been going on so long, I think people start to feel this is how it has to be, but it’s not.
Would you support more money being directed in the budget to higher education? Should the state not provide free tuition but instead support the institutions with higher funding? Well, I think there are multiple ways to skin that cat. But we have to bring that tuition down, across the board, at all the state universities. That’s the whole point of state universities. The underlying issue is we’ve been told for a long time by our government, including this administration, that we’ve got to make cuts. We’ve got to make cuts to Medicaid, we can’t fund English-language learner [programs] fully. We have to raise tuition at the [University of Rhode Island], because there is not enough money in the system. And I would argue that’s just not true. There’s the $2.5 billion we’re putting into Wall Street banks that we could invest here. There’s the extreme tax cuts that we’ve given to the wealthy and the corporations. We could repeal those. And we could grow a real economy.
I think a big part of the future economy are small businesses and startups. I’m proposing a graduated tax, a business tax, so larger corporations would pay a higher rate and small businesses we could cut taxes for.
Is your argument there that they create the most jobs? They create the most jobs and they stay. [With] national and multinational corporations, it’s very easy for them to pull up stakes if they get a better deal somewhere else. The reason the “Superman” building is empty is because a big corporation, Bank of America, came in and then they left [the building].
You support a $15 minimum wage. How quickly would you phase that in? I think a few years. We were looking at 2023.
Do you have a position on sports betting? I haven’t looked at it.
What about RhodeWorks? The trucking industry has pushed back against that. Is that an appropriate way to pay for road and bridge improvements? I’m going to look at that in the context of my overall tax package. I’m looking at significant reform to the tax system and I want to look at it in that context.
What can you do as governor to get more affordable, starter homes built? There has been a lack of building across Rhode Island. One problem is we’re now at the bottom of the country in terms of affordable housing. If you make $30,000, you can’t afford to buy a house, by definition of affordable … anywhere in this state. If you make $50,000, which is approaching the median, you can only afford to buy a house in Central Falls and parts of Providence. We’ve got affordable housing problems, but it’s also a big problem for the growth of this state, populationwise and economically.
Is it preventing people from moving here? Absolutely. If you look at what you earn in this state versus what the costs are, it just doesn’t add up for people. It goes back to where the state started to cut the taxes on the wealthy and corporations … that took money that should have gone to the schools. The towns have high property taxes because they tried to make up for it. The state contribution is very low, so that forced property taxes up on the cities and towns to pay for schools. So, now they want to only have large lots to build new houses, so the houses pay high property taxes. The answer is we’ve got to change these zoning laws, which can be done at both the state and the local levels. At the local level, we’re going to have to use some carrots.