R.I. Senate District 1 candidates argue over ‘insider’ ties, but agree on some policies

RIC debate comes two weeks ahead of Nov. 7 special election

By: - October 23, 2023 4:29 pm

From left to right: Jake Bissaillon, a State Senate 1 District candidate; Ryan Lukowicz; Raymond Baccari Jr.; and Niyoka Powell, a State Senate 1 District candidate, at a recorded candidate debate at Rhode Island College on Monday. (Nancy Lavin/Rhode Island Current)

There’s not as much policy disagreement between Jake Bissaillon and Niyoka Powell as their opposite political party affiliations might suggest.

The Democrat and Republican candidates in the upcoming election for Rhode Island Senate District 1 shared similar viewpoints on pressing State House issues including local control of Providence Public Schools, cracking down on predatory payday lenders and expansion of state public records laws during a taped debate at Rhode Island College on Monday. The rivals instead clashed more over identity politics, with Powell, a nurse and Black immigrant, seeking to cast Bissaillon as part of Rhode Island’s inside political network.

She accused Bissaillon, who works as chief of staff for Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, of name-dropping to win support for his own political campaign. She also reiterated prior criticism of Bissaillon and Ruggerio already announcing staff changes that will happen if and when Bissaillon wins the senate seat. 

“I jumped into this race because I know the community needs someone who is going to look out for them and not necessarily look out for name recognition,” Powell said.

Bissaillon dismissed her allegations as “outrageous,” instead touting his history in city and state politics as an advantage when it comes to knowing and understanding the needs of the community.

“Nothing is preordained,” Bissaillon said. “I didn’t expect anything to get handed to me.”

The debate, hosted by Rhode Island College student Raymond Baccari Jr. and North Kingstown High School student Ryan Lukowicz, came just over two weeks ahead of the Nov. 7 special election for the seat representing Providence’s Smith Hill neighborhood. The district had been represented for more than three decades by the late Sen. Mary Ellen Goodwin, who died in April. 

District 1 is dominated by Democratic voters, who comprise 57% of the 14,400 registered voters as of October, according to the Rhode Island Secretary of State’s office. Another 36% of district voters are unaffiliated, while 7% are registered Republicans. 

Yet on local issues like city schools and tax payments by higher education institutions, party affiliation didn’t seem to make much difference. Both Bissaillon and Powell favored ending the state control of the troubled Providence Public School District and supported increasing the amount that certain, tax-exempt private education institutions like Brown University pay in lieu of property taxes to the city. They also stressed the importance of the newly-created Hope Scholarship program, which offers free tuition to full-time RIC students for their third and fourth years to help students finish their degrees.

Each candidate recalled their own struggles juggling work and school. Powell, a Jamaican immigrant who attended RIC, was forced to take time off from her degree to work to earn enough money to pay the rest of her tuition, she said. Bissaillon, who moved to Rhode Island to attend Providence College and later, Roger Williams University School of Law, said said working while attending school at the same time wat the same time was his “biggest regret.”

Both also expressed support for proposed legislation that would cap the interest rates on payday loans in Rhode Island, strengthening state public records laws and extending the free and reduced school breakfast and lunch program to all public school students, regardless of income.

Their opinions diverged when it came to money, though, with Powell repeating standard Republican viewpoints about the need to reduce taxes and state spending, which reached a record $14.0 billion in the fiscal year 2024 budget. She suggested cutting funding for higher education as one way to trim spending, while stressing the importance of returning one-time federal stimulus funds “to the people” rather than in creating new programs.

Bissaillon, on the other hand, praised the historic education and housing investments in the FY 24 budget, including the use of American Rescue Plan Act funds.

The rivals also disagreed on voting reform. Bissaillon backed a potential change like a top-two runoff to ensure a primary winner secures at least 50% of the vote. Powell preferred the status quo and warned that early voting risked more problems with voter fraud.

The one-hour debate will be available on RIC’s student-run television station YouTube channel and on Lukowicz’s podcast starting at 5 p.m. on Monday.


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Nancy Lavin
Nancy Lavin

Nancy Lavin is senior reporter covering state politics, energy and environmental issues for the Rhode Island Current.