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Black Lives Matter RI PAC hosts Rhode Island Senate District One special election debate
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 Black Lives Matter Rhode Island Political Action Committee (BLM RI PAC) hosted a Rhode Island Senate District 1 Debate last Wednesday, August 9, at the Smith Hill Library.
All the candidates in the race were present, including State Representative Nathan Biah (Democrat, District 3, Providence); political newcomer Michelle Rivera; Mario Mancebo, who has twice run for state Senate; Jake Bissaillon, who currently serves as the Chief of Staff for Senate President Dominick Ruggerio; and Niyoka Powell, second vice chair of the Rhode Island Republican Party.
The debate was moderated by BLM RI PAC President Harrison Tuttle.
You can watch the debate on the video below, or read the transcript. The transcript has been edited for clarity.
See all my Senate District 1 Special Election interviews here:
See my other Senate District One Special Election coverage here:
Harrison Tuttle: We'll start with introductions.
Jake Bissaillon: We're all here tonight, and this is a race, because of the passing of the late Senator Maryellen Goodwin, who served for more than three decades in the Rhode Island State Senate. I decided to run after her passing because I had worked quite literally hand in hand with her for some time up in the state senate, where I'm the chief of staff, on important issues, not only for her community but for the state of Rhode Island. During that time I also was able to purchase my first home right behind Newport Creamery, after renting for several years on Douglas Avenue. I graduated from Providence College in 2009 and I've come to call this area home. After Senator Goodwin's passing, I thought it would be appropriate, at this juncture in my life, to serve this important district and continue the important progress, namely on gun violence prevention and our housing crisis, and try to figure out what to do with our Providence Public Public Schools so we don't leave a whole generation of students behind.
Niyoka Powell: It is [beneficial] to the community to see who is available to represent them when November comes and then in January. I was born in Jamaica, moved to the United States when I was nine years old and lived in Connecticut with my parents. I moved to Rhode Island for college and never left. I went to Rhode Island College and Providence kind of sucked me in. Here I am, 18 years later, still living in Providence. I never left the district. It's become my home. We started a family here and it's been an amazing adventure.
I've worked in healthcare all my life. I've worked at Roger Williams Medical Center and Butler Hospital in the alcohol and drug addictions unit. I've worked in geriatrics and now I work in manufacturing as an occupational health nurse. I've helped out, throughout the years, in the city with different initiatives, from ... National Grid, all the way to being a founding member of Millennial RI and helping out the Haitian community by teaching English as a second language. Rhode Island is my home, Providence is my city. I feel that this is where we all need to make a mark for the next generation. It has been an amazing adventure and I hope to bring Providence back to the glamor that it once had, where children can be safe in their homes, on the streets, in schools, and be able to provide appropriate healthcare that is essential to our elderly and our families.
Mario Mancebo: I am originally from Cuba. As an immigrant that had to escape from Cuba, a communist country, I appreciate that you guys opened your heart and your door to get me here. I felt welcomed from the beginning. I went to Rhode Island College and Providence College and renewed my bachelor's degree here in the United States. I have a master’s in public administration and I have a master’s in education plus I am certified in different subjects. I taught in the Providence School Department for about 18 and a half years. I went to Central High School, George School, and Perry Middle School.
I've been all over the city and I learned from the get-go how people are struggling, how families are struggling, how students compete for clothing, for food, and how families in the city suffer from the lack of money and opportunity. As a teacher, you have to be a mentor, you have to be a parent, you have to be everything. I decided to work in the community from the beginning. I've been working in the community for about 25 years. I've been giving food, giving groceries, and giving housing. I work for the homeless, I work for minorities, I work with African-Americans, I work with Latinos, I work with white people that are also struggling in the community, trying to do their best to find housing, education, clothing, and food. I also opened the community pantry. It is tough to summarize my life. I don't have enough time to tell you who I am...
Nathan Biah: I'm currently the representative for District Three, where this library resides. I'm here today as a refugee, as a high school principal in Providence, and as a state representative. More than anything, I'm here as a proud resident of Smith Hill. My story is the Smith Hill story. When I first fled Liberia as a 19 years old man, this neighborhood welcomed me with open arms. My first job was on Smith Hill, at a bake shop. I woke up every morning at 2 am to walk from Duke Street to make sure everything was prepared at seven o'clock in the morning when the bakery is open. It was the first time I met Maryellen Goodwin, 32 years ago, when she walked in one morning and said, "Hey young man, how are you doing?"
We created that relationship 32 years ago, Maryellen and I. That was also when I started working at Earthen Vessel, so I am a proud Smith Hill resident. I'm running to go from state rep to state senator to bring diversity to our state government. We don't have diversity in our state government. As your state senator, I'll make sure diversity is in Rhode Island state government and make [a difference] in education, gun violence, and everything else.
Michelle Rivera: I'm not a polished politician. I'm a regular hardworking Rhode Islander just like every one of you. I'm running because I'm tired of seeing my neighbors struggling to get by. I too struggle to get by. I too struggle to pay my bills and I'm tired of electing the same officials who do not do what they can for us, who forget about us, and that's why I'm running.
I grew up in poverty. I faced homelessness as a teen after losing my father. I joined the military at age 17. I had one tour of duty in Afghanistan. I came back to Rhode Island, started at CCRI, then went to Rhode Island College. I ended up getting my master's in social work. I'm grateful that the GI Bill helped pay for it. I worked in residential and I worked in schools as a social worker. I worked at the Providence VA helping my fellow veterans. I am currently a passionate policy advocate advocating for those who have been forgotten - for the voiceless, for those who are not being heard. I am a product of public housing. I'm a product of public schools. I've lived over half my life in Chad Brown. That's where I met the late Senator Goodwin who was a huge inspiration to me.
Mine has been a life of public service, from the military to my job as a social worker. I work in a nonprofit and I want to help my community more than I already do. I hope that the community will see who I am and see why I'm the right candidate for this position.
Harrison Tuttle: Over the last few years, Rhode Island has continued to cut Medicaid from the state budget (in 2016 alone, we cut more than $70 million from the program). This has led to the closure of state hospitals, nursing homes, and other primary care providers. At the same time, co-pays for Medicaid recipients continue to increase. Will you fight against any budget cuts to Medicaid and advocate for its expansion in Rhode Island?
Michelle Rivera: I will fight against Medicaid cuts. I think we should be investing more in Medicaid and I think we should increase the Medicaid reimbursement rate that way we're able to retain staff at our hospitals and we stop hospital shutdowns because patients deserve quality care and they're not getting it right now. We have a lack of staff and the state of our hospitals, they need more funding, they need more funding. People deserve adequate care and they're not getting it with the current funding that they have. So we need to increase Medicaid funding and we need to alleviate the burden on the members of the community that these copays have. People should not be afraid to get sick or go into bankruptcy just because they got pregnant and had a baby. That's unacceptable. We need to do better.
Nathan Biah: I agree with what Michelle just alluded to. As a state rep, I have been fighting for this and these are things that I've voted on as a state rep. I've voted to continue to increase funding for Medicaid. Just last session, there was a bill sponsored by Representative Scott Slater where we compared the ratio of patients to care workers, those people that take care of our elderly within nursing homes. Those are things that I take pride in because before that you had maybe 10 seniors in our nursing homes to one CNA.
Those are things that I fought for. Making sure that we passed those bills at the State House, making sure that the ratio is comparable with everything else, and keep funding Medicaid for our seniors in the city and everyone else. Also, we dealt with the pharmaceutical companies regarding insulin, we made sure that we reduced the price of insulin.
Mario Mancebo: I'm 100% in favor of supporting Medicare. I'm against any cuts to Medicare and I believe that we need to support Medicare or Medicaid because we need money to support our seniors. If seniors go to the dentist, most of the time insurance doesn't cover what they need. A lot of people cannot afford it and then they come in with different issues because they cannot afford to pay the cost, like students, immigrants, and people that need cash support to be healthy to contribute to society. So I support a Medicaid increase, not a decrease because we have a lot of money in the states, we only have to allocate the money to the people that need that money here in the city where the poor people are.
Niyoka Powell: I think that where Medicaid is currently is the bottom of where we need to bring Medicaid. I believe that as a state we've taxed our constituents to oblivion whether it is with our property taxes or insurance. Insurance itself is high, you have high premiums and you're purchasing this through paychecks. The insurance companies are taking advantage When you apply for insurance, you are giving your money to a company that will support you if you get ill, not that you're planning to get ill, they should also be looking into wellness care. If you're allowing a deduction with wellness care, you'll decrease your bottom line with the cost of the illness care. We need to be preventative and more proactive with our healthcare and in doing so, I don't see where we can cut anymore because people are bleeding money left and right and it's not fair to the community, especially the underprivileged.
And this is the bottom line of where I would even go with what they're trying to do right now because we need to hold the insurance companies accountable for what they're doing to the people, not just the state legislators in bringing up policies that will support the consumers in healthcare. We've seen how covid devastated all of the hospitals and all of the nursing homes. So the last thing we want to do is add another burden onto families who have to bring their loved ones back home. I understand that burden because this country is not equipped to deal with in-home living or assisted living at home. So I wouldn't touch where it is right now. I would focus on the insurance companies. They have a liability to every single one of us to make sure that we are healthy and to make sure that we are covered if we get sick because nobody plans to get sick.
Jake Bissaillon: Certainly no to any Medicaid cuts. Since I joined the Senate in 2017 in a senior staff capacity, I've annually advised and helped leadership push back on any Medicaid cuts. You've seen funding for our hospitals go up as most recently as this past annual budget. We also, and this is a disappointing thing, wanted to ensure that a lot of our hospitals, just like housing, saw a large swath of those federal funds that came in during covid go to the workforce because one of the things that have put our workforce in crisis is our Medicaid reimbursement rates. By way of example, a Medicaid reimbursement for birth is around $4000 to $5,000 here in Rhode Island. Just across the border, that same procedure, that same delivery is eligible for $10,000 in Medicaid reimbursements. So what that does is it leads many doctors, nurses, and healthcare professionals to go and work in Massachusetts because they can get higher pay and that sort of thing.
So that's why we see our workforce in crisis. The other issue that I believe needs to be addressed in Medicaid, and we've seen large steps forward on this, is the types of services that are eligible for Medicaid should be on par with private insurance. During this past annual session, we removed a prohibition in terms of making reproductive healthcare services Medicaid eligible and I think that those are important steps forward for a large percentage of Rhode Islanders who live on Medicaid, around 30 to 40% of our population I believe is Medicaid eligible if I'm correct. And just one last thing. We've talked about the Safe Staffing Act in our nursing homes, which certainly helps those that are trying to work their way up the socioeconomic ladder as CNAs and that sort of thing. Representative Biah talked about it. Senator Goodwin was the prime sponsor of that act.
The Senate passed that in February of that year and every single day, I was on the phone with my best friend Representative Slater to make sure that bill passed because that act made sure that each patient in our nursing homes gets at least four hours of care a day. Things like that need to be on our books. We've heard from the industry they don't like it. It's exacerbating the workforce crisis. The most important thing that we can do is take care of our most vulnerable residents and those are individuals on Medicaid and individuals living in our nursing home.
Harrison Tuttle: In 2006, Rhode Island cut taxes for the rich (the second largest series of tax cuts in United States history). As a result, millionaires have been paying the same income tax rate as middle-class families for over a decade. Since then, we have lost over one billion dollars of tax revenue, leading to budget cuts in social programs that benefit our neighborhood. Do you support the repeal of these tax cuts for the wealthiest individuals in our community?
Niyoka Powell: I disagree with it. I'm not wealthy by any means. I live paycheck to paycheck like most of us do. The reason I'm saying that is because Rhode Island has the pattern of having corporations come in, take nice budgets, really nice cuts, really nice chunks out of our finances for our city, and then run away when that time is up. We need to invest in companies that want to invest in Rhode Island and Providence. I'm not saying you don't work for a living, I work for a living, and they work for a living in some ways, somehow they made the money that they made. Unfortunately, we didn't and I don't see reprimanding other people for their hard-earned dollars just for the sake of saying you're paying more taxes than I am or you're paying less taxes than I'm, we all will get there eventually. If we fix the system that's currently here, which is not invested in companies that are here to drain us, that's where I end.
Michelle Rivera: I support repealing the tax cuts for the rich. For far too long in Rhode Island the wealthy have been given privileges that normal people are not given and it's not fair. As you mentioned, we've lost $1 billion in revenue due to tax cuts and it's not just, “Oh, we shaved 1% or 2% off 40%.” They got reduced from their taxes, which puts them at 5.99% compared to the next bracket which is 3.75%. The lowest is 3.75% and the 3.75% class did not get a break. But those at 10%, who were making above $500k, did. And like I said, that resulted in $1 billion in lost revenue that could have gone to social programs. In our streets, people are struggling right now. They should not be paying more taxes than the wealthy. So I will fight tooth and nail to repeal the tax cuts for the rich. Repealing the tax cuts for the rich is part of the core of my platform because we need more equity when it comes to taxes.
Nathan Biah: I also support repealing the tax cuts for the rich. In regards to what Michelle just said, in Rhode Island, we need to invest in our local small businesses. Repealing the tax cuts within our state would be great for us, and in addition to that, going back to the first question regarding Medicaid, Medicare, our veterans, and mental health issues. As a high school principal - high school is a microcosm of the real society that we have. Repealing those tax cuts, that money can be used for things like mental health, gun violence, and on our streets helping our taxpayers. 44% of Providence's tax base is nonprofit organizations. Just recently the city council battled back and forth not to increase taxes for us within the city. Working people are struggling every day. So I agree with repealing the tax cuts for the wealthy in Rhode Island.
Mario Mancebo: I definitely will repeal the tax cuts in the state of Rhode Island. I think this is unfair to poor people and the poor community. You can see the difference between Newport and other cities, wherever the rich people live, compared to Providence, Central Falls, Pawtucket, or any other poor city in the state. Where ever people have that privilege, they have better housing, they have better services, they have better schools, and it's not fair. This is supposed to be equal and I not only will repeal the tax cuts, I will increase the taxes. I do believe that for too many years they had this privilege and I don't see how different they’ve made it.
We need more money for hospitals, we need more money for housing, and we need more money to eliminate homelessness in the state of Rhode Island. The number of people on the streets is overwhelming. I come from Cuba and I understand that it's a communist country and it's a poor country - but in America, the best country in the world, the wealthiest country in the world, it is unacceptable that we have too many homeless people and that we have people that go to bed without food. We have people crying because they don't have a place to sleep. We have students go to school and they don't have materials to learn. This is not correct. So yes, we need to increase taxes and cut all the tax cuts for the rich corporations.
Jake Bissaillon: Mario is right that more resources are needed for our public schools. One of the bills up at the assembly this year would've diverted those repealed tax cuts to more education funding and I thought that was an excellent policy suggestion. We gave those tax cuts in 2006 to be more competitive with Massachusetts, bringing our top-tier tax rate below Massachusetts. It's interesting to see what has happened here and what has happened in Massachusetts since then. Since then, Massachusetts has become a worldwide leader in economic development, thereby showing that it has very little to do with our highest tax rate or anything like that. So we need to repeal the tax cuts for the rich. We need more tax brackets, not fewer. We need higher tax brackets, not lower, and we better have a millionaires’ tax on the books because that is the only way that we're going to have resources for our children in public schools.
A few other things I just want to briefly mention. We need a more progressive tax structure, a less regressive one. Over the past several years, a lot of the bills that we've fought for in the assembly addressed regressive taxes. We phased out the car tax, which was the single most regressive tax on Providence's working families. Our tax rate on the value of your car was a regressive valuation structure. If you ever saw what your tax assessment was on your car - $35,000 for a five-year-old Honda Pilot - money you could never get back in exchange for your car. By phasing out that regressive tax we put more money back in the pockets of working families. You saw that again with small businesses this year in the tangible tax. A progressive income tax structure is necessary. It needs to be revisited. We have one now, but we can do a lot better job with it and still be economically competitive with Massachusetts.
Harrison Tuttle: In one of the lowest income districts in Rhode Island, how do you plan on addressing poverty if elected into the General Assembly? What specific policies would you support or propose to combat poverty in this district?
Mario Mancebo: If we have more money, we'll have more opportunities to invest in poor communities. We'll have more opportunities to support small businesses. We will have more opportunities to invest in housing, fix our streets, and have more security for our community. I will change a lot of the policies that we have in place right now. Wherever the money goes, they still have one formula. I don't remember exactly, but I know the way they distribute the money, most of it goes to Newport, Portsmouth, and all these places. I know that when I went to Providence College and I was studying for my master's, I knew that it was an unfair distribution of the money at the state level.
It's legal because the Senate voted for this kind of unfair distribution. We need to change the way we allocate money in the state. We need to take care of our poor community. We need to invest in our children. They are the future. If we don't do that, we'll be in trouble in the future. We compete with the rest of the world. Right now we're only thinking about, let's make Newport look good. Right now, Newport is one of the best cities in the United States. What happened in Providence? We are the capital city. We need to invest and change the policy that we have right now. We also revise, like Jacob said, all of them, not just one.
Jake Bissaillon: Just two quick things. At the outset, the folks that live year-round in Newport are not one of the richest communities we have in the state. The folks down there are struggling just like they are throughout many communities in our state. I don't think it is helpful to pit communities against one another. That said, we do have distressed communities in our state, one of which is Providence. One of the things that we did, as we emerged from the first phase of Covid in November of 2020, was to come back and pass a budget to make sure that we did not cut aid to distressed communities because it was so critical to making sure that our city could work to stabilize itself through that crisis.
The first thing we need to do is revisit the $15-an-hour minimum wage. The state is on a pathway to a $15-an-hour minimum wage. The sad reality is that $15 an hour is not what it was three years ago. The cost of living has gone up, bread has gone up, milk has gone up, eggs have gone up. The plight of working families has only gotten worse even though their wages have gone up. So we need to look at the minimum wage and that is something the Senate has always led on. We were the first to pass $15 an hour. We were the first to pass the annual increase in wages, oftentimes with Maryellen Goodwin as the co-sponsor.
The second thing I would like us to look at is how can we contain, maybe not limit, the cost of housing - before we get into home ownership options and increase the funding for pathways to home ownership. The other thing we absolutely must do is divert the large swaths of money that we have set aside to deal with our housing crisis, to direct build of public housing. We cannot afford to wait any longer for it to filter through the system. The government can get involved and I would be more than happy to quietly champion the idea because they've already been introduced at the State House.
Nathan Biah: The average income for district one residents is $37,000. Imagine that. Exactly what Jake said. When we go to the market, the price of milk has gone up and the price of everything has gone up. What hasn't gone up is wages.
As a State Rep, I have been working at the State House. The $15 minimum wage was decided a long time ago. We have to take a look at increasing that. Even making $20 per hour. Because one thing that is not increasing is wages, but every other thing around us is increasing. Increasing wages will help make sure that people can go to the market and purchase things safely and support their families.
Secondly, we must support small businesses within this district. We have tons of small businesses in this district that haven't been supported by the state. That is something I will look at as a next state senator, to start supporting our small businesses and our small minority-owned businesses within the district. For a small minority-owned business the criteria are different.
Those are some of the things I'm going to be looking at as the next senator to make sure that we have diverse small businesses and to start funding our small businesses. Then they'll be able to employ people within the community. That will increase the average income within Senate District One. Those are things that are near and dear to me - to increase the wages of small businesses.
Michelle Rivera: To address poverty, we need to take a multidisciplinary approach. A couple of these approaches, I am absolutely on board with. We need to increase the minimum wage. People are not earning living wages, not just in this district but throughout Rhode Island. We need to re-look at the education funding formula because education is the key out of poverty.
Housing. When I think of poverty, I think of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. We need housing, we need safety, we need food. Affordable housing is not affordable to the average Rhode Islander. We need public and low-income housing. That is how we're going to get more people housed. Not affordable housing. That just gives incentives and subsidies to large developers and out-state developers. We need public and low-income housing and we need it now. We must expand eligibility to some of these programs because the income limits are not working. If you fall outside these limits, you're making more than the requirements for specific programs like SNAP or LIHEAP. That does not mean you do not need the program. People who fall right outside those brackets are in dire need and struggling. We need to expand eligibility to these supportive services so that we can support people with housing, utilities, food, and education so that we can then attack poverty.
Niyoka Powell: I agree with you Michelle, on many levels, but what I think about, when we talk about poverty, and how Maslow's hierarchy of needs is essential to everyone, I think about the amount of money that goes into our nonprofits that all do the same thing. We're a city that loves to champion small businesses and not fund them appropriately or help them with the education they need to run appropriately. That being said, a lot of the nonprofits in the city do the same thing. If you want your city to run the best that it can, what is the problem with consolidating your company with another company to complete the same task with more people? We can then increase the minimum wage because now we've allocated some funds in a very concentrated area where everybody can get a piece of the pie. What is the issue with that?
The nonprofits are great because it shows that our community cares, but we don't need a small one over here and a small one over there that hardly gets any funding. And all are struggling for the same funding. The community organizations are great because there are a lot of free programs. Think about the Small Business Association and the Center for Women in Enterprise. There are so many different programs out there that are willing and federally funded, not state-funded, to get people the education they need to help them build their businesses and grow as a family. I come from a small business home. My dad is a master craftsman. He had a fifth-grade education and built a business himself. He had the education he needed and was guided, by the legislators, on how to do his business right. He's been in business for over 20 years and that is how I got to where I am today - because of hard work and not relying on anyone but my education.
Harrison Tuttle: Across the country, many states lack labor protections for law enforcement officers. Do you support the repeal of the Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights (LEOBOR) in Rhode Island? If not, why do you oppose its repeal?
Niyoka Powell: I think at the moment we have to ask our law enforcement officers that because from my discussions and conversations with them, most of them know what the Bill of Rights is. Most of them are good people and most of them, like myself, have that second legislative body if you want to call it that, that tells you whether you're doing a good job at your job or not. Being a nurse, I have an advisory board that I would have to sit in front of if something goes awry in my career as well. I don't want someone outside my profession telling me that we're going to revise this because you're just not equipped to make that decision as a nurse. I think that the career itself, especially since the pandemic, has become increasingly dangerous for them. These are people with families, these are people who go to work just like you and me, and the things that they have to deal with, it's unconscionable. I wanted to be a cop when I was young. My Dad was like, “Nope, not for you.” So I became a nurse instead. I would have that be an internal thing. I don't think we, as the community, need to touch it. I think that they need to come up with the right constable decision on what to do with LEOBOR.
Michelle Rivera: We need to repeal LEOBOR. Police officers, just like everybody else, need to be held accountable for the atrocities that they commit. I wouldn’t have been able to get away with anything that police officers in Rhode Island have been getting away with. In the state of Rhode Island, we've had an officer shoot fleeing teens and get away with it, just by getting on paid vacation. We've had police officers punch political rivals in the face and just away with it.
We've had police officers get accused of domestic violence and charged and just get put on paid leave. Police officers should be held to a higher standard than regular citizens. Instead, they are not being held accountable for the crimes they commit. They're being judged by a jury of their own police officers, and I don't have to be a police officer to know that shooting fleeing teens is wrong. So I am for repealing LEOBOR and we need to increase transparency and accountability.
Jake Bissaillon: LEOBOR is an immensely complicated issue. We have to start this discussion by recognizing that it is already currently state law. So while it's very easy to say we have to repeal LEOBOR, the reality of the situation is much more complicated because that would require passing a bill out of both chambers and then the governor signing it. So when the Senate passed a bill revising LEOBOR just two months ago, with overwhelming support, that took three years to get done. I was at the center of those negotiations and that bill would’ve made immense progress if it came to fruition because it did three things. One, it increased summary discipline, the period by which you can't invoke LEOBOR protections from two days unpaid leave to 12 days unpaid leave, which according to the law enforcement schedule is three weeks of unpaid time without any sort of appeal.
It also, and this was the hardest part to include, revised the panel to allow members of the public to participate. It wasn’t perfect by any means. It could have gone a lot farther. One of the things that you'll often see is chiefs disciplining officers for minor infractions. I truly believe that LEOBOR and some other things should not apply if a civilian initiates a complaint, particularly its use of force complaint. I think there's a lot of progress that can be made on the board, but we have to deal with the reality of the situation right now.
Mario Mancebo: I would send it for reform. The public is supposed to be safe. People are not supposed to be afraid of policemen and policemen have to pay consequences. I do not agree with Michelle saying that there has to be so high a standard. There are standards in every single profession. We have to treat [police officers] with respect. They have to take care of the population. That's why they are there and why we pay for them. I support reform.
Nathan Biah: I voted to reform LEOBOR on the House floor. Like every other institution, we need to look at it every one or two years, reform it, and keep moving forward. As an educator and principal, I look at educational materials for teachers. We keep reforming it, refining it, and making it better as we go along. Not repeal, but reform.
Harrison Tuttle: Do you support the state takeover of Providence Public Schools? Would you call it a success?
Nathan Biah: I've been an educator for 30 years. I taught at Classical High School, Mount Pleasant High School, Nathaniel Greene Middle School assistant principal, and Mount Pleasant assistant principal, and currently, I'm the principal of Dr. George Alvarez High School. Education is my passion because, without education, I wouldn't be sitting before you today. When it comes to charter schools, I support all public education. Regarding charter schools, I think we should have specific funding for charter schools, instead of taking funding away from public schools to go to charter schools. Charter schools should have their own funding, the same way public schools have their own funding formula. Also, charter schools should accept all students, like public schools; students with disabilities, students with IEPs, students with learning disabilities, and everything else. Public schools accept all of those students. Charter schools should also accept all of those students. When it comes to a choice of education as to where Black and brown students should go to school, charter, public, as long as it is a level playing field, I support all education institutions. This is my passion, this is what I've been doing for the last 30 years because without education our Black and brown students will not be successful within the state and city.
Michelle Rivera: I agree with what Representative Biah said. I believe that charter schools do pull away funding from public schools and they should have different funding formulas. I support equal access to education for all communities and choice.
Niyoka Powell: Well, I'm for school choice. Everybody knows that. But my first question is where do we fund charter schools and public schools? Public schools get our tax dollars, almost $17,000 per student in Providence. If we're going to have another tax formula for the charter schools, where's that money coming from? Because that's been taxed enough. I think the tax dollars need to follow the student. They need to be able to go to a school of their choice. We have too many administrators in the Providence School system and we see how that works out. And our schools are completely failing. I mean 42%, 32% - who would send their child there? I wouldn't. I work tooth and nail, day and night, to make sure our child gets a proper education.
I can't afford it, but I make sure I can. It's called sacrifice. And the most important thing for my child is sacrificing so that she can get the best education possible. If Providence cannot provide that, I need another option. You need another option. And you shouldn't just be stuck in Providence to get that education because clearly, the schools aren't doing it. We're in this niche pocket of craziness when it comes to the schools. You need to give parents another option. You need to give some kind of solace with all the taxes and everything else. I mean, we already aren't getting enough in our paychecks to begin with. So give us that one break. Give us the ability to give our children another step. That's all.
Mario Mancebo: I support the expansion of charter schools, but some charter schools are very successful and some charter schools are not. So while I support expansion I will also say that if they're not successful and they don't do what they say, they're supposed to be suspended and eliminated. They're supposed to be accountable, right? I will support them, but we have to keep supervising them because a lot of them are not doing any different at all. I support education choice as a teacher and as an administrator because I have a master's in administration to be a principal, but I decided not to do that right now.
I believe that charter schools are good when they do what they're supposed to be doing. In Rhode Island a lot of them that are failing. They're not doing what they're supposed to be doing. But you are right. It's the same money. The money is supposed to follow the student. We don't have any more money, but if we increase the rich people's taxes, we have more money for our children. That's why we need to increase and repeal the tax cuts for the rich and bring more money here. We can have better schools, we can have better education, computers, and materials.
Jake Bissaillon: There's an old Chinese proverb that says, “May you be born in perilous times” and like it or not, the next Senator elected from this district will be thrown into perilous times as it relates to education in our city. There was no bigger champion for Providence Public Schools at the State House and of the Providence Teachers Union than Maryellen Goodwin. That is irrefutable. The current expansion plan for our charter schools would call for 44% of the seats in this city to be publicly funded. That is dangerously close to a majority of the kids in our city going to charter schools and thereby a tipping point for a whole generation of students. A core function of government is to provide strong public education.
Both of my parents are public school teachers. The jobs of our public school teachers and the jobs of our police officers have changed more over the last three decades than probably any other two professions. They're called upon to be guidance counselors, mental health counselors at times, and parents. Before I pick charter or public, I'm going to pick teachers and give our teachers the resources they need to provide strong 21st-century classrooms. I cannot support any expansion of charter schools beyond that which is already called for and has been approved by the Board of Education, which to me is a very distressing number that lingers very close to 50% because if we lose that core function of government, what is next? And if we lose that focus and that fierce urgency of now to improve Providence Public Schools, you are pretty much saying, to at least half a generation of children, you are a lost generation because, well, you better be lucky enough to have won the charter school lottery. We need an unqualified champion of public education in the city and the State Senate and my mom will put me a time out if that's not me.
Harrison Tuttle: Solitary confinement has been banned and deemed inhumane by multiple countries in the United Nations. Legislation to end solitary confinement in Rhode Island has been proposed. Where do you stand on this issue, and how would you vote on such legislation?
Michelle Rivera: I would support Representative Leonela Felix’s (Democrat, District 61, Pawtucket) and Senator Jonathan Acosta’s (Democrat, District 16, Central Falls) legislation on solitary confinement. Solitary confinement is inhumane. I'm a social worker. You don't have to be a social worker to know what it does to someone mentally to know that it's torture. When I think of solitary confinement, I think back to the isolation that I felt in Afghanistan being completely isolated from the news around you, from your family, from your loved ones. It is inhumane. I do not agree with solitary confinement.
Nathan Biah: I was the cosponsor on both of those bills and also on the House floor. My record speaks for itself. I'm a hundred percent in support of that.
Mario Mancebo: I support the bill that goes against solitary confinement, and I'll go further than that. I will also be sure that in Rhode Island, people don't get abused because they're in the prison population. We have a lot of abuse in Rhode Island and that can be from food, clothing, and more than that. People are paying already. If they are already paying for the crime, they're not supposed to be abused. They're supposed to be treated with respect. I will work to liberate all the people that are in jail unjustly. Remember, marijuana was illegal, right? We still have people in jail for that issue that are supposed to be liberated. We have a lot of Latinos in that population, in jail for nothing. We have to reform the system in Rhode Island. Not only that, we have to reform the entire system and I will work for that.
Niyoka Powell: I would support that bill. Being a mental health worker at Butler Hospital, the utilization of what we call a quiet room or a QR was a doctor's order. You had to have been extremely dangerous to yourself or somebody else on the unit to go into the QR and we had to check on you every 15 minutes. Someone was sitting in the anteroom with you so that you don't harm yourself. And the order has to be rewritten hourly. So to have someone in solitary confinement, especially in a situation where they're most likely destitute, where they're most likely mentally unstable at that point, that's torture. That's torture.
Jake Bissaillon: I think anytime, and Michelle hit the nail on the head with this, talking about her own lived experience. Isolation, whether we're talking about our seniors, our inmates, or those that serve overseas, is inhumane and comes at the cost of destabilizing one’s mental health. I think we have made leaps and bounds to deal with the prison industrial complex here in Rhode Island. One of the first things I was tasked with when I was promoted to legal counsel to the Senate Majority Leader was dealing with justice reinvestment, which was a package of bills sponsored by Senator Michael McCaffery that dealt with probation and parole reform. That has reduced our prison population, reduced recidivism, and reduced the number of meaningless parole and probation offenses that send people back into the cycle of recidivism.
We also have to look at the crimes that put people in prison. For the last three years, I've been fighting tooth and nail, with Senator Acosta, to redefine what a felony is here in the state of Rhode Island. And on that last point, we talked about the war on drugs and its disproportionate impact on communities of color. I was very proud to draft the cannabis legalization bill that became law in the state of Rhode Island. Two key things were put in there that were so important. One was automatic expungement that was added after a lot of advocacy from the community, which was truly heard because it wasn't in the first draft. And the last thing was ensuring that these licenses were not just given out to big corporations, but reserving a portion of these licenses for workers’ co-ops and also reserving a portion of these licenses for qualified applicants. Meaning that if you came from a community that had been impacted by the war on drugs you can get a license, so it wasn't just individuals coming in from out of state pursuing these licenses.
I'm immensely proud of that legislation. I wrote it with my own hands. It's been called the most progressive cannabis legalization legislation in the country. That's how I feel about all justice-related issues.
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?
Mario Mancebo: We have to be clear about the harassment and the abuse the community has been receiving in the State of Rhode Island for years. They have to be protected like the entire city and they must have an equal right to opportunity, loans, and housing. I will create legislation as a Senator to protect the LGBTQ community statewide because right now, believe it or not, we have a lot of suicide. We have a lot of issues in the schools. A lot of times parents don't know what's going on with their children because they don't want to talk about it. They feel like they will be discriminated against by their family and friends. Sometimes the teacher doesn't know what to do. We have to work a lot harder to protect our children. You never know at what age they will feel that they belong to this particular community. So we have to start from the beginning, from the school, and then to the state level to be sure that we are not discriminating against anybody because they're part of our family, they're part of our community, they are like everybody else. That's what I would do. Analyze every single piece of legislation and approve and create legislation that protects the community statewide.
Jake Bissaillon: Never let it see the light of day. There were several anti-trans bills introduced in the Senate this year. None of them received a hearing. A lot of them were in the Senate Education Committee. One of the roles of my job as chief of staff is to advise on what bills get a hearing. I talked with the chair of that committee, Senator Sandra Cano, and we just thought, “No, no, don't even give it a hearing. Don't give hate any safe harbor.”
Unfortunately, because of our Supreme Court, what we've seen is that culture wars will begin with fights in state legislatures across the country, so it's more important than ever that you know where your state senators stand when it comes to rights that we have fought for over the years, that finally got on the books, in some instances, five years ago and others 10 years ago and others, I'm talking about Planned Parenthood v Casey more than 30 years ago. And when you talk about electing someone who's going up to that building now, you must know where they stand. I will give hate no harbor.
Nathan Biah: As Jake just alluded to, it's important now to know exactly where your State Senator stands. The next person is going to replace the beacon for Smith Hill. As a high school principal, exactly three years ago, I was the only principal in the City of Providence that created a club for the LGBTQ community at my high school. After school we had numerous meetings and it was a safe place for them and they have a hundred percent support. We had a State of Rhode Island flag, the city flag, the United States of America flag and we had the LGBTQ flag in front of the school. Those kids felt that they were part of our community. I will support diverse communities in all of district one. It doesn't matter who you are, your race, your color, your religion, - as your next senator, you will have my full support. We shouldn't discriminate against anyone based on who they are. This is exactly what your next state senator stands for.
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.
Michelle Rivera: I'm in full support of the LGBTQ+ community. I believe we should codify their rights in our state constitution so they have the same access to support services and protections that any Rhode Islander has. We need to unite and fight against hate. I remember when I was a social work intern at Central Falls School District advocating for the first gender-neutral bathroom in the school district and writing that policy. That was very important to me because I believe you should have a safe place to use the bathroom. I believe that it should be codified in our state constitution because we should leave no margin for marginalization. The community faces way too much. We need to spread love, not hate.