“We are in a very unique moment in a city, state, national history,” says Alex Kithes, 26 years old and Woonsocket’s newest city councillor. “Not only do we have a crisis of economic injustice, of racial injustice, but we have climate change. The decisions we make right now are more important than any other decisions in history.” It’s a blazing summer’s day in Woonsocket, and I meet Kithes and his 21-year-old campaign manager, Keith Jillette, inside the Aroma CT Cafe. Before we start, they admit they were expecting me to be older. I laugh and say I was expecting the same of them.
Kithes won his seat last month in a special election, beating former city council president Roger Jalette by a margin of 105 votes. Julia Brown held the seat until this spring, when she stepped down due to an out-of-state job offer. Unusually in Woonsocket, all the city council seats are at-large; that means anyone anywhere in town can run for a seat on the council. Weirder still, all elections are nonpartisan; no one’s official party affiliation is listed on the ballot. No Democrats, no Republicans, no Cool Moose.
“The entire election was waged as a mandate one way or the other on me,” says Kithes. “Because after the primary when it was me against Roger [Jalette], his entire campaign was ‘Alex is bad,’ and that did lose us some votes. But in fact, it’s a more meaningful victory because more people voted who are very much in favor of the things we were running on.”
Kithes comes from a family of Greek immigrants and attended Woonsocket schools. In a moment of peak Rhode Island, Jillette’s mom was one of Kithes’ school teachers. Kithes got his start in politics campaigning against school cutbacks to the advanced placement classes program. “We were able to successfully stop that,” he said. “That was my first organizing win.” Kithes later attended Boston and Brown universities, studying engineering. He’s currently active in Climate Action RI, Sunrise RI, and last year, he volunteered for progressive candidates such as Aaron Regunberg.
Jillette graduated from Roger Williams in the spring, majoring in political science and philosophy. He also started political activism in high school, helping to change the school’s strict dress code. Jillette was an intern on Matt Brown’s gubernatorial bid last year, and took a year off after graduating. He had no plans for his gap year before he realized: “What was the point of all that political education stuff if I don’t use it to fight for something I believe in, in my own town?”
Woonsocket has an inequality problem and to Kithes and Jillette, the city’s entrenched political culture is part of the problem. “Participation in city government is so low, people can intuit city government isn’t for them,” says Jillete. “There is socio-economic stratification in the city. Part of building real politics in the city is building engaged citizenry.” They see the solution as focusing on issues that matter to the community and asking basic questions like: Why does Woonsocket struggle to attract new people? Why are people struggling to make ends meet?
“One thing we can do is actually talk about and address issues that matter in the community,” says Kithes. “That’s a more incendiary statement than it sounds like. Contentious issues are never brought up because by and large people would rather keep their seats. If they are brought up they’re tabled indefinitely.” Part of Kithes’ strategy as an elected official is recognizing that city government is largely inaccessible to many, and that inaccessibility is a form of institutionalized racism and classism. He brings up a simple example: the lack of childcare during public meetings. If you’re a single or working parent, how are you supposed to attend government functions if you need someone to look after your child? People get locked out of meetings by virtue of being unable to attend.
Kithes is planning a series of community meetings with as much direct contact with the public as possible. He guesses the population of Woonsocket is more than 40% minority, but he notes it’s hard to say for sure when the latest census data is 10 years old. It’s still a far cry from the current makeup of the council, which skews white and heavily older. “Even without having good representation, when you have people willing to listen to marginalized communities’ issues and act on what they say are the issues of the day, I think that can help give them confidence in local government,” says Kithes.
Kithes identifies other problems that plague Woonsocket, namely its budget, its poorly structured pension fund and its awful economic situation. One of his solutions is no stranger to nightly news. “A Green New Deal means a very strategic investment in clean energy and allowing the economy to grow by the fact that we’re producing something as a city,” says Kithes. “We can do that in such a way it lifts everyone up, it helps city government, we can lift our entire city up in the same way they’re talking about on the national level and decarbonize the economy.” Kithes sees that kind of directed economic investment into clean energy as the key to grow the city’s economy and its tax base.
“Healthcare access is important,” says Kithes. “And compassionate drug treatment isn’t very accessible in Woonsocket.” Opioids haven’t gotten talked about on the city council that much as a local issue. Kithes stresses the need for nuance, calling it the ongoing opioid crisis. “It has been for a long time a much bigger problem in Woonsocket than people realize,” he says. Communities made up of minorities have been hit harder for longer.
Kithes first council meeting is September 16, a meeting certainly worth watching. His summer victory represented a slap in the face to Woonsocket’s political establishment. Next year the entire council is up for re-election. For now, he’s the latest in a chain of millenials and zoomers winning elected office: Aaron Regunberg, Kat Kerwin and John Donegan. In a time where Dr. Strangelove is steering us toward environmental annihilation, running for office is a revolutionary act.