Ready for Reform: The progressives challenging State House leadership — an interview with Representative David Morales


“What our campaign did was center our message on the needs of working families and the most vulnerable. And people saw that we weren’t in it for self-interest, or to be a part of the good ol’ boys’ club at the state house,” says Rep. David Morales about his victory in the polls last November. “I’m
someone who wants to change the culture of the way our state government runs, and ultimately push us to be ambitious and truly invest in our people the way they deserve to be invested in.”

Morales represents House District 7, an area that comprises the Providence neighborhoods of Mount Pleasant, parts of Elmhurst, and parts of Valley. He was one of four Democrats to abstain in the leadership vote this year.

Alex Kithes (Motif): You ran for the first time this year. What inspired you to run?


David Morales: My lived experience. I understand the socio-economic struggles of living in poverty, especially coming from a single mother. I understand how hard it is to navigate resources related to healthcare, housing and basic utilities. I wanted to use those lived experiences to craft policies and help engage neighbors into the political process in a very grassroots-oriented way that I believe we haven’t done enough here in Rhode Island.

I’ve become increasingly frustrated with how incremental and slow the General Assembly has acted over recent years to address urgent issues that working people are experiencing: such as the pace at which we increase the minimum wage; such as battling the climate crisis and being proactive; and
understanding and recognizing that we have a housing crisis.

We’ve had indications since the recession that this has been happening. And yet and still, we haven’t included housing as an annual line item on the state budget like our neighbors in New England. It’s become increasingly frustrating, that despite being the smallest state by geography, we are not providing a better standard of living for the working people of Rhode Island; specifically in the urban core – Providence, Pawtucket and Central Falls.

AK: I know you were heavily involved in the local Sunrise Movement hub prior to deciding to run. Tell me a little about the relationship between that work and the work of being a state representative.

DM: A lot of that work as a member of Sunrise, prior to being elected, was social advocacy for the Green New Deal. A lot of that work was really streamlined into my campaign, as I started running for office.

A lot of the policies that I adopted were based around the Green New Deal framework; a lot of the skills that I had acquired on how to best communicate these policies to neighbors who aren’t traditionally
involved in the political process. I was able to talk with them in a way that was accessible, but most importantly in a way that demonstrated to them how the Green New Deal would be beneficial to them and to our communities as a whole.

Now, I am a sitting representative. I often tell Sunrise that they are my policy advisors when it comes to the issues concerning housing and our environment. I want them to know that they have a state legislator, a representative, who is looking to them for these answers.

Traditionally, young adults – those under 35 – are not influential in the policy-making process despite the fact that a lot of policies that are adopted affect our everyday lives. So I think it’s time that individuals with the lived experience have that opportunity to actually influence policy-making.

AK: You are one of the co-sponsors of some of the Renew RI legislation, which is viewed as a state-level Green New Deal. Which bill or bills are you sponsoring, and tell me about that. What led you to that decision?

DM: I will be the lead sponsor for the Green Justice Zones bill, which would ensure that heavily polluted communities such as the Southside of Providence no longer have to worry about developers coming into their neighborhood with projects that will produce high levels of pollution. On the Southside of Providence, there’s a disproportionate number of children who have asthma and respiratory issues due to those injustices.

Through the Green Justice Zones act, we will ensure that the communities that have been impacted historically, which are predominantly Black and brown, will have the opportunity to receive state funds to invest in projects that are most important to their neighborhoods such as ensuring that all homes have retrofitted water pipes.

In the City of Providence, one in five Providence Water Supply customers have water pipes with some form of lead. This is a deeply personal issue; I grew up in public housing where there were traces of lead. It falls back on poor people, on working people, who suffer from environmental divestment that the government has contributed to.

I want to be clear: The City of Providence and their Planning Commission has allowed for the Southside of Providence to have high levels of pollution through the constant approval of developers who have no business being in there in the first place.

AK: You won nearly 50% of the vote in a three-way race, nearly twice the vote share as the incumbent. That’s impressive! What do you believe are the reasons people came out and supported your candidacy?

DM: We had a clear message. Our grassroots campaign was oriented and focused on the issues most important to working people, like increasing the minimum wage to $15, investing in affordable housing, understanding the importance of investing in our public schools, given that they continue to crumble as the government turns a blind eye. And getting to a place where everyone, regardless of their socioeconomic background, has healthcare coverage.

These are the ideas that I unapologetically ran on, and we combined them with a very strong field game. We had volunteers knocking every day, seven days a week, expressing these messages and telling neighbors about what the vision can be here in Rhode island by having a legislator who would advocate for these ideas, we inspired a lot of neighbors – many who traditionally never voted in Democratic primaries.

We inspired neighbors who did not trust the political system because they did not see a state government that has ever worked for them. Especially in the City of Providence, where there has been corruption at the local level, people don’t trust politicians for very good reasons.

AK: More broadly, this year saw a lot of progressive General Assembly wins around the state. What factors do you think were responsible for that? Do you see it as a sign of a changing political climate in Rhode Island?

DM: Yes. I believe this is a trend that will continue; two years, four years, six years, eight years from now. Prior to COVID, we were already beginning to see our systems unravel, and expose themselves as to how broken they are. For example, the fact that each and every year, National Grid continues to increase their utility rates while wages stay stagnant. We have a situation where, every year during the budget season, we are worrying about whether Medicaid will be preserved, or receive further cuts. And
people are tired of that!

We want a state government that works for us. A lot of the ideas that myself and other candidates ran on could be considered “progressive,” but a lot of people see them as the basic functions of government. It should be the basic function of government to preserve a program that provides healthcare to working people and poor people. It should be the responsibility of the government to try to regulate monopolies that have control over vital services such as public utilities.

The “progressive” candidates are the ones who were knocking on doors every single day, they were the ones that got creative and held virtual coffee hours to get to know their constituents and the issues most important to them. Whereas other candidates, who’d be considered a part of the Democratic establishment, relied solely on mailers and their name identity and recognition, as opposed to actual policy substance.

AK: You abstained on the vote for Speaker at the start of session earlier this month. What motivated that decision? Where do you see existing leadership has failed, and where would an alternative do better?

DM: Prior to my vote on inauguration day, I received a lot of calls from constituents asking me to abstain. One of the main reasons for it, which I agree, was that the incoming leadership team, at that time, had not presented any substantive policies that they would be supporting. As we had seen back in November, during the Senate Democratic Caucus, Senate President Ruggerio and Majority Leader McCaffrey announced that they’d be supporting policies focused on legalizing cannabis, repealing tax cuts for the wealthy, and other initiatives that would help Rhode Island during these desperate times. On the House side, unfortunately, we did not see that same thing, and that concerned a lot of my constituents.

And I agreed with them. While I understand that it’s not traditional for incoming leadership teams to announce what policy initiatives they would be supportive of, this last year has been nothing close to traditional. It has not been normal – we have been living through a global pandemic, and we need solutions, we need urgent policies. And that’s why I held them to a very high standard that they had to commit to specific policies that they could point out and say: “We, the incoming leadership team, support raising the minimum wage to $15; we support reforming our unfair tax system.” Given that we did not receive such commitments, I did not feel comfortable – again, on the advice of my constituents – voting for the leadership team that was presented to us. Hence, my choice to abstain.

AK: What are you planning on working on this term in the House?

DM: I’m very excited to work on numerous issues, most of which are centered around healthcare. Currently, I have two bills that have been introduced – one would cap out-of-pocket costs for insulin prescriptions to $25 a month, which would be one of the most aggressive in the nation (alongside New Mexico); and the other bill focuses on prescription drug prices, which would cap out-of-pocket expenses for specialty drugs, which are often life-saving medications, at $100 per month.

Alongside that, I want to focus on COVID relief. One vitally important aspect of this is hazard pay for all our essential workers. Whether you work at a restaurant, or a grocery store, or a nursing home, you deserve additional compensation for risking your health, and that of your loved ones, each and every day that you go into work. Unfortunately, it comes as no surprise that private employers will not do that on their own; despite that they love to praise their healthcare heroes.

I see it as a responsibility of our state government to mandate this form of hazard pay. I’m also focused on ensuring that we have a moratorium on utility shutoffs, throughout the entire COVID-19 pandemic, and 90 days following the end of the pandemic (after the governor has withdrawn the Public Emergency Notice).

Here in District 7, we have unfortunately had two small businesses that have gone under. They were both minority-owned, and did not receive sufficient support from our government and were forced to shut down. One of the ways that I believe we can best support small businesses, especially those owned by people of color, is to provide rent relief. Because if they aren’t making any profit, but they still have the overhead of rent, we can’t expect them to stay in business. Therefore, I would like to see the government have a sustainable fund that is able to pay the rent for some of these small business commercial tenants throughout the duration of COVID-19.

I’ll be introducing a bill that is called the Rhode Island Lead-Free Water Act. This would empower the treasurer to authorize a bond for us to retrofit and/or replace water pipes for all of our public school facilities, and low- and moderate-income households whose water pipes who have traces of lead. This is a public health emergency that has been going on for decades, and we have not spent enough time discussing or developing solutions around it.

I’d like Rhode Island to be the first state in the nation to provide fare-free transit. I’ll be introducing a bill that would waive all fares for RIPTA, and would make it free of cost to everyone.