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A more conservative mindset: Niyoka Powell is running for State Senate in District One
"I grew up in the church, and to see how things are going right now for the coming generations, I would love to see a better world for all of our children."
With all the talk about the Congressional District One special election, we might forget that there’s also a special election taking place in State Senate District One to replace Maryellen Goodwin, who passed away earlier this year. The September 6 primary election1 narrowed the field to two candidates, Democrat Jake Bissailon and Republican Niyoka Powell.
Niyoka Powell came from Westmoreland, Jamaica at a young age. She is a 17-year Providence resident. Powell has worked over 12 years at Butler Hospital as a mental health worker turned nurse in the Alcohol and Drug Detox Unit.
Powell transitioned to occupational health in manufacturing after witnessing abuses of power and government overreach at a volatile time for families and businesses in the city.
I spoke to Niyoka Powell after the PUC hearing in Warwick and then on the phone for the interview. The interview has been edited for clarity, but not brevity.
Steve Ahlquist: Why you and why this job?
Niyoka Powell: Why me? Because my perspective is completely different than what we're used to in the state of Rhode Island. I've never been one to look at the problem the same way everybody else does. I've never really been one to fall in line with what everybody says, but I'm a very good team player.
Why this job? I think that District One is developing faster than the rest of the Senate Districts in Providence because you know who typically lives on the East Side, you know who lives on the South Side, the West End is all gentrified, and the North End is a hodgepodge melting pot of everybody. Being that I was born out of this country, I've assimilated to life here in America. I've gone through school in Rhode Island and I've lived in Rhode Island for 18 years. I've bounced around the city due to gentrification, and I've worked hand in hand with all the people now in office. It's not like I'm a newbie. I've worked with different programs. I've helped build programs in the nonprofit sector, and I understand what people are currently looking for at different levels - whether it's on a socioeconomic basis or just looking for a way to live in the city.
Steve Ahlquist: As a follow-up, you're running as a Republican and there's not a lot of Black women in this state running as Republicans. Can you speak to that?
Niyoka Powell: Like I said, I've never been one to go with the mold. I've always felt that the greatest people in my life have been the elders that I've been around. I respect elders to a fault - in terms of the knowledge they bring to the table, in ways of guiding the next generation, and in terms of beliefs, morals, and your compass as to how you should present yourself in life. I think that as a generation, we've fallen out of respect for our elders and for the people who brought us into this world. I grew up in the church, and to see how things are going right now for the coming generations - I would love to see a better world for all of our children.
I would love to see more respect. I'd love to see more decorum. I'd love to see more modesty. It's a hodgepodge of things that have [influenced] me to run as a Republican. Also, becoming a citizen of the United States and being enthralled by American history all through grade school without the racial barrier, I never felt like there was a reason for me not to do something, not to gain something, or not to excel or succeed because of my color. I was never raised to think that my color was a limitation. When someone denied me access to something, it just meant I needed to work harder or I needed to figure out why it was that I didn't qualify. I made sure I qualified the next time. It was never, "Oh, well, I didn't get it because I'm not white. I'm not Ivy League, I'm not this, I'm not that." I looked to myself and looked to my elders to ask, "How come this didn't work?" And usually, it comes back to, "Well, you need to educate yourself."
Steve Ahlquist: And you see those ideas as more in line with you?
Niyoka Powell: They're more conservative. It's a more conservative mindset. It's not that I don't think that some ideas are more valuable than others, it's just that the state is not in alignment with what the district currently needs because we need to make sure the foundation is set for the success of the district and not pile more ideas onto an already broken infrastructure.
Steve Ahlquist: Let me ask you about some of those ideas. What do you see as the biggest problems and opportunities facing Rhode Island right now?
Niyoka Powell: Number one is education. I am a big supporter of school choice in any way. They try to spin it and say that I'm for taking money out of the school system and yada, yada, yada. It boils down, like I said, to the basics. We need to realize that we're overspending on a lot of things that we shouldn't be spending this much money on. We're able to fund education without the bureaucracy. Because of bureaucracy, we have levels upon levels of people who get paid before you get to the person you talk to, who hardly ever gets paid enough. When it comes to the school system throughout the State of Rhode Island, we have the resources, we have the schools, we have the higher education that the state should have already been prospering from, and we've hindered the growth of the kids who could make it there because of the bureaucracy.
Giving people school choice, especially right now when families are struggling and trying to figure out what's going to happen - I mean, Christmas is coming. People might not be able to afford something as simple as Christmas. A gift of school choice is saying, "We're going to develop a system so you can have your child go to a school that mirrors what you and your family believe in, with the funds that you've already paid into the system via your tax dollars or subsidies from the [federal] government. It is a no-brainer that you shouldn't imprison kids in a school that doesn't support them, their needs, their culture, or their beliefs.
If there's a school, for example, that primarily helps with - let's say the Arabic community - and a student is in Providence and they would thrive in an Arabic community-type learning [environment], why would we tell the family that they can't have their child there? We are a sanctuary state. We should be allowing sanctuary the way that it reflects on the systems in Rhode Island as well. If that's what they want to mirror themselves as and put out the image that we're a sanctuary state, we can't limit people to those things. We can't put them in a box and say, "Okay, you're going to sit right here." That's not sanctuary. That's a disaster and that's inhumane.
Steve Ahlquist: Sanctuary has a different meaning though. It's about protecting undocumented immigrants from being deported without due process. It's less about what those people do while they're here, which is that they get all the same theoretical freedoms that everybody else has, right?
Niyoka Powell: Correct, yes. And that is a problem in itself because now we have an entire community of people draining the system, while we have a broken system for the people who are actual citizens and taxpayers. It's adding more fuel to the flame we are burning in Rhode Island.
Steve Ahlquist: When I see school choice, I think it means that a person would get a voucher from the state, a certain amount of money, and they can apply it to a public school or they could apply it to a private school. However, many private schools in this state are private religious schools. There are Jewish schools, a Muslim school, and many, many Catholic schools. A lot of people might see this as taking government money and giving it to a private religious institution, which seems to be at least in some cases, a violation of the First Amendment about the establishment of religion.
Niyoka Powell: The way I look at it is that if we're talking separation of church and state, then we should separate people who are faith-bound from paying government taxes just the same as you would a nonprofit organization because that's a separation from their faith and moral compass and the state's ability to govern over them. It's a murky situation because education should be affordable and available to everyone. It's a human right, regardless of where you get your education.
It's the same thing with Historically Black Colleges and Universities. We all know the history of slavery. We all know how Black people and the BIPOC community were treated. What if we're not going to fund those schools anymore because they believe in X, Y, and Z? We can't limit that to religious schools. Schools like Providence College, which is a religious-based university, get a huge tax break.
Steve Ahlquist: Well, all churches get tax breaks, right? No churches pay taxes...
Niyoka Powell: Exactly. Why is it inappropriate for us to fund the education of these children at a basic primary school level, only to fund it when they get to a graduate level or a college level?
Steve Ahlquist: Alright, let's move off that for now. What are your thoughts on guns? What are your thoughts on an assault weapon ban?
Niyoka Powell: I'm pro 2-A. Just like how everybody wants to choose whichever parts of the Bill of Rights they want to support, I'm pro 2-A. The reason is not that I'm screaming from the mountaintops and owning all sorts of assault weapons and all that. I had never fired a gun until COVID-19 when I decided that the increase in violence in the city threatened me and my livelihood, which prompted my fiance to move into our apartment with me and my young daughter. At the time, my car was broken into three or four times. We reported it. It was during the height of the pandemic and the violence in our area went through the roof. I never, in the eight years I lived in that apartment, had that issue. It was to protect myself and my little one.
I was the only woman living in the house on the second floor, and the rest of the tenants were male. I was very fearful of that. I'm for 2-A if you are educated enough to know the rights of bearing arms and get as much knowledge as you possibly can and as much training as you possibly can on how to utilize your weapon. When it comes to assault rifle bans, I've learned through participating in that community about the purpose of those weapons. People have different vices - they're collectors or something like that because that's what they're interested in. I know that a family member of mine used to host wounded warriors on their property and take them hunting. It's almost a therapeutic thing for our veterans to own these weapons. To remove that from people who are legally trained to have them is a disservice. It's telling someone they can't enjoy a hobby that they enjoy. The problem with assault weapons is - and most countries have this issue - you have people who obtain them illegally. There will always be someone obtaining a weapon illegally. Banning these weapons doesn't save anybody. If anything, it puts us at a disadvantage.
Steve Ahlquist: Countries that have assault weapon bans have way fewer mass shootings.
Niyoka Powell: And your example is Australia...
Steve Ahlquist: Where mass killings have been all but eliminated, at least mass killings with assault weapons.
Niyoka Powell: My question to you is, what is their immigration status?
Steve Ahlquist: In Australia? I don't know.
Niyoka Powell: Exactly. A prime example is Jamaica. Jamaica and Haiti. Back when I was a kid in Jamaica, I would listen to the radio. I would hear people coming to the island the same way that Elián González came from Cuba to Florida in a boat. The Jamaican government would ship them back, the reason being that there was a huge uptick in violence when the Haitian community came to Jamaica.
In America, we opened our borders to everyone. We hear about the cartels, we hear about everybody that's coming in. I'm not saying everybody at the border is here to harm us, but you have to understand that as a sanctuary state, we are bringing part of the border into our state and you don't know who is coming into our state. The regulations and the way people live in other countries are not like the United States. Like I said, I wasn't born here. I understand it. I go back and forth and I see it with my own eyes. The last time I was in Jamaica, they still had blockades and checkpoints.
Steve Ahlquist: I don't want to belabor this, but I don't know of any undocumented people who have committed assault weapons-style mass shootings. Maybe there's one, but the vast majority of mass shootings are United States citizens and legal gun owners.
Niyoka Powell: Those people were deemed to have psychiatric issues.
Steve Ahlquist: I think that goes hand in hand. If you commit a crime like that, you probably have psychiatric issues.
Niyoka Powell: It's not just gun violence. You have people who commit crimes that are psychiatrically impaired.
Steve Ahlquist: I want to move on to some economic issues. Rhode Island has a minimum wage that's on track to be $15 in about two years. What are your thoughts on the minimum wage? Should it go up? Is it too much? Should we have a minimum wage?
Niyoka Powell: The minimum wage is testing an economy like this because inflation does not seem to be dampening at all. It has not been down in the state of Rhode Island. I use the example of a loaf of bread costing different prices throughout the city. For workers and businesses are penny-pinching. If the prices are going up in terms of the minimum wage, the prices are going to go up for products. I don't see how raising the minimum wage is going to solve the issue at all. A minimum wage adjustment that would have an impact is going to inflate everything else. I don't see how we can move on this until the economy is under control federally.
Steve Ahlquist: You would not raise the minimum wage until the federal government gets its act together?
Niyoka Powell: Exactly. I mean, the average rent in Providence is $1200, and that's for a one-bedroom. That's not a problem that we can solve at the state level considering that we would need the federal government to be on board with it, and giving money to Ukraine and all that doesn't help our economy at all. It depletes what's available to citizens who are trying to figure out life right now.
Steve Ahlquist: You're not in support of the government sending money to Ukraine?
Niyoka Powell: No.
Steve Ahlquist: Okay. That question was not on my list, but you mentioned it. Since you mentioned housing, let's talk about housing a little bit. What are your thoughts on building more housing and where do we build it? What kind of legislation do you think would help the housing shortage in Rhode Island?
Niyoka Powell: I think that the allocation of funds that were brought into the state during COVID-19 could have helped with funding the building of new homes. I know a lot of the people in government have said it would be nice to refurbish some of the old mills and factories that could house people, but it would cost more in the long run to redevelop them than to just leave them be. I think we should be able to see what lands are owned by the different towns and communities and just legislate or zone them to be primarily for homes. If we're having a crisis when it comes to houses, we already know which parcels we can build on. I would support legislation that would allow different towns to develop plans like that as emergency fallback plans.
Steve Ahlquist: Let me ask you about homelessness, which is an issue your district struggles with. The Charles Street encampment evicted by Mayor Smiley was in your district. How do we help people who are living in encampments? I'll tell you this - when they evict unhoused people from an encampment, few of them get any real help. No one has a better life now than they did before being evicted. That said, what should we do?
Niyoka Powell: The amount of money the city is spending to constantly evict these people could have been money that was set aside to help them. Places like Memorial Hospital could have been turned into a refuge until we figured out this problem. Instead, they let the buildings go a little bit, to scream for need when the community did need it. To utilize spaces like that, that are already modeled after some form of dormitory, would be appropriate for this. I've never been inside Crossroads. I've reached out to Crossroads a couple of times for a walk-through over the years, or even to be part of the staff, but never got a callback. I wanted to understand the issue because we keep funding places like Crossroads. We keep giving them the funds to help the homeless problem, and there's still a homeless problem. Some people say that it's because of how Crossroads is run, but being that it's an entity in the city that is supposed to help the homeless community, we should be able to utilize all of our resources in the state to make sure that the program runs well. We shouldn't just keep building and building without any response to the complaints that the people who are experiencing homelessness are bringing.
Steve Ahlquist: Homelessness has been increasing every year.
Niyoka Powell: Exactly. In my district, you can drive down Smith Street and see people pitching tents. They have nothing and nowhere to go. I've seen them talked to by law enforcement and they're like, "What do you want me to do? Where do you want me to go? I'm not hurting anybody. I'm just here."
Steve Ahlquist: It's a tragedy and I feel helpless in the space of it all the time.
Moving on, there's a move to tax the rich, or at the very least to change the tax policy so that richer people in the state pay more. The General Assembly passed tax cuts for the rich years ago, and some people are calling for the reversal of that. What are your thoughts on taxes, tax cuts, and income taxes?
Niyoka Powell: I haven't moved to a lesser tax bracket at all despite my income increasing since moving to Rhode Island, from being a starving college student to being a nurse. I'm a beginner nurse. I'm not an RN. I'm not an advanced practice nurse. I am just a nurse. From that perspective, I haven't changed how much in taxes I've paid. When you look at the bottom of the middle class to the upper middle class, they get the shit end of the stick. That's how it is, but it shouldn't be. I think the tax cuts should be revoked. I think they should revoke them and give them to the middle and the lower class. Let them get a break for once, especially during inflationary times when everybody's trying to catch up. I think that this would be the perfect time to do that and then reevaluate it as we go because something's got to give with the economy.
Steve Ahlquist: Let me ask you about climate change. Is it real? What should we do about it?
Niyoka Powell: I don't think it's real. I think it is just showing us the neglect of humans in maintaining infrastructure and cutting corners with policies and procedures. We would be able to sustain the earth for what it is if we would, one, pick up after ourselves; two, maintain the structures that we build; and three, decrease our toxicity on the environment and our pollutants. We should throw the hammer at companies that pollute the environment. I think that to call this something caused by the little people is an issue because the little people weren't the ones that created the issue. And the issue, meaning any of the products, any of the processes for building the products that the little people buy.
Steve Ahlquist: Should we be moving away from gas and oil and towards solar and wind, or is that not necessary?
Niyoka Powell: It's not necessary. I think people just need to clean up after themselves.
Steve Ahlquist: I want to move to abortion rights. The General Assembly passed a couple of bills to make sure that the rights enshrined under Roe v Wade were kept in Rhode Island after a possible change by the United States Supreme Court, which the Supreme Court did. And then after the Supreme Court did that, we also passed legislation allowing the state to pay for abortions for state employees and people on Medicaid. What are your thoughts on the abortion issue as a whole?
Niyoka Powell: I think it's a decision between a patient and their doctor, and I believe that insurance should cover what the doctor and the patient decide.
Steve Ahlquist: Okay. Next, I want to talk about LGBTQ rights. During the Black Lives Matter Rhode Island PAC forum2 the candidates were asked about LGBTQ and trans rights and everyone framed it in terms of human rights, except you. You framed it differently, and I wanted to explore that a little bit. You framed the issue in terms of mental health.
Niyoka Powell: Yes.
Steve Ahlquist: What are your thoughts on LGBTQ rights and more specifically, what did you mean about mental health in your previous answer?
Niyoka Powell: It's about the right to proper treatment. The reason is that throughout my life I've had friends and family who have been part of that community, and to sit and listen to their stories in regards to how coming out has affected them and why it took so long for them to come out, really boiled down to mental health. They didn't feel comfortable talking to anybody. They didn't feel that they were able to discuss these things because they didn't think that the people they were talking to were able to help them come to terms with who they were. And that is why I think that it's more of a mental health situation rather than us taking away human rights.
If we're able to express ourselves in the way that we need to, we would be comfortable with our everyday. If you're not comfortable in your everyday life and can attest to the things you get into on a moral stance, then that means something is not right mentally. That's why I said it was a mental health concern because you need people who are trained to help you navigate your life, almost like a life coach, to figure out where you need to go and how things should be for you.
Having this thrown to teachers and other people who are just there for six hours in your life and say, "Okay, well you want to be this, then be this." It's a little bit deeper than that.
I remember working at Butler Hospital and over the past five years, we saw a good number of people who were coming in for those types of services because they needed to understand where they were going in everyday life and financially in the job market and be able to lead a healthy life. They were struggling with who they were. They were struggling and it was hard to watch.
Steve Ahlquist: I assume we're talking about trans people who identify as trans or of a gender different from what they were assigned at birth. You mentioned students. Recently, I've been following several school committee hearings around the state where they're taking up the state-mandated Transgender, Gender Non-Conforming, and Transitioning Students policy. [See specifically: Smithfield, Scituate, and Foster-Glocester] What are your thoughts on that policy specifically as it applies to students?
Niyoka Powell: I honestly think that the state shouldn't have mandated that. I think that what that did was drive a wedge between parents and teachers, a very big wedge because when you send your child to school, you want to trust that they're in good hands. What we've seen is that a lot of school boards have been trying to find ways to keep the parents out of it. That won't work well for anyone. And like I said, from my background in psychiatry, it never works well. For the state to mandate something like that is setting up those students for failure.
Steve Ahlquist: If you win this election, you'd be one of three Republican women in the Senate, the other two being Senators Elaine Morgan (Republican, District 34, Charlestown, Exeter, Hopkinton, Richmond, West Greenwich) and Jessica de la Cruz (Republican, District 23, Burrillville, Glocester), who's the minority leader. Have you met them? What are your thoughts on them and what do you think about Senate culture as a whole, given that right now it's controlled by the Democratic Party under Senate President Dominick Ruggerio (Democrat, District 4, North Providence)? In short, what is your view of the Senate?
Niyoka Powell: It's a loaded question. I've met everyone in the Senate on the GOP side of things, but not everyone on the Democrat side. From what I can see and the vibe that I feel, it's difficult to be the opposing voice. They already know what you're going to say if you're opposing it, which is great, but at the same time there is slim to no chance that you are going to be taken seriously because it's almost like a hive mind. When you have a hive mind of people who think the same and want the same thing, that's great. But when it comes to government, it is not because then we end up in a situation like where we're at right now in terms of running for office and getting into that seat. I definitely would be a thorn in the side because I want to have a life as a nurse and be with my family. I wouldn't run for office if I didn't think that the community deserves better. I spend a lot of time in the community volunteering everywhere I possibly can.
Steve Ahlquist: I see you out a lot.
Niyoka Powell: Because help is needed. For me to stand up and say, "I'm going to invest all my time and effort into this, and I'm going to get in and I'm going to make changes," you best be damn sure I'm going in there for changes. And I won't be quiet.
Steve Ahlquist: I know you a little bit and I don't think you'd be quiet.
Niyoka Powell: There are going to be five of us in the Senate, but it's going to be a loud five of us.
Steve Ahlquist: Are there any questions I should have asked but didn't?
Niyoka Powell: How about the effect of pushing technology in the city or the state when we don't have the infrastructure to support it?
Steve Ahlquist: What kind of technology are you talking about?
Niyoka Powell: In terms of the wind and solar farms. I don't think that we should have invested so heavily in that when we were switching up the electric grid from National Grid to Rhode Island Energy. It's a lot of change all at once. I don't believe that the infrastructure can accommodate such a huge push all at once and I hope we're prepared for the consequences of that.
Steve Ahlquist: I noticed that you spoke the other night before the Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission, and I quoted you extensively in my coverage of that.3 Is there anything you have to say about Rhode Island Energy in general? What do you think about our energy system? What should we be doing?
Niyoka Powell: I think what they're doing in terms of trying to maintain the infrastructure and roll it over to be more current is appropriate. I understand that it costs money to do so, but as I said, even though the state is getting subsidized funding from the federal government to add solar and wind in the state, we have to realize that it's going to probably decimate what Rhode Island Energy is trying to do. As I said during the Tax the Rich conversation we just had, it's going to trickle down to all of us. What we're seeing is the trickle-down effect of Rhode Island Energy trying to keep up and it's falling on hardworking families just trying to rub two pennies together. It's not right.
The consequences are that we're going to get more flooding, more runoff, and more clogged sewage systems because we're cutting down trees that are supposed to protect communities from the wind and the rain and everything else. We can't say that all of this is due to climate change. We're causing the climate change by doing these things. What Rhode Island Energy is doing on its side is the politics and the economic movement of business. Unfortunately, we're the ones stuck in the middle because it's a commodity that we have to live with. It's a commodity that is supposed to be public, but it's being run privately.
Steve Ahlquist: Interesting.
When you go door to door and you're meeting people for the first time and trying to get their vote, what is your pitch? What do you say?
Niyoka Powell: I tell them that I'm a Republican.
I say I'm a Republican because everybody assumes I'm a Democrat and I don't want anybody to be misguided. I say, "My name is Niyoka Powell and I'm running for Senate in this district, and I'm the only Republican running." I can pretty much gauge whether or not it's going to be a good conversation or not. More often than not, it's a good conversation because they're puzzled by the fact that I'm walking around saying I'm a Republican. I have really good conversations about what they want the community to be like. It usually revolves around safety, education, and healthcare, and those are all part of my platform. Those are the things that I felt the community needed. Also, the cost of living and being able to afford things. For me to help the community or the state as a whole, I need to get to the State House. I need to dig through the muck and figure it out because clearly, all of these smart people up there need help. We need to help them figure this out.
Steve Ahlquist: Thank you so much.
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September 6, 2023, Special Election Primary results:
The Black Lives Matter Rhode Island Political Action Committee (BLM RI PAC) hosted a Rhode Island Senate District 1 Debate on Wednesday, August 9, at the Smith Hill Library. Here’s the exchange:
Harrison Tuttle: In recent years, there has been a rise in anti-trans/LGBTQ+ legislation both nationally and locally. How would you support LGBTQ+ members of your district and state, and how would you combat legislation that seeks to inflict harm on this community?
Niyoka Powell: I think that we should provide support to those who are in need. We have a mental health crisis in the state of Rhode Island and the nation. Having those resources and having people who can help our students and help our adults through the toughest of times is very important. Regardless of bills that are being thrown left and right, regardless of the hate, when you boil it down, there's something there that needs to be dealt with very delicately. You need the appropriate people to help you through that. Having support systems in schools is great, but if you are not able to utilize the resources that are available through actual mental health care, then you can tarnish someone. You can tarnish what they're going through and how they build from that. So I look at it like I look at most things, from a healthcare perspective and I look at it delicately. It is not something that I'm struggling with, but any struggle needs someone who's able to delicately help you through that struggle. And that is how I would look at dealing with the LGBTQ community.
The testimony Niyoka Powell presented to the Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission: My concern with what is happening is that we're going into a very uncertain time. We've been in and out of a very trying pandemic. We were here last October as well, and the increases that happened last October were very hard on many families in the north end of Providence. I can attest to that.
I understand that the company needs to move forward with a lot of the energy initiatives that we're doing, but another increase right now is not going to help at all. I understand you have a lot of available programs, but I think that the way companies work in the State of Rhode Island is that we keep creating different programs as opposed to just solving the problem.
The problem is that people can't afford another increase in their bills. Corporations can't afford another increase. Maybe because of staffing shortages, maybe because people are unemployed, there's a lot that's going into factoring for the cost of living going into winter. The increase is going to decimate a lot of families.
Our homelessness rate in Providence will be around the same that it was last year and I have to think about those kinds of things as I'm running for Senate. Those are the issues people are coming to me with and those are the problems that I'll have to try and figure out as well. Having another increase, right before the winter starts, is not going to work out very well for many families. I understand the creation of programs. I understand that you have the different programs that you talked about, the energy efficiency program, the budget billing, this COVID-19 agreement, the discount rate classes, and the arrearage program. Those are a lot of programs.
So to increase the bill on people who perhaps don't utilize those programs in hopes of getting them into the program is only feeding the problem. It's not solving anything because then we have to come back here and we have to keep moving things around. We need to make sure it works for the people who are paying the bills.