Eight of the 12 candidates running in the Democratic primary for the 1st Congressional District are shown on the stage at the Providence Public Library on Friday, Aug. 4, 2023. Left to right: J. Aaron Regunberg, Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos, Sen. Ana Quezada, Gabriel Amo, Sen. Sandra Cano, Providence City Councilman John Gonçalves, Donald Carlson, and Stephanie Beauté. At the podium is debate moderator Harrison Tuttle, director of BLM RI PAC. (Kevin G. Andrade/Rhode Island Current)
PROVIDENCE — Eight candidates in the Democratic primary for the 1st Congressional District shared their ideas on promoting social justice and equity at a forum and debate Friday at the Providence Public Library Auditorium.
The one-hour forum sponsored by Black Lives Matter RI PAC and the Rhode Island Black Business Association remained focused on policy. But a few could not resist throwing barbs at their opponents during the 30-minute long debate portion of the program.
Six of the candidates on stage were people of color, notable in a race for a seat from a state that has never sent a person of color to Congress. During the second portion of the event candidates were given two minutes apiece to elaborate at what differentiated them from others. Those mentioned by others were allotted 30 seconds to respond.
“I’m not self-funding my candidacy, and that’s important,” said Providence City Council member John Gonçalves, eliciting a chorus of “oooh” from the around 100 people in attendance.
The reaction seemed to acknowledge a controversial mailer sent to voters this week supporting former Providence Rep. J. Aaron Regunberg. The mailer was paid for by a political action committee (PAC) funded by Regunberg’s father-in-law and mother. Regunberg has said he is opposed to PAC money.
Given the opportunity to respond, Regunberg — a former director and founder of the Providence Student Union — said he has a record of progressive action.
“I’m an organizer,” he said. “That’s always been my approach to real change.”
Regunberg cited his efforts to reform solitary confinement after a visit to the Adult Corrections Institute in Cranston during his time in the General Assembly. He said a study his legislative efforts resulting from efforts he sponsored was recently cited in a consent decree issued by a federal court limiting the usage of restrictive housing within the Rhode Island Department of Corrections.
All eight candidates were invited by the organizers to participate based on criteria including polling, community input, and a priority on historically marginalized communities. In addition to Regunberg and Gonçalves, participants were former White House Aide Gabriel Amo, former candidate for Secretary of State Stephanie Beauté, Pawtucket Sen. Sandra Cano, Yale Law Professor Donald Carlson, Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos, and Providence Sen. Ana Quezada.
Beauté challenged Amo, who recently left his job in the Biden administration.
“A lot of the endorsements these candidates receive are just high fives from their friends,” she said. “I’m not here because I’m interested in leaving my job at the White House for another salary upgrade.“
Amo, a Pawtucket native, said his ambition enabled him to better serve the community he grew up in.
“I dedicated my life to service because my story is similar to a lot of people here,” said Amo, whose parents are immigrants from Ghana and Liberia and father owns a liquor store in the capital’s Hartford neighborhood. “When extreme weather has hit, I’ve been there. If that’s worthy of criticism? I question that.”
Education dominates forum
Candidates were asked questions by four panelists, including: Paige Clausius-Parks, executive director of Kids Count RI; Elijah McLean, education policy program officer at the United Way of Rhode Island; Lisa Ranglin, President and CEO of RIBBA; and Zainabou Thiam, a senior at the MET School, youth advocate, and founding CEO of Sunu Body — a company selling West African self-care products.
Thaim asked candidates to discuss the school-to-prison pipeline and how they would work to eliminate it as a member of Congress.
Gonçalves, a fourth grade teacher in Providence, said school resource officers — police stationed in many schools — should be removed from Rhode Island schools.
“We don’t need more saviors that are gonna give us lip service and not put our communities first,” he said. “If you go to some of our wealthiest communities, do they have droves of officers roving around? No. And that’s what we need to fix.”
Beauté said creating an alternative avenue to success besides a college education should be a priority for the winner.
“The system in Rhode Island has encouraged poverty and encourages keeping students behind,” said Beauté. “We need to give you an option besides college because there should be another option for you to make sure you’re not set up for failure so you don’t have the lowest paying jobs.”
Matos added that attitudes towards immigrants and access often sets those communities up for failure. She said a culture change, where students of color were not written off as “not college material” was necessary. She also said federal dollars should be used to encourage internships to prepare students for life after their studies.
“If you have an accent because in your family you speak Spanish or Portuguese or any language, you get put in an ESL program even if you don’t need an ESL program,” said Matos, herself an immigrant from the Dominican Republic. “I have seen it. Some of my brightest friends were told you are not college material.”
Several candidates said those allocating money to the education system need to look beyond the classroom as well.
“For us to fix education, we have to fix housing, we have to fix health, we have to fix lunch,” Quezada said. “If you’re hungry, you’re not learning anything. If you’re not healthy you’re not learning anything. If we have that, you’ll see how children grow. You’ll see how children learn.”
Cano said she made a holistic approach to education a priority in her role as Chair of the Senate Education Committee, supporting bills that would promote a free and healthy school lunch for all as part of the effort. She pointed to school funding as a major part of the problem.
“[The current federal] funding formula [for schools] doesn’t currently work for our communities of color,” she said. “That is not a coincidence, it is because we need to do better.”
Those left out
Debate Moderator Harrison Tuttle said organizers took poll numbers, thoughts from the community, and a priority on amplifying historically marginalized voices into consideration when deciding who to invite.
“Our intention was not to shut candidates out but to have the most effective debate possible,” said Tuttle, who is also executive director of BLM RI PAC.”I’m incredibly encouraged that there are so many candidates from diverse backgrounds this is a real turning point in Rhode Island politics, especially in the First Congressional District.”
Tuttle said based on those parameters, debate organizers did not initially reach out to former U.S. Naval War College professor Walter Berbrick, Woonsocket Rep. Stephen M. Casey, former South Kingstown Rep. Spencer Dickinson, or Allen Waters.
Tuttle added that Berbrick, Casey, and Dickinson, were invited to send in statements to be put on the organization’s social media channels. The same invitation however was not extended to Waters.
“He is a transphobe and a homophobe,” Tuttle said.
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