Discover more from Steve Ahlquist
Lieutenant Governor Sabina Matos is running for Congress
"We have to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill that will allow the more than 11 million individuals that are undocumented in this country to find a path to legalization.
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 ninth interview is with Rhode Island Lieutenant Governor Sabina Matos.
We interviewed at her campaign headquarters on North Main Street in Providence. The interview has been edited for clarity, but not brevity.
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 to everybody so far has been, Why you and why this job?
Sabina Matos: When we heard the news of Congressman David Cicilline resigning, it was very surprising and a lot of thoughts came to my head. I did not decide to run right away. I took some time to think about it. The more I thought about it, I understood that this is an opportunity to send someone to Washington that has a life experience that is reflective of Rhode Islanders.
I came to this country when I was 20 years old. I learned English after working in the jewelry factories, in the evening time, going to the International Institute to take English classes. Then I went to Rhode Island College, and while I was at Rhode Island College, I started working a part-time job at Citizens Bank, working the Hope Street branch on the east side as a bank teller. I used to work the drive-through window. There were a lot of Cape Verdeans in the area. They used to think that I was Cape Verdean and they used to come to me speaking Creole and were surprised when I couldn't understand.
After that, I went to work at the call center for Citizens Bank. I worked different shifts to accommodate my education. I was able to participate in my community's neighborhood associations. I was able to join the board of Olyneyville Housing [now One Neighborhood Builders], which builds affordable housing. Those experiences, of being an everyday Rhode Islander are that kind of voice needed in Washington. Besides that, when you add my experience as an elected official for more than 12 years now, starting first at the local level in the Providence City Council, being president of Providence City Council, and then being lieutenant governor for more than two years. Those steps have prepared me to go to Washington, represent Rhode Island, and be a strong voice for Rhode Island on day one.
Steve Ahlquist: Citizens Bank used to be our bank, and I've lived on the east side for 26 years or so, so it's quite possible I went to you as a customer.
Sabina Matos: I remember you from that time.
Steve Ahlquist: I had a comic book store.
Sabina Matos: Yeah, I remember.
Steve Ahlquist: That is so that so crazy.
Sabina Matos: So Rhode Island.
Steve Ahlquist: Okay. So in your opinion, what are the biggest problems and or opportunities facing Rhode Island right now?
Sabina Matos: We have a lot of challenges, but at the same time, we have a lot of opportunities. It's no secret that housing has been at the forefront of the work I have been doing as an elected official at the local level, and also as lieutenant governor. I believe that in Rhode Island, almost every problem can be traced back to housing, the lack of housing, and the lack of affordable housing. In the State of Rhode Island, we have spent decades not investing enough into building houses, not only affordable housing but housing at all income levels. We're paying the consequences of not being proactive or planning when it comes to our housing needs. Housing is at the top for me when it comes to the challenges facing Rhode Islanders.
In Rhode Island, but also nationwide, we see an increase in homelessness and we have to do better. We have to find ways to provide resources at the local level. Local government has to do more to prevent homelessness. When I tried to help families that were being displaced, whether they were victims of a fire or the city of Providence condemned a property, there are not enough options available to help families. One of the most frustrating things for me, while I was on the Providence City Council, was trying to help a family find a place to stay after the city condemned a property. And this was a family that was already involved with the DCYF and it had also a senior citizen involved, a grandmother. It showed how we are doing things backward because for us to be able to assist a family like that one, we wait for them to be in the toughest crisis mode, either in a shelter or living on the street, instead of being more proactive and putting in resources to prevent bad situations from happening.
Steve Ahlquist: I think about that all the time. We too often intervene in a person's life after everything's lost. We're willing to spend over $80,000 a year to keep somebody in jail, but we aren't willing to give them lunches in school or a proper education or any opportunities...
Sabina Matos: We'd rather pay for lunches in jail than lunches in the school and that needs to change.
Steve Ahlquist: Another thing that occurred to me as you were talking. Remember when the bridges and roads in Rhode Island were rated as the worst in the country, and Governor Gina Raimondo had to do this massive project, and the truck tolls and all this work was done at the last moment? Now Rhode Island has the lowest or second lowest housing build rate in the country and again, we're treating it as an emergency. It seems Rhode Island doesn't do anything until there's an emergency.
The landfill is going to be full within 10 years or so. Are we going to wait 10 years and say, "Oh no, we have a garbage emergency?" And climate change! We're starting to see the sea levels rise and we're just now starting to question whether the hurricane barrier is enough or if there's more to do, maybe at Field's Point with the Army Corps of Engineers. It seems we're always in emergency mode instead of maintenance mode, which would be so much easier,
Sabina Matos: So much easier. But I have to tell you, it's true. The landfill is something that I have in the corner of my mind. We have to address that. But it's what you say, we have so many other emergencies right now that we're putting our attention to and that's why we have to do more long-term planning.
One of the things that we are trying to do in Rhode Island is to have a plan that is looking out to 2030 and beyond. We have to get used to planning with a long-term view. It's a challenge because most of the time there's an election happening. The governor can run for two terms, and members of the General Assembly are running every two years. It is harder to focus on long-term plans, but we have to do more of that. Organizations like RIPEC or the Rhode Island Foundation have been funding some of the long-term plans for the state. We need more of that, something that continues regardless of who's in office.
Steve Ahlquist: In the position you're running for, you'll be up for reelection in a year. And two years after that. You'll be running three campaigns in four years, which is kind of insane.
Sabina Matos: It's a lot. Yes.
Steve Ahlquist: I'm going to get into some specific issues now. What are your thoughts on guns?
Sabina Matos: The biggest priority is to make sure that we pass an assault weapon ban nationwide. We cannot continue to see what happens in most of the mass shootings taking place with assault weapons, AR-15s, and those types of weapons. We are not saying enough is enough and it's about time that we remove those weapons from our streets. When I go to Congress, that's going to be one of my priorities, to work in collaboration with the other members of Congress that are making the assault weapon ban a priority.
Steve Ahlquist: Let's switch over to abortion. You've been an outspoken abortion rights advocate. With the House being under Republican control re-establishing the protections of Roe v Wade will be difficult. What should we be doing?
Sabina Matos: First of all, we have to continue to send people to Congress that believe a hundred percent in a women's right to choose, people who understand that abortion is healthcare and understand that we shouldn't be losing rights. Unfortunately, it looks like we're going back to the years when we had fewer rights and we have to understand the challenge that brings. The government shouldn't be making a woman's healthcare decisions. It should be between her and her doctor, and we have to make sure that we send people to Congress that understand that that is a priority, and do not put qualifiers on a woman's rights. Here in Rhode Island, we're fortunate that we codified abortion into law and that we just passed the Equality in Abortion Coverage Act [EACA] to close the gap for those on Medicaid and state workers.
As a state worker, I didn't have that protection. I'm so grateful to the advocates that worked hard to make that possible. But we need to have the same protections at the federal level. We have to make sure that we codify abortion into law at the federal level to prevent states like Texas or other states that have been passing laws forcing a doctor to have to think twice before making a decision that could save a woman's life. They shouldn't be asking, "Is this a thing I have to call my lawyer for to see if I can do it?"
Steve Ahlquist: I worry that people who come to Rhode Island to take advantage of our laws might face problems when they go back home. I don't know how we begin to address that. It feels like the country's setting itself up for some pretty bad situations.
Sabina Matos: We have to make sure that it's codified at the federal level. We cannot leave it to be state-by-state.
Steve Ahlquist: The federal minimum wage is $7.25.
Sabina Matos: It's too low.
Steve Ahlquist: Is that something that you'd like to take on?
Sabina Matos: It should be at least $15. A family cannot sustain itself with $7.25 an hour. What is happening is that the government has been subsidizing companies that are paying low wages.
Steve Ahlquist: How about more progressive tax structures? People talk about it in terms of taxing the rich or a wealth tax.
Sabina Matos: First, we have to close all the loopholes that corporations take advantage of to get away with paying no taxes while all of us pay taxes. That's going to be a priority for me. We also have to make sure that the top 1% pay more. Since they have the resources, they're able to pay more of their fair share.
Steve Ahlquist: I was at Senator Sheldon Whitehouse's town hall in South Providence the other day and he's got a bill to eliminate the Social Security cap on salaries over $400,000. The idea is that with the cap eliminated, we would have more than enough money to keep Social Security sustainable for 75 years or more. He said that a plumber making $160k pays the same amount for Social Security as a person making $160 million. How do you feel about that idea?
Sabina Matos: I was at that forum over the weekend. I agree with Senator Whitehouse and I hundred percent support that legislation.
Steve Ahlquist: Medicare is another popular government program Republicans seem intent on doing something bad to. What are your thoughts on Medicare?
Sabina Matos: Medicare should be for all. Healthcare should be a right for everyone. When I go to Congress, I will be advocating for Medicare for All, but in the meantime, I will try to get as many victories as possible to alleviate the burdens that families have when paying for medical care. Lowering the prices of prescription drugs, for instance, and any other options on the table right now to start alleviating medical costs. But my end goal is Medicare for All.
Steve Ahlquist: 10 years ago my wife was diagnosed with stage four colorectal cancer and it moved to her liver. It's an ongoing issue for us. We have gold-level Obamacare but we are still accruing serious debt even with that protection.
Sabina Matos: It shouldn't be like that. No. We should be able to have healthcare for all. This is about saving people's lives. There shouldn't be a price on that. I'm so grateful that we have Obamacare. I have a pre-existing condition. If we didn't have Obamacare, I could have been denied health insurance. I remember the first time I went for treatment and I started feeling better. I couldn't help but think about what is happening to those that don't have health insurance. I was thinking about how many individuals are going walking around with so much pain when there is a treatment when there is a solution, but because they don't have health insurance, they don't have the resources. And as you said, some of us are very fortunate to have health insurance, but then you get the copay.
Steve Ahlquist: Let me go to some national issues. The war in Ukraine. The United States is supporting Ukraine. What are your feelings on that?
Sabina Matos: We should support Ukraine a hundred percent because Ukraine is fighting for democracy. If they're not successful, Russia's not going to stop there. They're going to go after other nations and eventually, we will have to be engaged in a full war with Russia. So anything we can do to support Ukraine, we should do. We should thank them for fighting for democracy, honestly.
Steve Ahlquist: And on the Israel/Palestine issue. What are your thoughts on the situation?
Sabina Matos: I believe in the two-state solution. I believe that Israel is a strong democracy in the region, and it has been a strong partner and ally of the United States. We have to continue to support democracy. I believe in any nation that is fighting for democracy. We should be fighting with them and be allies with them.
Steve Ahlquist: Israel is taking sort of a rightward turn recently, similar to what happened with Trump and America, to be honest. We've seen the attacks on judicial sovereignty there. Does that give you pause, or worry you at all?
Sabina Matos: The way I think about it. They could say the same thing about the United States and what we went through. Do we want other nations to tell us how to behave? This is an issue we have to solve on our own, so we should not be interfering with their internal policies the same way how we wouldn't want anyone interfering with the United States.
Steve Ahlquist: I have no problem telling people what they think they're wrong, whether it's Brexit or Trump.
The military budget is extremely high. Think about what else could that money could be going to, like Medicare for All, more housing, or a million other things. Is our military budget too high?
Sabina Matos: In an ideal world, we wouldn't need the military, but we do need it. Here in Rhode Island, a lot of our residents work in the defense industry. It's a big part of our workforce here in the state. I don't want to take the chance of not having the resources to protect democracy. Right now I would not propose any cuts.
Steve Ahlquist: I want to float an idea here, something I've been thinking about lately. We have a military-industrial complex, whatever you want to call it. Why don't we have a health industrial complex? Something that could replace, in part, or simply grow in parallel to the military-industrial complex, building MRI machines, doing medical and pharmaceutical research - an entire industry based on human flourishing and health. Just a thought.
Sabina Matos: I'm more interested in looking at ways in which the technologies and the things that we learned from our military can be translated to solve all the problems in the country.
Steve Ahlquist: I like what NASA accomplished in the 1960s and the way things they developed then, like parts of computers and cellphones, things we rely on every day, came out of that research.
What are your thoughts on climate? What should we be doing?
Sabina Matos: Climate change is our biggest challenge. We just finished the hottest July on record and at the same time, we are complaining, many of us, that it doesn't feel like summer because we have so many rainy days. It's so out of balance. We’re seeing wildfires here in Rhode Island. It is a real challenge. We have to find a way to get the business community to see that this is a priority for them also. Just yesterday I was at the small business advocacy council meeting, and when the different directors were giving updates to the business community, the director of the Department of Business Regulations told us about a conference she had returned from that was talking about insurance companies that don't want to ensure coastal communities.
Steve Ahlquist: I've been hearing about that. Also wildfire communities.
Sabina Matos: The insurance companies are already leaving some communities or not signing new customers. This is something that could have financial implications for the business community, especially those on the coast, but it's going to translate to the rest of the state. It's the right thing to do to protect our planet and make sure that our children have a planet for the future. We have to make the business case - make the direct connection - to how much more money they will have to pay for insurance due to climate change.
Steve Ahlquist: Some people might ask why are we building on the coast when we have this problem all the time. A hurricane comes through occasionally and wipes out a bunch of houses. It's happened in Rhode Island at least twice.
Sabina Matos: Insurance companies are good about protecting their money. I would take a look at why they don't want to insure anymore. Why they don't want your money That's a big warning.
Steve Ahlquist: It's a strong case to use with conservatives who still deny climate change. If climate change is fake, why aren't insurance companies taking in the money?
I have to talk about LGBTQ and trans rights. What are your thoughts? We've seen some attempts to introduce anti-trans laws in the General Assembly, and attempts to alter policies in at least one school district. Once elected, what do you do about these issues?
Sabina Matos: I have been a strong voice and ally, protecting the rights of the LGBTQ community since my time on the city council and also as Lieutenant Governor. We need to show our support by what we say, but also by showing up and being there for our LGBTQ communities, to reassure them that they are safe to live their authentic lives and that we're going to support and protect their rights. That's what I would do in Congress, continue being very vocal and very engaged with the LGBTQ community and being present, providing reassurance that we are here to protect them and we're not going to be taking their rights away.
Steve Ahlquist: Is there anything I should have asked you that I didn't?
Sabina Matos: Immigration. For me to get to this country, my family had to wait 10 years. The immigration process is very complicated. People like to tell me things like, "You came to this country, you learned the language. Everybody should do the same." I have to remind everyone that I was very fortunate to come here. My mother, father, my sister, and I came here to a network of other relatives that gave us support. Education was very important to my parents. They told me and my sister to go to school and not to worry about paying rent and paying the bills. They were going to take care of that and that's what they did. Not every immigrant that comes to this country has that opportunity.
I was able to go to work in the jewelry factory and in the evenings, take English classes. I didn't have to go from a first job to a second job. People think that there are so many undocumented people in the country. But think about that. If we have to wait 10 years for the immigration process, it's because the system is broken. We have to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill that will allow the more than 11 million individuals that are undocumented in this country to find a path to legalization. We also need immigration reform so more workers can come to this country. We are in the middle of a workforce crisis right now. I hear the same complaint from every business I visit. They cannot find workers. But once we could have 11 million people here who are already in this country come out of the shadows and work. There is also potential for many more workers to come from other countries if we will finally fix our immigration system.
Steve Ahlquist: You say it takes 10 years to get through the immigration process. People are mad that they have to wait 13 weeks for a passport.
My last question. What is your pitch to the voters? Why should they vote for you?
Sabina Matos: Several things. I talk about how my life experience as a new immigrant, learning the language, working in the jewelry factory, working at the bank, working customer service - It is the experience of many Rhode Islanders out there and it's about time that we send someone to Congress to represent Rhode Island that brings a diversity of voices to Congress. Rhode Island has never had a Democratic woman in Congress.
It's about time that the Rhode Islanders have a woman representing them in Congress. And besides that, look at my life experience, look at my experience as an elected official for more than 12 years. I understand the challenges of the communities and understand firsthand how housing is affecting everyday life here in Rhode Island.
But also, I understand that things need to get done. I remember the first time I got elected to the city council, I had this list of things that I wanted to do and it was going to happen tomorrow, right? But then I got there and I understood that I'm part of a collective body and I needed to work with the members of that body to get things done and deliver for my community, for the city, for the state, and in this case in Congress, for the nation. Having that experience is very important right now.
Steve Ahlquist: In terms of a woman in that position, we're not used to that idea in a state. We have in our mind a white man's default style of being a congress member. A woman brings a different style, but no less competence.
Sabina Matos: A different style, and there are opportunities for building new coalitions that could come with that. Having the support of the Elect Democratic Women PAC makes a huge difference. Making the connection to a network of current female members of Congress, along with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus BOLD PAC provides an opportunity to bring in other voices, make other connections, and bring other resources to the state also.
Steve Ahlquist: Thank you very much.