The uproar in Rhode Island’s Democratic Party might also be seen in Providence City Council campaigns this summer as several new, progressive candidates are running races far to the left of longtime incumbents—often with the claim that the establishment has been largely absent from their constituents’ neighborhoods.
Few are more pointed with this claim than Kat Kerwin, running for Ward 12 (Smith Hill, Elmhurst) against a 21-year incumbent, Councilman Terrence Hassett. “Terry Hassett is known for his lack of action, being one of the most vulnerable candidates on city council,” she said.
After entering into gun control and campus hunger activism during her first two years at University of Wisconsin, Madison, Kerwin returned to Providence to finish school from her home city while working as the RI Coalition for Gun Violence’s first full-time employee. Kerwin made waves last month when she led a group of students, wearing T-shirts emblazoned with targets, filling the State House to protest the General Assembly’s reticence to vote on the Safe Schools Act.
Drawing on her work against gun violence, Kerwin called Hassett’s inaction “embarrassing” in a hostile national political climate where the stakes of local progressive action are so high. “I’ll go to doors and people will tell me that they heard gunshots the night before, but police never came. I don’t think that means we need more police officers, I think it means we need a better strategy for safety.” She cited measures from the Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence as one source she would draw on once elected.
Running for Councilwoman Jo-Ann Ryan’s Ward 5 (Elmhurst, Mt. Pleasant, Manton) seat, Aaron Jaehnig expressed similar frustration at the incumbent’s disconnect with her community. In his work as the chapter chair of the Rhode Island Sierra Club, Jaehnig has spearheaded the organization’s efforts to uplift voices and groups traditionally left out of conservation movements—and the city council’s consideration.
Jaehnig recounted his experience advocating for the Community Safety Act in April last year as one example, where, despite “personal assurances” from Councilwoman Ryan that she would push for the Act’s passage, the Fraternal Order of Police pressured her and other councilors to table the ordinance (which was later revised and enacted as the Providence Police-Community Relations Act). He contrasted this incident with one where Councilwoman Ryan ignored the concerns of the Racial and Environental Justice Committee in her push for a ban on single-use plastic bags.
For Jaehnig, it was dismaying to balance the two instances, “where an
organization like the FOP, already with so much power, can show up after three years after ignoring the process and affect the
decision of the council so significantly, and the other side of that coin, where you ultimately refuse to do the same thing for a group whose entire existence is to ensure that marginalized voices don’t get left out of the conversation.”
Jaehnig hopes his experience bridging the interests of a national environmental organization with community groups can provide a guide for his work on the council if he’s elected. “As long as you’re engaging with your constituents, and not just the ones who have always had power, you can start to build consensus in the same way as you would running a national environmental organization,” he said. “I think that’s the process that’s often missing from municipal government. The city council looks at public participation and community input, and large scale consensus building, as a barrier to their goals rather than a builder to their goals.”
Cyd McKenna, Rachel Miller, Anthony DeRose
One of the city’s most contentious races is for Ward 13 (Federal Hill), and following Councilman Bryan Principe’s announcement that he would not be seeking re-election for a seat he’s held since 2011, this race also poses an opportunity for change in the neighborhood. Cyd McKenna, a former campaign manager for Buddy Cianci who has also worked as the council’s chief of staff, is running a campaign largely based on her managerial experience. McKenna has also worked with the NAACP in the Mississippi Delta, collaborating with Black mayors and agricultural workers to allow them to access resources from which they had been historically excluded.
From her position working alongside the council, McKenna says she’s worked hard to bolster the momentum of
the city’s progressive movements. “The CSA process had stalled in the city council, and what I did when I was chief of staff there was take it, look at very closely, and worked with my policy staff to go through it line-by-line to see how we could get it done,” she said. She said this process, in collaboration with the CSA Working Group and the FOP, turned the ordinance into a piece of legislation which could ultimately pass.
Two of McKenna’s challengers—Rachel Miller and Anthony DeRose, both queer and both running on a legacy of LGBTQ advocacy, also mark this race as one to watch for how social justice concerns will figure into this September’s primary. DeRose helped create the Democratic Party’s LGBT Caucus, which he now chairs; the group was one of several which submitted a letter to the party expressing “concerns about the lack of transparency, integrity, and commitment to the Democratic Party platform shown by the recent endorsements of certain General Assembly candidates.”
As the former executive chair of RI Jobs with Justice, however, Miller appears to be closest to the bedrock of the city’s progressive organizers. As she reflected on her activist work at her alma mater, College of the Holy Cross, in a conversation last week, it was clear that she is also concerned with bridging the state’s Catholic community with progressive reform—a conversation dramatized last week by the party’s endorsement of a pro-life candidate over progressive incumbent Marcia-Ranglin Vassell (District 5, Providence).
“I don’t know to what degree pro-life or pro-choice politics played in those endorsements,” Miller said, “but the Democratic Party has got to be the group, has got to be the ones to stand up for a woman’s rights to choose. There’s got to be a way to meet as individuals, personal and religious views about choice with the fact that these are the laws that protect people, this is the society we should stand up for.”
Deya Garcia, running for Ward 8 (South Providence) against incumbent Councilman Wilbur Jennings, was one of the sharpest critics of the council’s disconnect from its constituents—and as WPRI reported that Jennings only won the seat by a slim margin in 2010 and 2014, Garcia’s has a strong chance, especially as she communicates to the neighborhood’s residents that she’s more intimately connected to their lived experience.
An immigrant from the Dominican Republic herself, with more than a decade of experience with labor and wage organizing in
collaboration with RI Jobs with Justice and DARE, Garcia says she put her name in the hat precisely because of the lack of representation on the council of people with her concerns.“Here we we have in Ward 8 somebody like Wilbur Jennings, who doesn’t have a position on anything. Here we have [Democratic challenger] James Taylor, a wealthy white man with no connection to the challenges working families and immigrants in this neighborhood run against,” she said. “I said to myself, I’m going to put my name in this race, because it’s not right. You wonder why we have the problems we have; it’s because they’re not advocating for us. They are disconnected from reality.”
If elected, her hopes for progressive reforms for the neighborhood include fighting ecological contamination and improving the area’s neglected infrastructure—she cited broken roads and a lack of green space as two key examples. The neighborhood should receive just as much attention as Wards 1 and 2, something which is far from true now, she argued. “I’m going to build a relationship with the Department of Public Works,” she added, “to make them accountable and responsible to this community.”
Across the city’s progressive candidates, fighting for affordable housing—against a wave of luxury developments—was a shared local concern. Justice Gaines, running for Ward 1 against 12-year incumbent Councilman Seth Yurdin, focused on this at her campaign kickoff RI Future covered last month. Jason Roias, a 22-year old challenging three-term incumbent Councilman Nicholas Narducci for his Ward 4 (Charles, Wanskuck) seat, told RI Future that he wants to work with local community development corporations to fight a wave of “significant disinvestment” in the neighborhood.
“Since I’ve been knocking on doors, people feel like they’re not a part of the process anymore,” Roias said. “There’s policy and legislation which is being voted on in city hall which they’re not knowledgeable of, and as a councilperson, you’re the bridge between your neighborhood and city hall. If you’re not continuously sharing information with your neighbors and constituents, then you’re not doing your job.”