Editor’s note: Steve Rackett interviewed three Democrats running for Providence City Council in the Ward 3 special election. Read the interview with Mark Santow here.
In terms of the East Side, can you give three priorities for the Ward?
First and foremost because of the climate that we are around and what we have experienced, which is not new to the city and my position formerly on the Providence Ethics Commission, I think honest and fair ethical government is first and foremost my chief priority. It motivated me to give up what I thought was a wonderful position to be on the first ethics commission, I thought I could contribute more to that. I can go down to City Hall and work, hopefully with the mayor and other members of the council. There is always going to be some people who take advantage… the only way to combat that is to get people down there who are not motivated by self-interest and who are committed to living their life in an ethical manner.
…but specifically ward issues?
That is a specific issue in my ward. We have state representatives in prison and you have a council person that has been recalled. It has been embarrassing to the Ward to be identified with these things, and as a result of it the Ward is suffering. There is no one advocating for Ward 3 in the City Council right now and it hasn’t been for a while. Ultimately, we will be in the middle of the Summer with unfunded youth programs and community centers and we are not able to have an advocate up there to look for what ever sources of funds are available to the other wards, even when the Summer ends. Who ever gets elected is not going to be sworn in until sometime after August 16 and the kids are back to school in a few weeks (after).
Other issues that are very important are issues such as financial responsibility and the heavy tax burden we all bear. This impacts us on a number of levels. Families that have lived there for generations are unable to keep their property because they can’t carry the burden of what they are being charged. It becomes more advantageous for them to sell and move out because people are willing to pay more for properties.
My mother was born and her family had a triple decker on Carrington Avenue, my grandfather ran the drugstore on the corner of Lippit and Camp and it was known as Harry’s Spa and most of the old people in the neighborhood all remember Harry’s Spa. There were no divisions, the divisions were about money not race, that’s something that’s come into this later in the discussion.
One of the things people are going to say is here we have another middle aged white man replacing another middle aged white man, are we just getting like for like?
I take offense to that analogy. I find that analogy duplicitous, I find it racist, an anathema… MLK – named after Martin Luther King, I was bused to that school in 1967, I attended there for 3 years. I will quote Martin Luther King… ‘you should judge me by the character of my heart not by the color of my skin.’ You should judge me on my 30 years experience and my service to the community and the things I have done and not on the fact that somebody younger may be arguing that older people don’t really matter.
90 percent of the people I have met going door to door have been wonderful and nice even if they are not voting for me, even though they are voting for somebody else. Even if I lose this election I would be happy to support either of my opponents against the Republican candidate. I am not comfortable with the Republican candidate’s positions.
What offends me is people slamming the door on me and telling me that you are a white male and you screwed up this country so bad – why should we give you a chance. Well, I have not been a politician before, my only political service has been to take an appointment to sit on the ethics commission because I thought it was an important thing for city government. I am motivated to run because of everything that is going on not just locally but nationally. Judge me on my history not the color of my skin. These divisions that are being emphasized… the only way to break them down is to live, work and play all throughout your ward and by example I have done that.
At the un-debate there was a recognition that people need to work on community cohesion…
I think people need to put their money where their mouths are and I think it makes a lot of people feel good to stand up and talk about bridging the invisible lines and reaching across the aisles but until they start donating and assisting things on the west side of Hope, then it’s all talk. People say nice things, but people need to do something. I really hope the energy that came from that meeting can be parlayed into something that isn’t just election time talk and an opportunity for people to feel good but not actually do anything in a year or two from now.
Would decentralizing a small percentage of of the budget help, bringing the budget to the neighborhood with people having a say on how it is spent, with their council person?
I think it is a wonderful idea, but I wonder if there is any ability to squeeze out any kind of a budget. Realistically I think the money needs to be spread. I understand there is some discretion a city council person has with certain funds that are earmarked to go to that ward, whether it is money for repairing streets and sidewalks, whether it is community block rent money that is supposed to assist and aid community programs or monies that are freed up to deal with emergencies or Summer programs… the first thing is getting someone up there to advocate for getting their hands on some of that money and then being responsive to the community for where that money goes.
One of the issues in terms of delivering for Providence is the finances. Bankruptcy or restructure or look at other sources of income – where do you stand?
Whoever sits next on this council has to deal with the 2018-19 budget, when you go through it… Providence faces a huge deficit as the result of a phase out of $8m funding formula, there is $2m dollar contractual pay raises, and teachers contracts to be renegotiated… we are already $8m-$12m off. But receivership or bankruptcy is a very drastic solution. The way it impacted every day people in Central Falls was shocking and a lot of people made money off of that. A lot of people managed to profit off the misfortune of others. We should be avoiding it at all costs.
And selling off the water?
I am highly skeptical of any plan leasing to a private entity or sell it off completely. I don’t trust private business on this. It would take a lot to convince me this is the right way to do it.
I would say that I am trying to be a little more fiscally conservative than the other two candidates.
We pay the same effective tax rates as people who live in some of the wealthiest communities in the country. My ward represents some of the poorest parts and the most economically diverse in the city. Our burden can’t be any higher.
Our schools need to change, not just the physical buildings but also they need to address the curriculum…. but there is not a penny in the school budget to repair or replace anything. Maintenance is pretty much janitorial services to a sub-contracted entity, that does that and they are not even city employees any more. When I tried to get to the bottom of that I realized that Providence has a building board authority, and all buildings that Providence has are owned by the Building Board Authority, and they are responsible for long term solutions to any structural problems. We raise that money by issuing bonds. Those bonds are 80 percent payable by the State, 20 percent payable by the City. The City issues them. Our tax burden is already is 8 cents on every dollar, already goes on bonds that are issued and they are going to have to be new bonds issued. That problem, by itself, although it is not going to raise our taxes, it is going to impact on what we have to come up with that small amount of money to allow communities to determine where that little bit of money can go, and that is going to be the first thing to go in any budget.
I want to touch on the Community Safety Act…
I am glad you referred to it as the Community Safety Act, but the name isn’t as important as the reality, the concept is very important.
And the key is implementation and how important you see that?
As an attorney I have seen lots of laws being passed and not implemented.. it is all window dressing unless it is put into place. …. a system of accountability and transparency is important. In my profession I have noticed resistance to regulation, resistance to ethical reform, resistance to mandates… I think that there is enough groundswell that if this doesn’t get implemented there will be a backlash, but as long as one of the Democrats gets elected to this position on the city council – everyone is a strong supporter of the CSA.
Where do the Democrats stand nationally and what do you see the impact of Trump?
We don’t want to see an 8 year Trump presidency. They need to get their stuff together, to get a viable candidate, who is going to motivate people to come out and vote and they need to bring the party together, but it is clear the super-delegates and the party establishment had ordained a candidate before they actually canvassed the people to see the temperature of the electorate. I think as a result it created an opportunity for Mr Trump and an agenda of hostility, exclusion and mean-spiritedness to prevail. What is sad is that I don’t see the party learning too much.
I don’t like to spend a lot of time on national politics, but on my Facebook I did. (during the election) I think ultimately for the City Council it helps people know where I am coming from. But the focus needs to be on local… one thing I realized getting out there and trying to participate in the national discussion is my opinion when the candidates started to talk about what they were going to do and forming an opinion. I realized that I am one of millions… it would be easy to support someone when they get their stuff together but to wait for them to get their act together is a disservice to our community.
The three of us, the Democratic candidates that are running… none of us have any real political experience. I was appointed to an ethics commission, Mr Santow on the school board and Miss LaFortune has participated in all kinds of community events. This is the next logical step for all of three of us, so if you want to talk about the Trump effect… it is motivating a lot of us.