But one issue – Conley’s advocacy for a controversial redevelopment proposal at the Metacomet Golf Club – epitomized the populist frame of Mendes’ campaign.

In speaking with voters, “There was this disdain that people were actively working in the Statehouse, but they’re not working for us,” Mendes said in an interview with The Public’s Radio. “Once you combine the fact that, ‘Oh, someone is going to fight for us,’ and, “Oh, someone is actually demonstrating the very reason why we don’t trust the Statehouse,’ it really picked up from there.” 

Mendes got 61.5 percent of the vote in her match-up with Conley.

She does not face an opponent in the November election, so she will be sworn in next year as the new senator from District 18.

It’s a role that Mendes said she never anticipated. Her first reaction when community members encouraged her to run, she said, was to laugh.

But she warmed to the challenge, with a well-organized ground game backed by the Rhode Island Political Cooperative, a progressive group that emerged last year, and Sunrise RI.

Conley’s work as a lawyer for the unpopular Metacomet proposal, which has sparked opposition from East Providence residents who don’t want the green space developed, gave her campaign a boost.

First elected in 2012, Conley crafted a profile as a thoughtful senator and a potential candidate to one day succeed Dominick Ruggerio as Senate president.

When the PawSox were still contemplating staying in Rhode Island, Conley presided over a series of Senate Finance hearings in 2017 that offered a tough, in-depth look at the terms of the proposal for a new ballpark in Pawtucket.

Conley has backed some of the same issues championed by progressives – including mandating a $15 hourly minimum wage and raising taxes for Rhode Islanders who earn more than $450,000 a year.

But Mendes said Conley was late to the cause.

“He was in office for eight years, four terms, and that came up after I challenged him?,” she said, referring to the proposal for higher taxes on the affluent.

“My grandmother has a term that delayed obedience is disobedience,” Mendes added, “so come in late with something when you had the opportunity to do it and address it right away …. It’s really hard to get really excited about someone in the last minute who decides to throw a bill out there if they were really excited about it and addressing change would have happened.”

Mendes, who is 40 and lives in Riverside, is one of eight progressive Democrats who won primary elections for the Senate last week, either as new candidates or returning lawmakers. Progressives also made gains in the House.

Mendes said she’s not planning to support Ruggerio, the longest-serving member of the Senate, for another two-year term as president.

“Absolutely not,” Mendes said. “I think what we have proven through this active movement is that Rhode Islanders have been really clear, that they are redefining what leadership looks like …. So I think this is really proof positive that the face of leadership in the state will absolutely change, this old boys club of just ‘what we say goes.’ ”

This kind of insurgent talk could signal a series of clashes between progressives and the establishment Democrats who are a mainstay at the Statehouse, especially at a time when the pandemic has left Rhode Island with less money for funding different priorities.

Ian Donnis covers politics for The Public’s Radio. He can be reached at idonnis (at) ripr (dot) org