In Their Own Words: Candidates in key local races discuss the issues

James Langevin, Rhode Island’s 2nd Congressional District

What impact has COVID had on your constituents this election cycle?

It’s a really scary time for everyone, and individuals and families I know are struggling to keep their heads above water. That’s why the CARES Act and other pieces of legislation are so important going forward. The same goes for small businesses that are struggling to keep their heads above water and keep their workforce intact. It’s a time of uncertainty, and parents are worried if kids can go back to school safely. That’s how it’s really impacted by constituents here in Rhode Island, indicative what’s happening across the country.

Some people are unemployed through no fault of their own because of COVID. Too many people are  unemployed, that’s why passage of the CARES Act is so important, and the $600 in unemployment assistance. The virus continues and a lot of the aid has stopped right now.

What needs to be in a new COVID relief bill to help Rhode Island recover from the pandemic? 

What we desperately need is to continue to focus on confronting this COVID crisis on two fronts. Protecting people on the public health aspect of battling COVID, but also battling the economic consequences of COVID. It’s important to come out of this healthy. 

Going forward I want to see as we saw in the HEROES Act, the extension of $1,200 payments per individual, $6,000 per household, UI boost reinstated. Aid for hazard pay for frontline workers, not just healthcare but grocery store clerks so the stores can be kept open and people can keep their families fed. In the HEROES Act we also had billions of dollars for rent and mortgage relief. For evictions that are going to be coming or people who are experiencing right now. We need more support for small business, and I’m cosponsoring two bills… One of them is the restaurants act.

I’m worried about what will happen to restaurants come fall; eating outside is an option right now, but no one’s going to want to eat outside when it’s cold out. I’m also consponsoring the RESTART Act that would provide millions of dollars for small businesses under 5,000 employees, a loan program of low interest loans that could potentially be forgiven, to get those businesses through the pandemic right now.

What should be the role of Congress with regard to creating and distributing a COVID vaccine?

Congress has appropriated billions of dollars for a vaccine and antivirals… We don’t wanna rush this or manipulate the science. We want scientists and researchers to do their job so we can have a vaccine that is safe and effective. It is possible that we will have a vaccine, but I don’t in any way want to see this rushed and cutting corners and not relying on the actual factual data.

What do you think about renewed efforts of Medicare for All? What should universal healthcare look like in a post-COVID America?

I’m a supporter and cosponsor of the Medicare for All bill, in many ways that’s the gold standard in what we need to strive to achieve. In the meantime we may get there incrementally, it’s not gonna happen overnight. I’m optimistic Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will be the next President and Vice President of the United States. A Biden administration will roll back all the negative things President Trump and the Republicans have done to the Affordable Care Act.

Given the debate surrounding reproductive health, how would you describe your position on abortion?

I am very sensitive to women’s healthcare issues, and women’s views on this issue. At the same time, my own experience is having come so close to losing my own life. When I was a 16-year-old police cadet and I was shot and paralyzed, my life was hanging by a thread, and I got my 2nd chance and I’d feel like a hypocrite if I denied someone else the same chance to live their own life.

I am respectful of these issues, I recognize that people struggle with the issue of abortion. What I try to focus on is try to find middle ground on this issue and bring people together. 

I’m also a strong supporter of family planning, use of contraception, and sex education. Everything we can do to bring down the number of abortions, it’s a win-win for everyone. 

What do you think about President Trump using various agencies like Customs and Border patrol to arrest protests in American cities nationwide?

I totally oppose President Trump’s use of federal officers to go after, interfere with or intimidate peaceful protests who are exercising their constitutional right to free speech and freedom of assembly. President Trump has had a very heavy-handed, downright scary and disturbing use of federal agents to interfere with peaceful protests, and I oppose that in the strongest possible terms.

There’s been a lot written this year about election security. One of your personal issues is cybersecurity; what’s the role of cybersecurity in protecting our election processes?

Congress has already appropriated millions of dollars for stronger and more secure elections systems and voter registration systems, so money is distributed to states to protect the cornerstone of our democracy: our election systems. But that’s not enough, it’s really just a small down payment. We really need two or three billion dollars for election security.

Can you talk a little about the House’s efforts to save the United States Postal Service?

I went down to Washington and was there for the vote on Saturday to roll back many of the provisions that Postmaster Luis DeJoy had put in place resulting in mail delivery slowing down. It’s really outrageous what he’s done already. He’s said he’ll stop the reforms of the post office, but much of the damage has already been done. He’s already said he won’t undo any of the changes he’s already done. 

Even in RI he’s dismantled or repurposed high-speed sorting machines, locking up and taking away mail boxes around the country. He’s eliminating use of overtime to ensure mail delivery … it used to be mail delivery, when it came in, it was sorted and delivered that day no matter how long it took. DeJoy eliminated the overtime, which is disturbing. People rely on the post office for a number of different things, like getting their medications, small businesses relying on it to connect with customers.

I talked about this on the floor of the House. One thousand people, a week ago, contacted me about their experiences with the post office slow-down. I talked to a woman from Coventry who wondered if her husband was going to get his diabetes medication on time. I talked to another gentleman from Wakefield who’s 85 years old and has voted in every election since 1956. He’s wondering if he should risk his health and go to the polls in person to make sure his vote is counted.

Given your opponent has made some trades of yours in the stock market a campaign issue, what are your thoughts about members of Congress or their immediate family members doing so given their impact on these industries?

I’ve always complied with the letter and spirit of the law, I will continue to do that. I disclose all my investments whether in the stock market or real estate, and I will always comply with the letter and the spirit of the law.

By the way, some of the things my opponent has mentioned are false, there are some stock trades that didn’t happen, they were voided sales. So he hasn’t been completely accurate.

What is your position on the movement to abolish or defund law enforcement and reallocate those resources into social services?

I’m a cosponsor of the Justice in Policing act. That’s an important piece of legislation that should be enacted to bring about reforms like ending chokeholds and no-knock warrants and ensuring better training for police officers. Having liability provisions in there to hold police officers accountable when people go outside of their training or break the law and if officers harm people that are not adhering to their training. 

Looking at the George Floyd video or death of Breonna Taylor or Jacob Blake who was shot seven times, it has ripped open old wounds in this country of racial divisions. Communities of color are really hurting right now and are demanding reform, they’re demanding justice. They don’t feel the system is working for them, something is wrong. Many people of color say and believe, and I believe they’re correct, there is no equal protection and justice under the law.

I know many police officers go to work every day to uphold their oath to protect and serve, but some have done their job not the way they were trained or abused their authority. When people, unarmed people, are getting shot where there is this element of fear in communities of color, something is wrong and has to change.

Steve Stycos, Candidate for Mayor of Cranston

What are your three top priorities or issues if elected?

Number one would be securing proper funding for the public schools. Number two would be utilizing the climate change bond and making the city more environmentally sensitive. My third priority, I think we need to be careful with tax money; we need to be very transparent with how the money is being spent and being careful with that money.

You’ve been critical of Mayor Allan Fung before in the past, criticizing him for his handling of Ticket-gate, and mismanaging the finances of the Cranston Ice Rink. Where are your thoughts on Mayor Fung’s tenure as mayor, and what do you think his legacy will be?

I think he’s generally been, the thing he’s gonna be remembered for is not raising taxes a lot. I think a large part of that is that the state, the economy was good and the state was able to contribute a lot more to the schools. In recent years, since 2014, the state has increased aid to the schools by 49% and the city has increased its own funding to the schools by 3%.

The mayor needs to be more openly involved in setting policy. I’m sure he is involved in setting policy, but he comes through a city council meeting once a year to present the budget. We don’t have any other give and take with him. It’s hard on the city council to understand the mayor’s positions, because they’re always presented by someone else. That’s something I would do differently, I would be at the council meetings when appropriate. I would be meeting constituents, listening to them and their complaints about different matters.

You’ve come out against the proposed development of Mulligan’s Island for a CostCo and other related economic development/construction. Is there anything the developers could add or change about their plans for the space to make you approve of it? 

They would have to radically change the proposal. [It has] eight acres of parking sprawled over the site. It’s the opposite of everything we should be doing. It’s the opposite of smart growth. You can only get there by car, it destroys open space, it’s not a compact proposal. 

The governor estimated today at least 100,000 people are collecting unemployment benefits in Rhode Island. How can you as mayor build or rebuild a local economy post-COVID?

I have a proposal with John Donegan to give a bid discount to local businesses and minority-owned businesses and women-owned businesses. If you had a bid on city work that was close to the winning bid and you were local, you could be awarded the bid instead of a non-local business. That’s one thing we’re trying to do on the council.

I’d like to see more emphasis on building more businesses in Knightsville and Rolfe Street in particular. They’re close to housing, we need to encourage people to walk to businesses or take short trips to businesses and not these big projects like CostCo.

In June you signed the Green New Deal pledge. It seems to have become one of those buzzwords in the national conversation, and people can be confused or find it vague. What does the Green New Deal mean to you, and how can elected officials on a municipal level implement it as policy?

I think it means things like spending money to reduce your carbon footprint. If we get the climate change bond passed, we’ll be able to do that. It means encouraging alternative transportation. It’s more like a platform than a piece of legislation. On a municipal level, we need to switch some of our [city] vehicles to electric vehicles. I think it means expanding parks. We have a tree planting program in Cranston that’s a model for the whole state. It’s run by the RI Tree Council and it planted its 200th tree this year. It will reduce storm water runoff, clean particles out of the air, and reduce temperatures without the need for air conditioners. 

What are some of the challenges in expanding green space and protecting parks in an urban area like Cranston?

There’s not a lot of surplus or unoccupied land. But there are some, you need to selectively look at ways to expand them. If you drive around, there are huge patches of asphalt throughout the city that aren’t really needed in residential neighborhoods; you could add green there. You’re not adding a football or a soccer field, you’re improving the ambiance around a small area. 

When there is an opportunity for open space acquisition, you need to be ready with parcels that you want to acquire. The city has no list of priority parcels it wishes to acquire, because I’ve asked. It hasn’t applied for an open space grant from the state in 10 years. We’re the second largest city and we haven’t taken advantage of that.

What do you see as the role of alternative transportation in Cranston?

One thing is the newest RIPTA plan, there’s a plan for a cross Cranston bus. I invited the principal planner for RIPTA to a city council meeting to talk about it. A bus that crosses the city along Park Avenue would provide a boost to business because workers and customers could get across the city without driving. It would encourage people to go east and west instead of North into Providence and South into Warwick.

I think improving sidewalks is another thing. A lot of money has been spent on roads and we could direct some of it toward sidewalks. We need to look more at bike lanes to encourage people to use bicycles.

I interviewed you a few months back on your climate change bond. What’s changed since we last spoke, and what does the road ahead for it look like? Have either of the Republicans running in the primary come out for or against it?

It’s gonna be on the ballot. It passed the council unanimously a few months ago. 

Black Lives Matter protests have been happening en masse all year. What’s the role of local leaders to police the police for this kind of systemic racism? What are appropriate levels and functions of a local police force?

The local officials are the oversight. Things have to get hideously bad for the federal government to come in through the Department of Justice. It’s the responsibility of local officials. I think what we need now in Cranston is an open forum where members of the public can ask the mayor and the police department, the police chief about its policy about things like de-escalation or chokeholds or use of force. That information is available on the police department’s website. We need the public to be able to see we have a competent police force.

Talking to people door to door, some people are really concerned. I had one woman, a person of color, she was really concerned about what would happen when her little toddlers grew up if they’d have confrontations with the police department. That’s a pretty horrible thing for a parent to think about for their toddler. I think the police chief in Cranston has done that, he has these coffee hours where he’s in a coffee shop and people can show up to talk to him.

We need to watch what’s going on and listen to complaints. There will be complaints about the police department because of the nature of what they do, not that they’re necessarily doing anything wrong.

Do you think police departments are overfunded, and if so, how would you reallocate those resources?

I don’t think you can say in general they’re overfunded. I think every department in city government needs to be looked at critically, and money moved around. In this last budget of the council, I proposed an amendment that moved $35,000 from money designated for the police department and moved it into the schools. That was before the George Floyd incident or the demonstrations; it was all done by the time that happened. 

If we can cut spending and put it somewhere else that might need it more, I think that should be done. The trouble with the movement to defund the police is some people interpret that as abolishing the police department, and I certainly don’t support that.

You restarted the Cranston Arts Council in 2016; what can you do as mayor to encourage arts in Cranston?

You encourage them through more funding, you can also encourage them through more public displays of art. The mayor can recognize various artists in the community and showcase them, including art in public events and public places. 

What’s stopping from Cranston from having public art?

I don’t think anything’s stopping it. I’d like to see more public displays of student art, display it in city hall.

The largest voting block, in my lifetime at least, has been young people and non-voters. How can you outreach to Cranston’s youth, and how can you bring these groups into the conversation or the political process?

You have to talk to them about things they are interested in and make the connection between the interest and city government. The climate bond would be one issue. I’ve met with students from Cranston East and Cranston West who have an ongoing petition about racism and attacking racism in the public schools. When young people offer an initiative, it should be taken seriously.

There are a few basic things. One is that the state has a very good lead law, and the city was not enforcing it, I don’t know if they’ve changed. If you rent an apartment constructed before 1977, you need a lead safe certificate, you’re supposed to have it. The last I checked, we were not checking for those when we did housing code enforcement. We have 25, 30 kindergarteners every year that enter the school system with lead poisoning. That’s a problem that needs to be addressed by the building inspection department.

Another thing is encouraging, meeting with developers of affordable housing and looking at sites and encouraging those finance arrangements to happen. I think the mayor can say we wanna have this happen and push for it.

You mentioned kindergartners with lead poisoning; what other public health issues exist that are unique to Cranston?

I don’t think they’re unique to Cranston, but a huge one is childhood obesity. We need to take steps to encourage people to eat more fruits and vegetables. That’s another area that its very difficult to make progress on, but the city could look at offering incentives to have farmers come into low income areas and offer their fresh produce. You’d be helping the economy, many of the farmers are from Cranston, and also be getting those fresh fruits and vegetables into the lower income neighborhoods.

Another part of obesity is getting people outside and moving. We need to have recreational facilities, not just for children but also for adults. One of the things I’ve done is started a couple of community gardens. There’s land available for people who live in an apartment or if their house doesn’t get a lot of sun. It takes a little effort, but we could make it work.

Justine Caldwell, RI House District 30 (East Greenwich)

How has COVID-19 impacted your community? What can local elected officials do about a national and global crisis?

I hear from residents in House District 30 almost every day who need help due to the impact of COVID-19. So many members of our community have lost their jobs, struggled to keep up their businesses, or tried to juggle a household with working parents, no child care, and distance learning. As a local elected official, it is my role to help folks get what they need from their state government; in this case, that mostly meant many daily calls and emails to the Department of Labor & Training to get folks their unemployment benefits. It is also our job to help people navigate the new rules and systems put in place by COVID-19, such as when their businesses can re-open or how they can access their health care in the safest way. It’s also our job to model responsible behavior such as wearing masks and social distancing. Also, as a General Assembly, we need to pass a budget that reflects the needs of our most vulnerable populations, especially during a health pandemic and economic crisis like we are living in now. 

Do you think schools should reopen fully, virtually or by some other plan this year, and what do districts need to fulfill that plan?

This is a very personal issue for me as well, because I have two school-aged children. I also heard from many constituents about their distance learning experiences. In a perfect world, I think absolutely that schools should reopen fully. Kids need to be in school, and parents need their children to be in school. Distance learning did not work for my family, and I know that especially families with kids with special needs really suffered under that kind of educational structure. But, schools cannot open fully if safety measures are not in place. My goal now would be to prioritize the kids who cannot distance learn and I also wish the state had done a better job of finding a way and/or allocating resources so that if schools could not reopen, kids of parents who work during the day would have an alternate safe space to learn during the day. Generally, it seems to me that more creativity at the start of the planning process for the fall would have meant we were in better shape to get our kids back to school now. 

Should school funds be pooled and redistributed on a weighted scale to address statewide equity issues, or should districts continue to fund their own community schools? Are there school districts that should be combined?

We have 36 school districts in RI (32 regular and four regional) and each of them had to submit three different reopening plans for RIDE approval for the fall. They each had to figure out their own issues with transportation, cleaning services, etc. Why? While it’s true that what would work for Providence is not exactly what would work for East Greenwich (and vice versa), it seems to me that in this situation, there should have been a team of experts who created these plans with RIDE, rather than requiring the creation of more than 100 plans that may not even be approved — this would have made it possible for the districts to focus on their students and staff during this chaotic time for everyone. Collaboration makes processes like this more efficient and cost-effective. We need to prioritize our educational system and the school funding formula. This pandemic has shown everyone how much our public schools provide our families and our communities every day.

What are, in order, your top three priorities or issues if elected?

It’s hard to choose three and it’s hard to prioritize them! The first one is easy: My top priority is to help the state and Rhode Islanders through this pandemic, and secure their economic health. We have a long road ahead of us here (which is also why it’s so important that we have a President who takes the states’ needs seriously) and I’m committed to helping my constituents get back on their feet and thrive. 

We need to continue our commitment to funding education and ensuring that all kids, regardless of their ZIP code or their abilities, receive an exceptional education. 

We need to do something about the crisis of gun violence that continues to plague our nation. I am lead sponsor of the bills to ban assault weapons and limit high capacity magazines, as well as a safe storage bill. Before the House went into recess, I got over half of my colleagues to sign on to my bill to limit high capacity magazines (to rounds of 10); there is no reason not to pass this bill in January 2021.  

Are police departments overfunded? If so, how would you reallocate some of those extra resources? 

Police departments need to invest more of their funds on training, and they need to include mental health and substance use experts in their stations and on their calls to de-escalate and provide help to folks who don’t belong in the criminal justice system. We need to spend more money providing these services to folks, which also helps them with job and housing security, and having them work with police stations that are already dealing with many of these folks is a natural collaboration, and will allow officers to have regular training in these issues. 

In my view, the problem isn’t primarily related to funding.

When people talk about “institutional racism,” this is exactly what we’re talking about. We have a set of institutions that, working together, provide tremendous obstacles to solving this problem. Our police training is a problem — police need to be trained to put the safety of the public they’re sworn to protect above even their own safety. Our police unions are able to negotiate contracts that make it difficult for our governments to hold officers accountable for their actions. Our departments too often have a culture that holds the public — especially the black and brown portions of it — in contempt and treat us as dangers rather than people to protect and serve.

I hear often “but there are good cops; most cops are good.” They are. But the institutions we’ve set up help protect bad ones. That’s, I think, what motivates the “defund” movement — they’re trying to dismantle the institutions that make this problem so hard to solve. I don’t think we need to defund, but we do need to reform those institutions and bring them back under civilian control where they belong. 

East Greenwich has a lower number of COVID cases than some other towns in Rhode Island. Why has the rate remained so low?

I would be speculating, but many folks in EG, compared to other cities with higher numbers, have jobs that more easily transitioned to working at home. It is also a largely affluent town and the research in Rhode Island has shown that lower income communities, many of them communities of color, have been hit the hardest here. We also don’t have many apartment buildings or congregate care settings like nursing homes.

How did East Greenwich do with distance learning in the spring, and what can the legislature do to help East Greenwich educators?

I heard both good and bad things from my constituents about their experiences with distance learning. Kids with special needs, both physically and developmentally, did get left behind. For the students who simply could not learn during distance learning, we absolutely have to do better. I’m open to hear what EG educators want from the legislature, but as I see things unfolding now, what I think educators need is a plan to rely on, and a transparent plan to keep them and their students safe. Uncertainty has been so challenging for folks during this time; many teachers have children who are students in other districts. And as I answer this, they don’t know if they will have to report to school, yet their children will be distance learning — then who will watch their kiddos? Help them with their tech problems? We need to be able to support teachers in this way. Teachers who are going back to work to teach our kids shouldn’t have to pay out of pocket for child care and / or tutors because their kids in a different district have a different plan. Should an issue like that happen, I will strongly recommend the legislature try to figure out a solution, and will also act as an advocate with RIDE and the governor’s office. 

Leonardo Cioe, Candidate for RI Senate District 4 (Federal Hill / West End)

How has COVID-19 impacted your community? What can local elected officials do about a national and global crisis?

COVID-19 has certainly created new problems for our community: We’re more isolated from each other and suddenly scared of completing normal tasks like going to the grocery store. But it has mostly exposed problems that we already had. As a registered nurse, I have witnessed firsthand how our corporate healthcare system has failed Rhode Islanders. More and more people have been left without health insurance these past few months due to rising unemployment rates — and that’s during a global pandemic. We must guarantee healthcare coverage for every Rhode Islander, regardless of employment. We’ve also seen more and more people struggling to pay for food, rent and childcare. Again, this problem isn’t new, but one that has been made even worse by the crisis. We must create a living wage for all Rhode Islanders to pull our wage workers out of poverty.

Do you think schools should reopen fully, virtually or by some other plan this year and what do districts need to fulfill that plan?

So many of our public schools are already in disrepair, and are not yet equipped to keep everyone safe during this virus. Reopening safely is going to take a coordinated effort between teachers, students and parents to make sure we don’t spread this virus through our state even more. As a nurse, I’ve seen the damage that this virus can do, and I don’t want to see more of it. We need to be creative about partial reopening plans that allow parents to return to work while also ensuring that our students are safe.

Are police departments overfunded? If so, how would you reallocate some of those extra resources?

Right now, our police officers are being asked to do a lot more than act as law enforcement. They also have to be first responders and social workers. We cannot keep neglecting the health and human services that are supposed to be doing this work to keep our communities safe. We need to reallocate funds to our public schools, affordable housing, and a healthcare system that works for all Rhode Islanders. These are measures that will actually increase community safety and wellbeing. We do need well-funded law enforcement and well-trained officers out on our streets. But we also need to do a lot of work to understand and fight against the harm that our police departments cause the Black and brown members of our community. 

What are, in order, your top three priorities or issues if elected?

As a registered nurse, my top priority is securing healthcare coverage for all Rhode Islanders. My next priority is increasing funding for public schools across the state, especially those that have been historically neglected because they are located in less wealthy districts. My third priority is fighting for fair tax reform for small businesses — which are currently taxed the same as large corporate entities — and creating incentives for a living wage across our state. 

Should school funds be pooled and redistributed on a weighted scale to address statewide equity issues, or should districts continue to fund their own community schools? Are there school districts that should be combined?

Yes, school funds should be pooled and distributed to create a more equitable public school system in our state. Right now, our state constitution does not guarantee quality education for our children. That means that students in wealthy districts get to attend great schools, while all others are left behind. We need quality education for all our children, not just the wealthy few.

Sam Bell, RI State Senate District 5 (Olneyville)

How has COVID-19 impacted your community? What can local elected officials do about a national and global crisis?

This pandemic has hit our community hard.  So many have lost their jobs, their home, their health, or even their life.  So many of us have lost family members.  Many of my neighbors are dealing with crippling unemployment.  There is so much pain out there in our state. That is why it was so wrong that the General Assembly refused to appropriate any money to help Rhode Islanders who are struggling right now. Instead, the machine is pushing for brutal cuts. Already the Providence Public Schools have seen painful cuts, but those are just in anticipation of cuts in the state budget, cuts we haven’t even passed yet, cuts I will never vote for. We should not be cutting funding for Medicaid, public schools, social services and public jobs. Instead, we should repeal the tax cuts for the rich to make new investments in a recovery, a recovery that will leave no one behind. This is going to be a difficult fight. I can’t promise my constituents that I’m going to win this fight. What I can promise them is that I will fight as hard as I can, and I will never personally vote for a budget that makes brutal cuts.

Do you think schools should reopen fully, virtually or by some other plan this year and what do districts need to fulfill that plan?

We have to look at the COVID-19 numbers. Schools should not reopen for in-person learning until the virus is better contained and we can guarantee safety for students, teachers, parents and staff. Already, we’ve seen infections rapidly spread at colleges in other states that have opened too early. Israel’s decision to reopen schools too soon in person led to a surge of cases. The right policy is to allow students’ parents true choice. That means the option of virtual or in-person learning, with full information about what those options will look like. RIDE needs to reverse its decision to force families to decide too soon, before they had the information they needed, and allow students and parents to switch whenever they want to. RIDE’s current plan, where students would not be able to switch to virtual learning whenever they feel unsafe, is almost certainly in violation of the healthcare status equal protection provision of the Rhode Island Constitution. In our state, people with pre-existing conditions have a constitutional right to be treated fairly and equally. The current plan violates that in so many ways.

Are police departments over-funded? If so, how would you reallocate some of those extra resources?

Many cities and towns purchase military-grade equipment for their police departments, which is grossly unnecessary. And in general, police are called to deal with too many problems that would be better handled by social or mental health workers. We should hire unarmed first responders to intervene in nonlethal situations.

What are, in order, your top three priorities or issues if elected?

My priorities are to stop brutal budget cuts, invest in a recovery for our state, and change the leadership of the General Assembly so that we can fix things instead of always having to focus on fighting bad ideas.

Should school funds be pooled and redistributed on a weighted scale to address statewide equity issues, or should districts continue to fund their own community schools? Are there school districts that should be combined?

Absolutely. Your education should not depend on where you live. To combat inequality and segregation in our school system, we have to change the funding structure. I was proud to cosponsor Senator Quezada’s legislation to combine school districts to address equity concerns. Money isn’t the only problem with the Providence Public Schools, but it is a very serious problem. Any way you slice the Providence schools, the teacher shortage is a core problem. And it’s hard to address a teacher shortage without raising wages and investing in improved working conditions.

Providence has been rapidly gentrifying over the last decade. How has COVID affected this, and what do you think the COVID crises mean for the city’s poorest residents?

The poorest residents are the most likely to be affected by COVID-19 because they often work jobs that put them at risk of exposure and live in substandard housing where quarantine is impossible. Gentrification has restricted good living conditions to those who can afford it. That’s why our state needs to invest in affordable, high-quality, publicly owned housing available to all residents, and change our zoning laws so that they don’t exclude affordable housing.

What’s the role of government during this pandemic to help people struggling to pay rent or chronic unemployment?

We need to invest in meaningful rent relief on the scale of the need. That means at least a quarter billion dollars, probably more. When it comes to unemployment, we need to drastically ramp up staffing for the unit that processes unemployment claims so Rhode Islanders burdened by unemployment can get the benefits they deserve. We also need to roll back the cuts we made to our unemployment benefits during the Great Recession in the wake of the tax cuts for the rich. Our unemployment benefits are far too stingy.

Alana DiMario, RI State Senate, District 36 (South Kingstown)

How has COVID-19 impacted your community? What can local elected officials do about a national and global crisis?

Like so many communities across Rhode Island, Narragansett and North Kingstown have struggled with both the economic and social/emotional aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our small businesses, including our restaurants, have taken a big hit. Our residents and families have had difficulties due to the loss of in-person school and childcare, and everyone has felt the loss of contact with friends and family. However, we have also seen community members step up and provide services from mask making to innovating safe childcare solutions. We have seen businesses and restaurants pivot and adapt on a dime, creating outdoor dining spaces and changing their business models to stay afloat.

The role of local elected officials in this crisis falls into three main categories: constituent services, helping amplify local needs to the state level, and being creative to fill gaps where we can. In speaking with current members of the General Assembly, they have been busy communicating directly with constituents to connect them to the appropriate existing programs and services that will help them and/or their small businesses. That communication and responsiveness is crucial in making sure people can access everything, from help feeding their families to getting the loans they are eligible for to keep their small business open. Officials at the local level are also responsible for hearing the needs of their communities and making sure that those concerns are heard and addressed when the GA is considering relief bills or creating programs. Finally, local officials can help remove red-tape barriers (as safe and appropriate) to help businesses, schools and families adapt. For example, changing rules around outdoor dining zoning through the crisis, utilizing available community buildings to expand classroom or childcare space if needed, adapting town/state services to be conducted online if appropriate, etc. It’s so important to look at those small tweaks that can make a big difference in both helping our economy keep going, and helping Rhode Islanders have a little more ease in getting through this, and to be a voice advocating for these common-sense solutions.

Do you think schools should reopen fully, virtually or by some other plan this year and what do districts need to fulfill that plan?

I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all answer to that question. From the perspective of kids and families, it is true that some children need in-person education and supportive services and will suffer without them, and it’s also true that some children and families have health concerns that make in-person school a risky choice. From the perspective of teachers and school districts, some school facilities are not yet up to the task of safely having kids back, and there are teachers and school building workers who are ready and able to come back, and those who are not. From a community standpoint, the reality is that not everyone can work from home, and we need our workers who are also caregivers to be able to meet the needs of their children and go to work. 

We need to focus on the goal of prioritizing creating a safe environment and opportunity for children who need special services and/or in-person education, while offering a robust distance learning option (with material supports such as internet access and devices to access the curriculum, and adequate funding for enough teachers to meet these goals) for children and families who have the flexibility to take that option. The recent studies of COVID-19 rates from childcare in Rhode Island over the summer provide information about how to create safe, small, in-person learning opportunities. 

Finally, we all need to stay flexible and creative, and work in cooperation over this next year, as inevitably some classes or schools will go to distance learning at different points due to quarantining, or rising case rates. Employers need to be flexible; no one should lose their job because they lack childcare due to issues related to a pandemic. Communities need to be creative and work in cooperation to meet the changing needs of kids and families.

Should school funds be pooled and redistributed on a weighted scale to address statewide equity issues, or should districts continue to fund their own community schools? Are there school districts that should be combined?

The school funding formula needs to be changed. Every child in Rhode Island should be able to receive a world-class education, regardless of the town they live in. I think that could be accomplished via a statewide funding formula, or by regionalizing schools to more equitably address needs. The data from other states about changing funding formulas does not definitively show what approach leads to the best outcomes, but information can be taken from those changes elsewhere can help inform what direction we need to go in. The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted that we need to start moving forward with the school infrastructure improvement projects as soon as possible, targeting the facilities that are in the worst shape first. Our kids should walk into school buildings that show their communities value them and their education. 

What are, in order, your top three priorities or issues if elected?

  1. Pass the Act on Climate Bill (passed the Senate but not the House this session) to implement measurable and actionable benchmarks for different sectors to reach the goal of net-zero emissions in Rhode Island by 2050. As we get through and recover from the COVID-19 crisis, we can’t lose sight of the realities of climate change and what we need to do to combat it, including moving toward a new sustainable energy infrastructure built and maintained by Rhode Island workers.
  2. Create educational and economic opportunity by continuing to expand Paid Family Leave policies, increasing income caps for childcare assistance, expanding public Pre-K seats statewide, expanding trade educational access, fixing and funding our schools equitably, and increasing the minimum wage. 
  3. Take common sense approaches to increasing revenue sources, such as following the lead of many other states in fully legalizing and taxing marijuana (which would also decrease incarceration expenditures) and considering a marginal tax rate increase on Rhode Island’s top earners. 

Are police departments overfunded? If so, how would you reallocate some of those extra resources?   

The issue at hand is really whether we are accomplishing our public safety goals to make our communities healthy and safe, and working backward if not to address the root causes of crime. We cannot continue to expect police officers to be mental health counselors, social workers, housing advocates and substitute parents, among other roles. Unlimited amounts of spending on police would not ever effectively meet those needs. We need to allocate more resources to addressing poverty, specifically food and housing insecurity, in our communities, as we know this has a positive impact not only on crime rates but on people. We also need to allocate more resources to integrated social services and mental health programs both in schools and also in our communities to help our vulnerable friends and neighbors. 

Jennifer Rourke, State Senate District 30 (Warwick)

How has COVID-19 impacted your community? What can local elected officials do about a national and global crisis?

COVID-19 has been an eyeopener for those like my family that don’t have substantial savings or have our health insurance tied to our employment. I have watched neighbors struggle to put food on their tables prior to COVID, and now it is far worse. We have collected food and donations and have helped all that we could to make sure that our neighbors are ok. When I hear elected officials say that people need to have money saved for a rainy day, it shows me that they do not understand that their neighbors are barely making ends meet and are not able to save. 

Do you think schools should reopen fully, virtually or by some other plan this year and what do districts need to fulfill that plan?

As a mother with four children, three in WPS, I am sad that COVID has taken from them socializing with their friends and in-person learning, but their health and safety and that of their teachers far outweighs the risk of sending them to school. I know that distance learning is a burden on many families and employers should push for employees to work from home if at all possible. I know that WPS does not have the means to safely teach our children or a location large enough to accommodate every student that has the ability to socially distance them. With constant cuts to our school budget, we lack funding for more custodians, cleaning supplies or PPE. The funding formula is far from equitable and should have been addressed years ago, and our schools would be in a better position financially and structurally safer for our students.  

Are police departments overfunded? If so, how would you reallocate some of those extra resources?

Being married to a retired police officer, I know that there are certain situations that police officers are not qualified to handle or should not handle. I believe that there should be a department of therapists or mental health experts that work just like officers do to heed those calls. My husband always speaks about going to a call for a mental health crisis and him not feeling like he should be there because he was trained to de-escalate, but not trained to handle a crisis of that sort. I hate using the term defund, I rather say reallocate funds. But I also believe that we should have a residency requirement when it comes to our officers. We need people who live in the community to serve the community. Warwick pays a percentage of officers who do not live in Warwick and they take our tax dollars and spend it in other cities and towns and their schools are better funded using our tax dollars. If we could have a 50% representation requirement, it would help to increase the quality of life for everyone in our city.

This is a very sensitive issue and we definitely need to really see an overall systemic change, not just one sector.