Ready for Reform: The woman challenging state house leadership and the progressives supporting her

Senator Gayle Goldin

“How do we make government transparent, and how do we make government function well?” asks State Senator Gayle Goldin (Senate District 3), who sees it as the fundamental question for the future of Rhode Island Senate Leadership.

Once seen as too wonky of an issue for hardcore politicos, the General Assembly leadership debate has turned into a hot local issue. After the 2018 election, a group of more than 20 state representatives formed the Reform Caucus, with the goal of challenging then-Speaker Mattiello and reforming procedural rules that gave the office political power. The rebel legislators found wide support from the public and from good government groups like Rhode Islanders for Reform and Common Cause RI. They achieved one small, but significant reform: changing House rules to allow legislators more time to read before voting on them.

Goldin, whose district represents the Fox Point/East Side neighborhood of Providence, challenged incumbent Dominick Ruggerio for Senate President. I had the opportunity to chat with Senator Goldin about her run and the future she envisions for progressives in the General Assembly.

Alex Kithes (Motif): When did you first run for office, and what inspired you to run?

Gayle Goldin: I first ran for office in 2012 for a couple of reasons. One, I am a policy analyst by training and have been doing policy work for years. I knew how to craft public policy, but I couldn’t figure out why those evidence-based gold standard policies rarely became law.

The second reason is because in 2001, I was in a freak accident where a balcony collapsed underneath my feet, and I fell 16 feet and broke my back. It was a very quick learning experience about what policies we do not have in our country. While other nations have paid leave, the US does not. At the time, Rhode Island was one of only four states in the US that had publicly run temporary disability insurance, so I was able to get some wage replacement for myself, and for that I was very lucky.

But my husband did not have access to paid family leave that would have allowed him to take paid time off to care for me. In that same year we became parents, and unlike my sister in Canada who had 50 weeks of paid, job-protected leave, we had none. The experience of breaking my back and becoming a mom led me to become an advocate to change workplace
policies in our country. I started organizing, and then I ran for office in order to make paid leave a reality.

AK: What have been your most gratifying or significant accomplishments as a state senator?

GG: I championed the passage of paid family leave in our state and won that in my first year in office, making Rhode Island the third state with paid leave and the first to make sure people taking family leave could do so without losing their jobs. Ten states, including DC, now have a similar law. It is incredibly gratifying to see how much that has helped thousands of Rhode Islanders. It really makes a huge difference to be able to take that time off and not have to worry about losing your job or losing pay while you’re doing it.

Along the way I’ve sponsored many bills, and used my role as a senator to try to create a more equitable society. I’ve sponsored bills to tackle voting rights and LGBTQ rights, raise the tipped minimum wage, and expand child care assistance and the Earned Income Tax Credit. I’ve also pushed for pay equity and sexual harassment protections, single payer health care and
repealing our voter ID law. 

As the senate champion of codifying reproductive rights into law, I’m also grateful for the public’s outspoken, unwavering support of it, and to my colleagues in both the Senate and the House who fought alongside me to make sure we would continue to protect reproductive rights in Rhode Island, regardless of what happened on the Supreme Court. The death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and the subsequent confirmation of Justice Coney Barrett, has made it crystal clear how important passing the Reproductive Privacy Act was.

AK: What prompted your decision to run for senate president?

GG: It comes down to two things: values and process. I do think that the values that I hold – being pro-choice, believing in marriage equality and LGBT rights, valuing immigrant rights and voting rights, and supporting gun safety – are all things that are important to me, and are representative of the Democratic Party platform both in our state and nationally. But they are not what the senate president or the senate democratic majority leader are representative of.

And the second reason is process. Certainly under COVID, we have seen what it means when you have a conservative group of Democrats controlling the chamber. Transparency and public engagement should be at the center of all we do in the legislature, but have been lacking in 2020.

I appreciate the governor’s leadership in this moment, and appreciate the incredibly difficult decisions she’s had to make for the past few months. But there are 113 members of the General Assembly who all represent our constituents and should be engaged and involved in the legislative process. We need a virtual hearing process using modern technology where the
public can provide testimony. Legislators need an opportunity to share feedback from our own constituents. We should also recognize that legislators bring their own expertise to the table.

AK: Do you see a more significant change coming in the way that existing Senate leadership (should they formally win in January) embodies the type of process and values that you talked about? 

GG: I certainly hope that they are open to the idea – as much as they have said that they are – to having differing voices and understanding that there are policy issues as well as process issues that people are very concerned about. In our Democratic caucus in November, one of the new senators had put forward some ideas about how to change our own caucus rules to make the caucus more transparent. Senate leadership was willing to move a little bit and incorporated some of the suggested changes. To me, that is a hopeful indicator that they are actually listening to input, and are willing to continue to move forward together.

Leadership also offered a list of progressive policies they support, in response to our leadership challenge. That’s a step in the right direction, but this isn’t about any one bill. This is about what we value and respecting the voices of all members of the Senate chamber. Senators Ruggerio and McCaffrey have indicated that is their plan. The proof is really going to be in the pudding.

AK: What are some of the major issues you see coming up for the General Assembly?

GG: Obviously, the reality is that what people viewed as so called normal before, didn’t work for many people. We have an economy that devalues caregiving, and COVID made that clear. In particular, women left the workforce these past few months because they could not maintain jobs and families at the same time. Child care closed, schools went online. All of that means someone has to be present for children.

Thankfully, because we have paid leave and paid sick days, we do have some backstops in Rhode Island to help a little bit. But it’s nowhere near enough to meet what people need. Many people are struggling to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads. As we consider this year’s budget, and for the next budget in years ahead, we should focus on investing in our state.

The thing is, we are the economy. With every purchase we make, with every connection we have, we are driving the economy. So let’s make sure it works for everyone.

AK: Where do you see the future of General Assembly leadership?

GG: I think we will see a more progressive membership of the Senate in 2022 after the next election. It was the increasing number of progressives that gave me the foundation to be able to even run for senate presidency this time, so I certainly anticipate that we will see more people run for office in 2022 who view themselves as progressives.

AK: Is there anything that you want to say that we haven’t covered?

GG: While COVID has driven conversations about economic and health recovery, 2020 has also shown us that we must address the pressing issues that undergird our society: systemic racism, sexism and our environmental crisis, because all of those issues are directly related to creating a new normal. We saw gun sales skyrocket in Rhode Island this spring, far more than our neighboring states. We have to ask ourselves why that happened, and importantly, why are we willing to leave our own communities more at risk to gun violence than Massachusetts and Connecticut.