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Woonsocket Democrats: A united slate aims to eliminate toxic political culture

Last year, Alex Kithes (literally) upset the Woonsocket political establishment by winning a special election for a seat on the city council. He defeated his opponent, former city council president Roger Jalette, in a special snap election following the resignation of then-city-councilwoman Julia Brown. Now, Kithes is back again, and he’s not alone; he’s brought three friends along with him. Marlene Guay, Charmaine Webster and Vaughn Miller, are all first-time candidates running with Kithes under a united slate, the Woonsocket Democrats.

“In this election, we are building a council majority that will listen to those issues faced by the city,” says Kithes. Woonsocket’s City Council has seven seats; all it takes to get a voting majority is four. Its current makeup trends conservative, with a voting bloc of Daniel Gendron, Jon Brien, James Cournoyer, John Ward and Denise Sierra acting as a veto-proof supermajority. They take a fiscally conservative approach to the city, advocating for lowering taxes and emphasizing being “stewards of taxpayer funds.” Kithes has clashed frequently with council members; his anti-racism resolutions became a major flashpoint in Woonsocket over the past year. One such council meeting was famously dramatized by the company of actors at Epic Theatre Company last year. The council majority’s conduct at such meetings inspired others to action.

“Seeing the response of the council, seeing how they responded to constituents who had some concerns, and I wasn’t the only one who had some concerns,” says Miller about the inciting incident that made him decide to run. “There’s a deficit in leadership that we are experiencing.” Miller is a Navy veteran, previously serving aboard the U.S.S. Ronald Reagan. He’s currently studying at the University of Rhode Island, majoring in political science and placing on the Dean’s list every semester he attended.

“That type of behavior and attitude has put the City of Woonsocket in a silo over and over again,” says Marlene Guay. She had similar concerns before Kithes asked her to run. Guay works at United Way of Rhode Island as a grants and initiatives manager and is a former classroom teacher. Running was something she had thought about doing prior to 2020, but she was concerned about the negative political climate in Woonsocket. She discovered city council leaders not applying for grants all of the city might be qualified for, and found them failing to think outside the box to utilize every possible resource the city needs. 

Charmaine Webster was motivated by her passion for social justice and a mission to make the city more equitable for its youth. “It was another way to do what I can do to make the lives of the children and young adults better,” she says. “That in turn makes the quality of life better for everyone.” Kithes asked her to run, and she was briefly hesitant before realizing it was the right thing to do at the right time in her life.

All four candidates are running on the same slate and a broadly similar platform. Fixing the city’s broken and underfunded education system is a common issue they emphasize. “This could not happen in a silo,” says Guay speaking about the educational landscape in the Ocean State. “It’s long-term underfunding that put us in this situation.” When schools closed in Woonsocket, people realized just how much schools have become a catchall in American society. Kids do not sit and learn for six hours and go home. If they need food they get fed, if they have family or domestic trouble at home, there are educators there to look out for signs of abuse.

Woonsocket schools during COVID-19 are remote learning for the high schoolers and a hybrid model for the lower grades, a model which, like many schools across the state, the city has had difficulty adapting. Twenty-four percent of pre-pandemic Woonsocket households lack a subscription to broadband internet. While not the sole indicator of internet access, spotty or unreliable internet at home means distance learning is harder. Guay also gives the example of when her son came home in the ninth grade with a social studies textbook that mentioned the USSR, and he had no idea what it was, being born long after the end of the Cold War. “This was a catastrophe so many different ways in the making,” says Guay.

Some of the buildings just are not ready to handle the new normal of a pandemic world. High schoolers won’t go back to in-person learning until at least January 2. And not all schools can teach remotely. Webster’s son is in an automotive program at a vocational school. “Trade schools have mostly been remote,” she says. “But it’s hard to have an automotive or any vocational classes from home.” She speaks of the difficulties faced by special needs students with distance learning.

Education makes up the bulk of Woonsocket’s budget and in many ways the city is still not spending enough on its students. With state aid in jeopardy, and the federal government deadlocked on any reasonable stimulus, the situation for education in the state has never been more dire. “Education is the first step to starting to get equality in the community, and it provides access to more opportunities.” says Miller. “We have to futureproof our children, basically.”

Instituting a Green New Deal and tackling climate change locally are a key plank in the slate’s platform. “Climate change is an existential threat,” says Miller. “If we don’t solve the problem, humanity might not be here in 50 years.” With no federal stimulus or additional state dollars coming, Miller envisions a scaled down version, workshopping with community members and contractors to find a way to modernize infrastructure to be environmentally friendly, while also providing public works projects. They bring up making public buildings energy efficient and cost-effective, and outfitting older buildings with solar power. But it’s more than just New Deal style interventionism for the slate.

“We don’t have a solid transportation system here,” says Guay. “Our community isn’t walkable and it certainly isn’t bikeable.” Woonsocket has two bus lines, and while it may be only a 20-minute drive away from Providence by (fossil fuel guzzling) car, by RIPTA it’s two hours away. 

Kithes see rezoning and redeveloping the city for a green economy as key to stopping climate change and attracting new people to the city. He’s interested in rezoning for mixed use, like the buildings along Main Street, where businesses are in the bottom floors and apartments in the higher floors. By building current development upward, it’s not causing any additional environmental negative footprint and adding more room into the city. For Kithes, the key is to do it in a just manner — he’s worried about longtime city residents getting pushed out of multi-generational homes. “Housing prices are a lot higher than they should be,” he says.”A 2-bedroom goes for $1100 or $1200 and that’s on par with Providence.”

Housing is a chief issue in the city these days. A recent affordable housing study showed that Woonsocket has the #2 most affordable housing in the city, getting beat only by Central Falls. A person needs to make $56,000 a year to afford an apartment in Woonsocket, which is almost double what the average city resident makes. An estimated 37% of city residents own their homes, making Woonsocket a city of renters. Much of the data available comes from pre-COVID times, meaning the situation could be much worse.

Systemic racism within the city is another pervasive issue taken up by the Woonsocket Democrats. “You can’t fix systemic racism if you don’t acknowledge it,” says Webster.

“It’s one thing to turn a blind eye to things,” adds Guay, “but to actually say it doesn’t exist. It’s completely dismissive of so many people’s lived experiences and what we all know.” A recent example is the Racist Policies Advisory Board, a body meant to review city practices to identify places where it was discriminating against, if not failing, its nonwhite residents. The board is meant to have 12 persons, all appointed by the council. The meeting to appoint people to the board was this past summer, and the zoom meeting is documented on video. Activist group WATCH wanted to ensure the city council was accountable and appointed people in good faith from marginalized communities, with Kithes proposing an amendment from them requiring the board to be made up of specific marginalized communities found within the city. The majority voting bloc on the council did not take the amendment kindly, with much vitriol being directed at Kithes.

Good government is a popular theme when going door-to-door. “We also make it very clear we’re not Democrat-machine and that’s an important distinction…” says Kithes. “Plenty of conservatives are fine with voting for Dems, but more for good government reform. More people care about that than you think on both sides of the aisle.” In addition to wanting to eliminate the city’s toxic political culture, the slate has come out for warding the city. The city currently has no wards, and five of the council members live within a half mile of each other, concentrated in one part of town. Warding the city would provide better representation and better serve the community.

The slate also wants to take a hard look at the city budget, ensuring that funds are where they serve the community that needs it the best. They also want more nuance when it comes to public safety.  “When people hear that it just conjures up negativity,” says Webster. “We all know police officers that are great people, we all know police families that have had generations of people take it on as a career.” Cops are frequently expected to do jobs they are not qualified or trained to do. The professionals who handle domestic violence are probably not the best professionals to direct traffic. They require two entirely different skills sets: conflict de-escalation compare to knowledge of roads laws.

The Woonsocket Democrats are all members of the Rhode Island Political Cooperative, the progressive political organization that backed a lot of primary challengers to (more) conservative Democrats. They engage in canvassing as safely as possible, as canvassing is the backbone of any progressive campaign. It’s a little easier for them, as canvassing for one means they canvass for all four. They wear masks, knock and stand 6 feet back, apply hand sanitizer until their fingers are raw. “People seem to like talking to people running for positions in their city,” says Miller. “I’m pleasantly surprised by that, and I’m having personally enriching conversations.”

“A lot of people are saying to me ‘No one’s ever canvassed me before,’” says Guay, a sentiment she says also applies to herself. “It speaks to the blase attitude of the majority of the people who have been serving.” The slate is going out to areas that don’t typically get canvassed (although Guay adds a caveat, as Kithes had done a great job canvassing during his first run. 

The city council race on Tuesday has 14 candidates running, with only the top vote getters assured a seat on the council. The Woonsocket Democrats also aren’t the only united slate. The conservative incumbents, James Cournoyer, Daniel Gendron, Denise Sierra and John Ward, along with Roger Jalette are running under a broadly unified banner. A third group of candidates, calling itself the “Progress Over Politics” slate, is running as moderates and pledging to work with whomever is elected. The group includes current councillor David Soucey with former Councilor Garett Mancieri and Margaux Morisseau running as well. 

Election day is around the corner. Rhode Island will without a doubt vote for the Democrat for President. But what will happen in down ballot elections like Woonsocket is anyone’s guess. All politics is local, and while local elections are absent from popular consciousness, what happens within them is just as consequential as the national ones.

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