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Exclusive Interview: State Senator Sandra Cano is running for Congress
"As Chair of the Education Committee, I said to the Senate President that this type of hate doesn't belong in the Senate..."
I'll be interviewing as many candidates as I can ahead of the special election to fill the House seat vacated by David Cicilline. My second interview is with State Senator Sandra Cano (Democrat, District 8, Pawtucket). In eight elections over her political career, Cano has always been the top vote-getter.
We conducted the interview in person, in Central Falls’ Jenks Park.
See my other Congressional District One race interviews here:
See my other articles on the Congressional District One race interviews here:
Steve Ahlquist: My first question is easy. Why you and why this job?
Sandra Cano: I have a passion to help people. That is one of the reasons I do this. Public service is the way I get to contribute to the country that allowed me and my family to have a safe home when we came from Colombia under political asylum. That being said, the why is that I believe that representation matters. I bring a unique perspective to the race. Not only have I served at every level of public office, starting with the School Committee, to the City Council and now State Senate, doing legislative work throughout - I believe that it's important to have someone that is from the community, for the community, and understands the struggles of the community, especially the constituents of Congressional District One.
I am a mother of a working family that depends on having a job to pay the bills, so I am in the shoes of many constituents. I want to bring my strong voice to Congress so I can advocate for Rhode Islanders the same way that I have been advocating at the local and state level. I have a passion to help. I have a passion to create change through policy, and most importantly, I want to represent and be a voice for people that don't have a voice. I want Rhode Island well represented, just as Congressman Cicilline did, in Washington D.C.
Steve Ahlquist: I know there are dozens, but what are the top two or three policy issues that concern you?
Sandra Cano: There are a lot of platform policies that I have put together with my team, but the thing that most affects the community is making sure that we stabilize the economy. Working families need the opportunity to have jobs that are stable and bring food to the table. Inflation, rising interest rates, and the utilities being so unstable put families at risk of never owning a house.
I want to make sure that voters have a strong voice in Washington that understands the impact of policy and the impact of governing for the economy. I will put a lot of effort into having that strong voice so we can not only continue bringing in resources for the social programs that we need, and most families depend on in our state, but also make sure that we pass meaningful legislation that is going to help people. I will make sure that our early educators are properly compensated so we have a stable economy and our families can go to work.
Also extremely important is the constituent services work that Congressman Cicilline did. I pledge to not only be active, but accessible, to be there for the community and the constituents of Congressional District One.
I will continue advocating for social security, protections to Medicare, and helping children access medical care, especially after the pandemic. That is one area we need to concentrate on.
One of the things I have done, very intentionally throughout my time in the different public roles that I have served in, is continued investment in education. Education goes a long way because it's an equalizer that provides opportunity for our youth. Good education changes the way families look at our state. If we have a good education system, more families are going to choose Rhode Island to be a place for them to live. Because I have children myself, we need to be conscientious and have a robust educational system where we care for our future generations.
Housing is an issue that matters to Rhode Islanders and we've been working very hard in the General Assembly to have investments in housing to make sure that we are proactive about housing policies, so the housing crisis in Rhode Island is stabilized.
Then there's the constant fight for a woman's right to choose. I have a strong voice in the General Assembly and I am one of the co-sponsors of the EACA [Equality in Abortion Act] legislation. Our autonomy as women is at risk and under attack, right now. I have lived experience that I will bring to Washington.
I have lived through the fear of gang violence when living in Colombia. My dad was shot in a civil conflict when I was seven years old. He was just a person waiting for me at the bus stop when I was coming home from school. There was a civil conflict, a civil war, in the street. My dad had a bullet hit him and that impacted my life very heavily and my family's life directly. A lot of Colombians have lived through this fear. I know firsthand the importance of having gun safety laws and I know the suffering that comes without them. I want to pass bans on assault weapons.
I want to do everything possible to protect our communities so they have an opportunity to feel safe in the places where we live, and safe in our schools. Our children should be able to go to a place where they can learn and enjoy themselves and we should not have parents fearful of sending their kids to school. We should not be afraid of having fun at a parade or at celebrations of Pride and diversity. We are living in an epidemic of gun violence. My friends are telling me they're not going to a parade because "Who knows what's going to happen?" I carry the voice of the community very heavily. I want to make sure I continue to be a strong voice in the federal government and advocate for the things that our community needs.
Steve Ahlquist: That was like six things! I want to go roll back a little bit. You said something about helping teachers and childcare workers get paid properly. One thing that occurs to me is that a lot of the most important work in society, like teaching, elder care, childcare, and nursing, is some of the lowest paid work. I think it's because this work tends to fall on women and women of color, because, and these are my words, not yours, a white patriarchal system is prioritizing white patriarchs. How do you break through that in Congress? How do you make the case that women in these fields are deserving of living wages that allow them to raise their kids, in not only subsistence, but even in luxury?
Sandra Cano: Steve, I have a very strong record of being the voice of women at the state level. If you see my track record, I have been the lead sponsor of the Early Educator Investment Act, committing the state to making sure that childcare workers have parity with our pre-K teachers, because we know that these are the people taking care of our precious kids. We want to take care of them the way they took care of us during the pandemic, and even before that. The Senate, if you look at my track record, has passed the bill for three years. It hasn't gotten to the finish light on the House side, but it continues to be a priority for the Senate and a priority for me.
You also mentioned childcare. We are working with advocates and coalitions at the state level to make sure that childcare is at the front of our policy priorities. This means understanding the personal stories. I am a mom myself, and I understand how difficult and critical it is for us to have access to affordable, high quality childcare. Our childcare staff members sometimes don't have the wages to pay for childcare for their kids, or they’re leaving the job because they're not able to afford their own childcare. It's better for them to be at home and get assistance than to work supporting other families. This year we were able to pass childcare for childcare workers, because it's important for us to retain the childcare that we have, and make sure that their kids are also being taken care of. We haven't been diligent in the country about changing the childcare assistance program rates.
Some people that are barely making minimum wage are sometimes ineligible for assistance from our childcare assistance programs. We need to have, at the federal level, someone that not only understands, but has done the work at the state level, knows the stories firsthand, and is a mom that has lived through those challenges. Our country, our economy, and our future generations are going to be better when we invest in care providers and in the children and the families that need some support.
Steve Ahlquist: Families that need to build generational wealth...
Sandra Cano: Correct. And then there's the healthcare professionals you mentioned. I have done the work with a lot of the healthcare professionals here. I voted to support them and I have passed meaningful legislation to make sure that independent providers get a boost in wages. It also provided more accessibility for people to get home care, making sure that we merge those systems at the state level. We just passed the legislation. I'm very happy that it's going to become law in the next few days. People in the community advocating, telling their stories, is what it's going to take to do this at the federal level. Of course, I need to convince my colleagues, and of course it's going to be the work every day, but I have the passion and I have the intention to do it and I will continue having that strong voice.
Steve Ahlquist: You mentioned guns and an assault weapon ban. We haven't been able to do that here in Rhode Island. I know the Senate President believes that an assault weapon ban should be done on a national level, rejecting state action. What are your thoughts on that? You're one of the sponsors of the assault weapons bill. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Sandra Cano: A collaborative effort has been essential to making sure that we passed some of the gun laws that we’ve passed in the last few years to make sure that our communities are safe. But for the assault weapon ban, we need to continue bringing the stories, the coalitions, the advocates. I will continue to be a champion in the Senate that has carried that legislation for a long time. I have been a co-sponsor of Senator Miller's assault weapon ban legislation since I got into the Senate. We need support in the Judiciary Committee to make sure it passes to the floor. That is the first step. I know that the chair of the Judicial Committee, who I have a great relationship with and I think does an amazing job, is already working very hard on a strategy to do that. [Note: Senator Dawn Euer is the Cahir of the Senate Judiciary Committee.]
The voice from the senators, to make sure that leadership knows the importance of passing an assault weapon ban is there every single day. It takes time and coalitions and people gathering together, advocating for this type of legislation. It's not for lack of effort. It's simply a lack of support within the Judiciary Committee. I think we are closer every year to getting that done. I would encourage advocates and community members that had been at the front run of this issue to continue the fight along with General Assembly members. If I'm elected into Congress, I pledge to continue having that strong voice and being a champion for gun safety because that is something that I have lived experience of and I know the suffering. I want to make sure that voice is strong at the federal level.
Steve Ahlquist: It will probably be harder at the federal level than in the State Senate.
Sandra Cano: Of course. It's going to be difficult. That's why I think local movements, grassroots efforts, really matter.
Steve Ahlquist: Another thing that didn't happen this year in the General Assembly was the payday loan bill. It passed in the House, but not the Senate. Three years ago it passed in the Senate but not the House. For 13 years people have been working on this. How do we do to get this under control? Payday loans are here in Central Falls, extracting millions of dollars from our low-income communities.
Sandra Cano: Steve, if anyone knows the impacts of the lack of action on payday loans at the state level for families of color and marginalized communities, it is me. I worked for a credit union for 13 years and my role at the credit union was to develop a program to replace payday loans.
My role at the credit union was to be in the community, creating partnerships and looking at ways to close the gaps for our minority, marginalized communities, the underserved communities, and provide access to financial services. One of the things that I found out early on, being an assistant vice president of community development at the credit union, was that payday lending was ripping off families and getting them into a cycle of poverty. There were families that were coming to me and it was heartbreaking to see up to 360% interest charged for a loan of $500. They would never be able to pay back if we didn't give them an alternative. One of the things the credit union did, under the leadership of community development, which was my department, and in partnerships with advocacy organizations, was to create an alternative to payday loans.
With that we did a suite of financial products because one of the challenges in these communities is that they don't have access to financial services because they may have owed a bank in the past. So we changed the rules. We said, “If it wasn't fraud, we don't care what that individual owed the bank, because we are going to give them a second chance. It's going to be a new beginning.” And that's what we did. An alternative payday lending loan and a checking account is a new beginning. Then we make sure that they get out of that cycle of poverty and out of that payday lending cycle by teaching them financial literacy so they don't go back.
We provided the alternative loan and then we did it two more times. It was three times that the person was qualified to do it because the goal was to take them out of that cycle. We were able to start building their savings and create credit because throughout that program they needed to check in with someone like me for coaching and financial literacy opportunities. That is why this all ties together. That is why, when I got into the General Assembly, my number one priority was financial literacy. We passed financial literacy to prevent future generations from having this debt and from there payday lending was the second.
When I got to the Senate Senator Metts was the payday loan reform sponsor and I sponsored the legislation only in the last two years because it was a conflict for me. I was employed at the credit union. It was a direct conflict because I created a program for an alternative to payday loans. I wanted to make sure that I was very careful about that.
Steve Ahlquist: I don't think it was heard in a Senate committee this year.
Sandra Cano: I know. It was really sad. I co-sponsored Senator Quesada's bill for the last two years. I've been supportive of the coalition. I gave them ideas. I gave them the opportunity to have the knowledge of what I created as a program and alternatives. There were some arguments that said, “If we do this, some people are going to lose their jobs at the pawn shop.” That is not the case because these lenders could still charge 36% interest, but not 360%. It's a lot of excuses that affect our most vulnerable communities that don't have a voice.
Steve Ahlquist: Staying on economic issues. I wrote a piece, after talking to some economists, about how the minimum wage in Rhode Island went down this year because the increase wasn't enough to outpace inflation. The minimum wage is going up in Rhode Island, but not nearly fast enough. By the time we get to $15 - Let's face it, $15 is already not nearly enough. And on a national level, the minimum wage is $7.25, which is unbelievable..
Sandra Cano: There is a twofold strategy to get to a compromise on minimum wage. The hurdle, or the pushback, comes from small business owners. We are not talking about the largest companies, like McDonald's and Walmart, we're talking about the mom and pop business owners that are struggling because of inflation. People are not spending the dollars they used to. We need data to show us at how to support small businesses with aid for mom and pops that are the back bones of communities like Central Falls or Pawtucket. We should be talking about them very differently from the chain stores that have the power to pay their workers more.
We need to find a way to have a collaborative effort and sit down at the table and work with both sides, and with the labor community. Being a working family myself, I understand that it is just not reasonable to live on a $7.25 an hour salary. I have seen small businesses support legislation, such as childcare, when at the beginning they wouldn't have, because they see that it is something that we can work together on. I always welcome collaboration. It's more powerful to have everyone on the table, even if there's disagreement because we need to find common ground.
At the federal level, we need to start finding that common ground. Even if I disagree on policy, I always respect you as a person. That is the way you change perception and sometimes change people to actually support policies that otherwise they wouldn't. You get to understand where you're coming from. What is the story behind that? Why are you believing that way? If we are doing policy based only on the beliefs we have, we lose the support and we are not getting what we intend for the community.
Steve Ahlquist: Compromise is an important part of the American system, but it's hard when we talk about people working in poverty..
Sandra Cano: Compromise, but without putting aside your values. I will never compromise my values and beliefs. I will find common ground so we can move the needle. We need to have a balance because otherwise it will just not happen. We will continue to fight, but will not be successful.
Steve Ahlquist: I'm going to step out of economics for a bit. The climate emergency is the end of the world, basically. You have children. I have a granddaughter now. They're going to be growing up in a Mad Max dystopia if we're not careful. What do we do?
Sandra Cano: I think the State of Rhode Island has started to do what has been long overdue and legislators are vocal about making sure that we have action on climate. I know firsthand, being from a community of color, that environmental justice needs to be prioritized. Early on I found that the best way for my community to be involved was to gather and make them understand that they have a voice loud enough to make policymakers listen to them.
Before I was in politics, I was working for the Providence After School Alliance and I was in charge of the AmericaCorps program and we did a day of service. With some friends I created the first ever Earth Day in the City of Central Falls. We did cleanups and brought community pride to our city. At that time there was one councilman, James Diossa, who was my friend, and he was the only one from government that supported us. [James Diossa, Rhode Island’s General Treasurer, is Cano's partner.]
We went down the street and knocked on the doors of small businesses and asked, “Could you donate to our Earth Day cleanup? We're going to meet here at Jenks Park and cleanup. Can you commit to clean up the sidewalk in front of your business?”
It was a prideful event. It was an opportunity for parents and kids to clean up the city and begin to understand that we will live better if we take care of our Earth together. But that is not the end. We need to continue organizing. We need to pass the Environmental Justice Act. We passed it in Senate, it didn't pass in the House. It's frustrating.
We also need initiatives to integrate the blue and green economies. When building our schools we need to make sure they are safe and sustainable, that they have solar panels and water fountains, that we are incentivize recycling, and promoting climate literacy at schools.
It starts with community efforts which translate into jobs and investments in the green and blue economy. We don't have enough time. The urgency is right now - we have a crisis. Have you seen the Blackstone River? It was so dead and full of trash. Then cleanups started happening and it's getting better all the time.
Steve Ahlquist: It may even be swimmable towards the end of my life.
Sandra Cano: What I'm trying to say is that it takes being in the grassroots and having a holistic way with policy, but also jobs and all of us working together. It was great that we passed the Act on Climate and that we had the unions involved at the table with the environmental groups. That collaboration was a big deal. We need to celebrate that and make sure that that continues to happen at the federal level. I will carry that voice with passion because I've already seen it at a small scale. We need to continue having that voice every day. It's not perfect, but we’re getting there.
Steve Ahlquist: Let’s talk about national policy. Should we be supporting Ukraine in their war with Russia?
Sandra Cano: I am in favor of supporting Ukraine. Coming from Columbia, I know that aid from the United States is very important to stabilize the crisis. Ukraine needs support. I will make sure, when I am in Congress, that I look at the amount of support we are sending to Ukraine and also the aid that is needed to take care of our families here. I am in favor of supporting Ukraine but I always listen to my heart of economics when I make decisions. That's why I've been part of the Senate Finance Committee for so long. We need to be responsible with the investments that are appropriated - choosing what to prioritize is going to make more impact.
Steve Ahlquist: Israel is suffering from right win populism, and under former Congressperson David Cicilline, enjoyed strong support from the United States. What are your thoughts on Israel and Palestine?
Sandra Cano: It's a very fluid situation and every day I'm learning more about it. I visited Israel with a group called the American Council of Young Political Leaders in my first year in the Senate. I was able to go to Egypt, Israel and the Palestinian territories. I was able to see a fluid situation and learn from the different perspectives.
I support a two state solution, without compromising human rights. We need to always protect human rights.
Steve Ahlquist: Let me ask about the attacks we're seeing nationally and locally on trans kids and trans rights. What are your thoughts on that?
Sandra Cano: We need someone with the leadership skills to stand up when things are wrong. As Chair of the Senate Education Committee, it was very scary that we had Senators introducing legislation to attack the rights of the LGBTQ+ community. That's why leadership matters. As Chair of the Education Committee, I said to the Senate President that this type of hate doesn't belong in the Senate and I'm not going to hear any of those bills in the Education Committee, and that was honored. That legislation was not heard in the Education Committee and that was intentional. It was because I decided it has no place in our legislative system.
Steve Ahlquist: Just for my own curiosity, how does that go over behind the scenes? The senator that introduced that legislation must be angry that you refused to hear their bill.
Sandra Cano: I'm sorry, but in my committee, I'm not going to allow that type of hatred in front of me. It is something you have to stand up for it if you believe in it. I will continue doing that at the national level. I am very intentional about this. I'm proud to have a diverse campaign that uplifts and celebrates the contributions and the lives of the LGBTQ+ community.
Steve Ahlquist: I've seen that.
Sandra Cano: I will continue to do that because that's who I am and what I believe. Love is love. We say gay and say it proudly. Our kids should live in a society that celebrates diversity regardless of where you come from - your race, your background, your socioeconomic status, your identity. That’s going to make us all better in the end. I will continue carrying those beliefs with me and be a voice for supporting the people.
Steve Ahlquist: What does immigration reform look like, because I don't know that there's a clear idea in Washington about what that even means.
Sandra Cano: I went through the process myself and it was very painful because I came here not because I wanted to, I came here because I was forced to. I came here under political asylum. That doesn't mean I came here and I had my papers when I arrived. That means that I came here and I was welcomed into into a process. I was 16 years old when the process started, and it took seven years.
Steve Ahlquist: You went through all of high school and most of college before becoming a citizen.
Sandra Cano: Correct. And the impact on me and my family was felt every day. I want to change perceptions with my story. I came here and we applied for the political asylum process. We had a working permit. But with that working permit, we couldn't drive. We were undocumented, but we also weren't undocumented, right? We were in limbo. I was a resident of Rhode Island, but I had to pay out of state tuition. That's why, full circle, when I became a legislator, I advocated for in-state tuition for kids like me and I became the Senator that passed in-state tuition for students like me.
Steve Ahlquist: That was important.
Sandra Cano: That was very important. Not only that, but understand that my parents and I paid taxes every year and we were not able to get benefits. Zero. That is a misconception of some people out there.
It is my duty to stand up and defend my community and my family that came here to work hard, are grateful and do things the right way. I didn't have a pathway that was quick and ready to go. That's not how it works.
At the national level, we need to take care of the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipients first. They have some support, but there’s no pathway. These are kids that came here that like me, didn't choose to. They only know the United States as a home. That's the only home they know. They are American. They are as American as anyone. They go through our public system. They work hard and then they're not able to stay in a job. They're not able to contribute back to the country that they love. They have to do work they don't want to because they have to survive. It's a tough reality.
We need to take care of the DACA recipients first, then we need to create a pathway to citizenship that is straightforward and ready to go. We've done little things. President Biden did a resolution to make sure that DACA recipients are able to buy into health insurance, because they didn't even have health insurance options, which is unbelievable. I supported that resolution at the national level. I was a sponsor of that resolution with the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators.
Then, broader immigration reform needs to happen for the people that are already here - people who are already paying taxes - the people that are already waiting for an opportunity to do it through a process. What happens now is that people are put in boxes and they are asked, “I don't understand why they don't become legal.” Believe me, if they could, they would. They're in fear every day. They're working, by the way, the jobs that some Americans don't want to do.
I believe there is a crisis at the border. It's a crisis that needs to be taken care of, but we should never turn back political refugees. That's not what our country is. The United States was born to support refugees. I'm going to Congress with my experiences, a strong voice, and a set policies that are ready to go. I know it it is going to take years, but my voice, supporting my community, is going to be strong because I went through it. I know what immigration is, and I know how unfair our community is treated sometimes.
Steve Ahlquist: Last question: Why should people vote for Sandra Cano?
Sandra Cano: I'm the only candidate in this race that has a track record of being effective about policy and legislation, working hard to build coalitions across the district. I am the only candidate that has won eight elections as a top vote getter, including the 2020 Biden Delegate in CD1 with 27,000 votes.
I'm the only candidate that has not only lived experience, but democratic values, a track record, passion, and knows how to get things done. I am hopeful that Congressional District One residents give me the opportunity to continue doing the work for them because I'm doing this work for the country, I want to say thank you for allowing me and my family to have an opportunity to succeed. They have provided me the American dream. And my way to say thank you is to contribute back, through public service.
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