Holly Taylor Coolman, left, is challenging incumbent Marcia Ranglin-Vassell, right, in the Democratic primary for a seat in the Rhode Island House of Representatives. Photos courtesy of campaigns

Campaign pits theologian vs. born-again immigrant

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (RNS) – In one of the country’s least religious states, the race for a seat in the Rhode Island General Assembly has become a battle between two outspoken Christian women who’ve carved out sharply different moral stances on hot-button issues.

Both the born-again Baptist incumbent and the Catholic theologian challenging her say they feel called to seek the Democratic Party’s nomination for a seat representing the north side of Providence in the state’s House of Representatives.

But Marcia Ranglin-Vassell, a Jamaican immigrant and high school teacher who has served one term in the state House of Representatives, and Providence College Professor Holly Taylor Coolman are drawing inspiration from their respective religious traditions and offering voters a stark choice in political platforms before the Sept. 12 primary election.

“I do believe that Jesus was a progressive Democrat,” said Ranglin-Vassell, 58, who said her father, a church planter in Jamaica, welcomed the poor, gays and other ostracized members of society into their home when she was a child if they needed help.

Coolman, 51, depicted Ranglin-Vassell as a democratic socialist who wanted to pull the Democratic Party to the far left. Citing her scholarship on Thomas Aquinas, a 13th-century philosopher and theologian, Coolman said she would forge a consensus among constituents and lawmakers that took more traditional views into consideration.

“One thing that comes out of this for me from a religious perspective is communal discernment,” said Coolman. “You need to come together and decide things.”

Whoever wins the primary for the seat representing District 5 will likely be victorious in the general election in November. The Democratic Party dominates Rhode Island politics.

The district is as much a study in contrasts as the pair of candidates. The leafy, relatively affluent neighborhood of Elmhurst, where Providence College is located, makes up one half of the district. Households in historic industrial zones of the Wanskuck and Charles neighborhoods in the other half of the district are more working-class or low-income.

The two candidates agree they espouse many of the same policies. Ranglin-Vassell was also quick to note that she earned a master’s in education from Providence College, a major institution in the district.

However, the two women diverge on abortion and a $15 minimum wage, issues that reflect the different interests of Ocean State voters who live in the most Catholic state in the country but where liberal, secular New England values are common. More than 40 percent of Rhode Islanders identify as Catholic, according to the Public Religion Research Institute. But Rhode Island is also the country’s fourth-least-religious state, according to Gallup, which finds only 27 percent of Rhode Islanders meet the poll’s criteria for “very religious.”

Holly Taylor Coolman is a theologian and professor at Providence College. Photo courtesy of Coolman campaign

 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

A mother of four adopted children, Coolman is anti-abortion. She is partly running, she said, because President Trump’s nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh, could help overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 landmark decision that legalized abortion. She doesn't want liberal lawmakers to legalize abortion in Rhode Island if that occurs.

Rhode Island statutes impose a near-total ban on abortions unless the woman’s life is threatened. But they’re not enforced due to Roe v. Wade.

“A pregnancy is a unique situation in which two human lives are uniquely intertwined,” said Coolman.

Ranglin-Vassell supports abortion rights.

“Who am I to tell another woman what to do with her body?” she said. “I believe in agency over self. I believe in autonomy. Let me give you the information you need to decide. It’s between you and your doctor.”

She said life-and-death issues prompted her to run for office in 2016 after an unknown assailant shot and killed one of her son’s friends. Soon after, she discovered that one of her former students had been similarly gunned down. She wanted to make a difference to stop the carnage, she said.

On the campaign trail, Ranglin-Vassell learned that children were dying in part because their parents were working long hours rather than keeping them off the streets. She supported a $15 minimum wage to help working families earn enough to live off a single full-time job. The current minimum wage in Rhode Island is $10.10, but it is set to increase to $10.50 next year.

“Who was home for the children? No wonder some of them are getting into trouble,” said Ranglin-Vassell, who has four children of her own.

But Coolman views a $15 minimum as potentially devastating to small businesses that are the heart of Rhode Island’s economy. While the state’s unemployment rate is 4.1 percent, or slightly above the national average of 3.9 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Rhode Island’s economy suffered mightily during the Great Recession and well-paying jobs remain scarce.

“There is some reason to believe that small businesses react to a significant rise in wages by simply cutting hours,” she said. “Our state as a whole is in need of economic development. What’s a big-picture way that we can do that?”

State Rep. Marcia Ranglin-Vassell teaches high school and is a Baptist. Photo courtesy of Ranglin-Vassell campaign

 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Ranglin-Vassell has suggested that Rhode Island’s notoriously bare-knuckle politics are at play in the race even as the two Christian candidates vie for the moral high ground.

She claims that Coolman won the endorsement of the district’s Democratic committee because, according to Ranglin-Vassell, Coolman’s campaign is being engineered behind the scenes by former House Majority Leader John DeSimone, who lost to Ranglin-Vassell in a major 2016 upset.

Coolman denied the claims, saying she has never been involved in politics before this run.

Ranglin-Vassell also suggested that Coolman, who is white, evoked racist overtones last year when she wrote an email questioning the state representative’s intelligence. Coolman was taking issue with Ranglin-Vassell’s support for a bill that would have opened a doorway to greater access to abortion in Rhode Island. In the email, Coolman offered to “walk” Ranglin-Vassell through the legislation in case she didn’t read or understand it, the Providence Journal reported.

“As a black woman, I thought that was condescending,” said Ranglin-Vassell.

Her challenger disagreed.

“I wrote that email as a concerned constituent with no purpose in mind other than to make my elected representative aware of my views,” Coolman said.

Voters in the district raised those kinds of issues when asked about the contest.

“I’m so disturbed about this rabidly pro-choice movement going on,” said Sandra Keating, who is Coolman’s neighbor and also a theologian at Providence College.

Coolman’s background in religion makes her more thoughtful than a typical politician, Keating added.

“She has a very sympathetic attitude towards a lot of the problems that we face in Rhode Island,” said Keating.

One street over, Carol Terry said she would vote for Ranglin-Vassell.

“It’s not the government’s business to control what women can do with their bodies,” said Terry. “Marcia stands up for women and women’s rights and other minorities.”


  1. I think we’d be much better off as a country if we conducted our political debate like an episode of the Voice. Decide to vote for the person based upon their ideas; not their identity.

  2. So it’s really just Liberal Tweedledum versus Liberal Tweedledee on this one.

    Which makes for good political theater (while waiting for College Football to crank up).

    Nevertheless, alt-Liberalism is the only winner here.

  3. Just for that, I’m going to vote for candidate Coolman!

    (Plus she’s slightly less Tweedle anyway.)

  4. This article is just rife with ironiess.

    I expected the Jamaican immigrant to be as a conservative, not the liberal. I was wrong about that, and I am glad.

    The white woman is a Catholic theologian. Isn’t that interesting that a woman would assume to have authority over a man and theological areas? The white woman is a Catholic theologian. Isn’t that interesting that a woman would assume to have authority over man and theological areas?

    The law remains very strict in Rhode Island when it comes to the subject of abortion. However, these laws were invalidated 45 years ago, so to say they have any effect whatsoever, And would be the choice of Rhode Island voters now, is highly questionable.

    White lady opposes a minimum wage increase. However, well-paying jobs are scarce in Rhode Island. Apparently, poorly paying jobs abound.

    Another lady Catholic theologian, also ignoring what the Bible has to say about religious authority of women over men, is apalled that there is this pro-choice movement going on, which she refers to as “rabid”. Interesting, because rabid is exactly what I would call the anti-choice movement. Who is standing outside of abortion clinics, hounding the women that face a very difficult choice as they enter therein. Who is screaming baby killers at other people, Trying to prevent access to birth control, which would prevent more abortions, and in general, behaving like major a holes?

    And so on.

  5. Wow Ben; making assumptions about people based upon their gender and race?!
    I dare say your a racist and a bigot.

  6. I thought that too – a moderate liberal vs the socialist. I’m sure all the liberals heads are going to explode as they have to chose one over the other.
    I can hear them now in the voting booth:
    Well, their both women…… check
    Ummm; ones black… ooohhh, yes
    The one lady is a professor…. (squeal).. she must identify as her, she, hers on campus; so she must be enlightened… oh yes, I do like that…
    Ohhh, one is an immigrant AND is pro murder;… YES and YES!! Double check!
    On and on it goes, going down the list of what box the person fits into instead of what ideas they have for bettering their community and state.

  7. Why does this article not really say anything about Holly Coolman that would help us find her distinguishable from a Republican?

  8. “The white woman is a Catholic theologian. Isn’t that interesting that a
    woman would assume to have authority over a man and theological areas?” in case you forgot to write that the third time.

  9. Remember his motto: do what I say, not what I do.

  10. At least neither can play the “vote for a woman” card.

  11. That was your takeaway from his post? So either you didn’t read it, didn’t get what was said, or just making up crap because you couldn’t come up with a decent rebuttal. Pathetic.

  12. But then nobody would vote Republican.

    The party of identity politics. Provided your identity is white male conservative Christian.

  13. So it’s an actual liberal vs “centrist” aka conservative lite.

  14. “It’s not the government’s business to control what women do with their bodies” said Terry. That statement and the millions of similar statements around the world confirm the fact that the world stage is set, for the final days of mankind on the earth. The last days is a time period when the Church is one man, one woman according to Scripture. Terry’s thoughts confirm what the Bible says,

    The Constitution of the U.S. is the only document, other than the Bible, in the history of the world, created to limit one man or one woman’s Power. There appears to be no one left on the earth that understands what George Washington and a few others understood.

    This is not to say that there are not a lot of people that know the difference between right and wrong, it means they cannot articulate how they know and if they could, there is none that will accept the truth. The last Day is here.

  15. The big difference:

    Right wing extremist politicians: Want white supremacy, mass incarceration,
    predatory lending, monopolistic markets, discrimination, pollution

    Left wing extremist politicians: Universal healthcare, living wages for blue
    collar workers, access to education, civil liberties and free markets.

  16. 1. George Washington did not have a hand in drafting the Constitution.

    2. The Constitution is not holy scripture, nor was its words carved in stone, hence multiple amendments, changes and evolution of interpretation over time.

    3. “created to limit one man or one woman’s Power”, Wrong the Constitution was created to limit the government’s power over people. To put it in defined limits of what can or cannot be done.

    3. Here is a valuable service for those expecting to be taken up in The Rapture

  17. You’re wrong on all all four. Isn’t it time you stood upright on two.

  18. I will give you 1. Because he signed it and was at the Constitutional Convention. James Madison is generally credited for its drafting however.

    The After the Rapture Pet Care service isn’t useful? Really?

  19. Wow Parker; making assumptions about people based upon their political affiliation?!
    I dare say *you’re* a hypocrite.

  20. See, it’s the conservatives committing the real voter fraud..

  21. I’m sure you would.

    But you see the difference? I made an assumption, read something, and realized I WAS WRONG. I then admitted I was wrong, because I wouldn’t want to think somethingthat wasn’t true and wrong someone else.

    That’s the difference between this GAY ATHEIST and people who hide their bigotry behind their religious belief.

  22. I agree with your right wing description. However your left wing is not extreme by international standards or even meet the historic American standards for thinking people.

  23. Of course, at the top of their list, the libbies want to repeal Constitutional Religious Freedom.

    And don’t forget those good ole Open Borders, right?

  24. “Repeal Constitutional Religious Freedom”
    Except there is no “Constitutional Religious Freedom” to do what conservatives want. So there is nothing to repeal.
    I already described your platform under “discrimination”.

    “Open Borders”

    Not real a platform either. Just what nativists call opponents when they get flustered with their general ignorance of immigration issues and rule of law. The conservative immigration policy is nothing more than “white supremacy”. Also already given

  25. That was my point precisely. 🙂

    What some people are calling the “far left” or “socialist” from American politicians is not even remotely extreme. Its actually fairly standard thinking.

  26. You’re just making that up for attention.

    You’re the one who wants to lynch all gay and trans people.

  27. If your jesus is gonna come and rain down death and destruction, especially in the name of the god who is love, then you ought to be pretty happy about it. Maybe even voting for Hillary, gay marriage, and abortion rights.

  28. All we care about is that you get it, painfully and publicly if it is the deity’s will.

  29. Because there isn’t anything. She’s another DINO put up to remove a forward-thinking black woman from her seat at the table.

  30. When asked some tough questions via social media, Ms. Coolman obfuscates or retreats from the conversation. I asked her at one point if it was true (as someone told me) that she is also anti-‘artificial’ birth control. She would not answer, although it was a fairly simply, yes-or-no question. I asked her about her participation in anti- racist organizations and events on the PC campus. No answer. Her excuse: she was busy campaigning, working and taking care of her family and didn’t have time to answer me. When asked by someone else how she’d have time to work as a state rep, again she retreated from the conversation. She also implied that since I didn’t live in her district, it was none of my business. When I reminded her that as a *state* rep, she also worked for the good of RIers outside her district……she retreated from the conversation. Her district needs a representative who isn’t afraid to answer questions, to explain her opinions and to respect each and every constituent. Coolma doesn’t.

  31. It takes courage to stand up to the gun lobby on behalf of our youth. It takes courage to defend a woman’s right of conscience when deciding whether to continue a crisis pregnancy. I would vote for Marcia Ranglin-Vassell if I lived in her district, but I support her campaign because she is one of the few politicians who is not compromised by the ‘traditional’ political players.

  32. Hi Judi– I just met with Marcia the is afternoon on the campaign trail and we spoke for about 40 minutes. What you say about her courage to ask hard questions and challenge ossified power structures is spot on. What other legislator in the state would teach her students to write a bill, submit it for consideration (after legal vetting), and then come to the state house to testify and lobby?: http://www.rilin.state.ri.us/pressrelease/_layouts/RIL.PressRelease.ListStructure/Forms/DisplayForm.aspx?List=c8baae31-3c10-431c-8dcd-9dbbe21ce3e9&ID=13727&Web=2bab1515-0dcc-4176-a2f8-8d4beebdf488
    There’s no comparison; even if you are a purple democrat, the choice is clear.

  33. You really need to get a life. Like a real life. Not a computer life. All you do is bitch. I almost feel sorry for you😆

  34. If you don’t like my comments, block me.

    Otherwise, who give a crap what you think here?

    You just came here to fling poo. That is pathetic.

  35. Great headline to bias your audience from the git go. That scary outsider black immigrant and the nice white lady in her ivory tower go against each other like good and evil. The bias is too obvious. Why is there no information about the author on the site? The whole article flies in the face of the very fine journalistic principles taught by the Missouri School of Journalism at the University of Missouri. The editors and board of the Religion News Service should be ashamed that this was published. As a Rhode Island resident I resent this uninformed and slanted coverage of an important race between a hard working legislator and a Democrat In Name Only.

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