City Life

The RI Dems Aim for the Grassroots

New executive director Kevin Olasanoye on turning the national tide and why it's good to be a Democrat right now

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This May, the Rhode Island Democratic Party hired an executive director after two years with no one in the position and only one staffer: communications director Ann Gooding. Tolulope Kevin Olasanoye, the director of purchasing for the City of Providence until June, worked earlier in his career for several political campaigns and as a staff assistant for Senator Reed. A graduate of Classical, URI and RWU Law School, Kevin took the helm in June of a party whose national representatives have struggled for influence amid Republican control of the executive branch and both chambers of Congress. Despite this national climate, Kevin projects a measuredly sunny outlook: “This is a great time to be a Democrat,” he says.

Turning the national tide and getting Democrats back in the majority, Kevin says, will depend on the Democrats returning to “being a grassroots-oriented party.” Despite their skill at “activating voters around causes around election night,” they “haven’t figured out how to maintain that conversation over time,” he says. “We should be talking to folks all the time.”

“All of the energy is on the Democratic Party side,” Kevin says. “I think many folks after the election woke up to the realization that we can’t take this stuff for granted anymore.” Protests since January, including the Women’s March, convey “that folks are energized and excited about doing the real work of building something. Part of my challenge is to try to take this massive ball of energy and harness it and focus it on the causes and on the candidates that we want to support in the upcoming election.” This means “knocking on doors and making phone calls and listening to folks,” he says. “That’s what we’re going to start doing this summer and I hope to continue doing that.”

Local races in the past few months have produced wins for progressive women: Dawn Euer in Newport (replacing M. Teresa Paiva Weed in the state senate) and Nirva LaFortune in Providence (replacing Kevin Jackson on the city council). Such victories, along with the support garnered by Bernie Sanders, support a current analysis that progressives are fed up with and ready to bolt from a Democratic Party they perceive as centrist. Kevin disagrees. “I think that this supposed war between the establishment wing and the progressive wing of the party is a little overblown,” he says. “I think that what you’re seeing here is the energy that I was talking about that excited me to do this work. You’re seeing a lot of folks that are active and engaged, who are not taking this stuff for granted anymore. You’re seeing a lot more women get engaged in the process. We started a Democratic Women’s Caucus in the state – we’ve been traveling all over the state, and every single time we have one of those monthly meetings, there are 100 women in the room.” Attendance levels like these, along with increased diversity at the state level – Kevin is the first African American to hold his current position – should, he says, be celebrated.

Of the two-year void that he’s filling, Kevin admits that “it has been challenging.” But the “opportunity” he now has to “create infrastructure and the staff structure and the fundraising structure and the formula that helps to make that vision of what the Democratic Party should be come to fruition” is apparently a good thing: “That’s what wakes me up in the morning to check emails, and keeps me up late at night doing conference calls.”