Editor’s note: Steve Rackett interviewed three Democrats running for Providence City Council in the Ward 3 special election.
What would you say are the three most important priorities for the ward?
For me, because I am on School Board and also because I have kids, schools are a big priority. The schools in the ward, [Martin Luther] King and [Nathan] Bishop and schools in general across the city, because most of the things that schools in Ward 3 need or lack are things that the city as a whole need or lack. I have been very involved in the ‘fix our schools’ coalition in the last year or so, which is a state wide group that is trying to look at what healthy schools should look like, what the conditions of our schools are now and what we might need in terms of resources and changes in city and state law to bring about improvement. In Ward 3, MLK has roof leaks and there are other problems in the building. There are issues with the windows, with the playground. Bishop is new – it has had issues too.
Part of the problem is that we don’t have a consistent way in Providence or in Rhode Island of maintaining our buildings. Bishop is in a good state now, but it may very well not be in 10 years.
Beyond that, affordable housing is a big issue. It is another one that is a city-wide issue that has a local impact as well. To me the issue of gentrification in Mount Hope is part of an issue of the lack of affordable housing. For renters it is a huge issue and most people in ward 3 rent, contrary to the stereotype. The lack of affordable housing squeezes family budgets, squeezes the economy, it creates housing insecurity, it has a big impact on kids, we have a big issue with chronic absenteeism in the public schools, there are a lot of reasons why, but one is the stressers.
Then it is to try and find ways to bridge some of the differences in the ward. I think it is the responsibility of the city council person is to bring institutions from different parts of the community together to communicate with one another and to try and convey the stories and experiences of one part of the neighborhood to another. I think the meeting we had [The un-debate] was a terrific example of what that might look like. Can we get that kind of popular participation when there isn’t a special election? That I don’t know, but I think a city council person has to try and strive to find ways, resources, ideas and so forth. The neighborhood is segregated, the city is segregated by race and by class – a city council person can’t fix that alone but they can certainly try and bridge some of the gaps in understanding, in communications, in institutions. There is a lack of resources in Mount Hope, there is a lot of resources in the rest of the ward.
Have you thought of decentralized or devolved budgets to help neighborhoods?
I think the neighborhood associations could play a role in doing something like that. There is an upside and a downside to doing that because so many of the issues are city wide issues and require an economies of scale. But it would force people to do what this race is doing in a way, which is to inventory where we are at in parts of the neighborhood and what we really need and what we really want, which could get lost at city council level.
You were very positive about the Community Safety Act…
One of the things I teach and focus on in my scholarship in the historical origins of racial inequality in American cities. Housing and education play a part of that, but the criminal justice system has very much played a part in that, in Providence and everywhere else. To me the Community Safety Act is a positive step forward for Police accountability, trying to establish some level of trust in neighborhoods.
What about implementation? Isn’t one of the roles, if you are elected to follow through on things like this?
Yes, absolutely, it is a key part of it. We don’t just want the CSA to be a symbol, although symbols matter. It is a really important message to send. The only way we really know if the CSA is working is if the city council stays on top of it, if we fully resource the external review authority, if we get a line in the budget. It requires resources. Part of the CSA involves collecting data and that data needs to be analyzed and it needs to be discussed in a public setting. Is it doing what we want it to do? Is it revealing problems? Is it working, does it need to be improved? One of the roles I want to play on the city council is to make sure it is working.
Providence’s financial situation is poor. Would you explore bankruptcy or other measures?
Bankruptcy seems to me an extreme that I don’t think is worth considering, the fear is that it would do more harm than good. I am not sure there are any examples of it being effective for an urban population when it does take place. What I would rather see us do is to find ways to increase revenue and to decrease the pension burden as well.
I think it is silly in terms of jurisdictions Rhode Island is, all these different pensions and utilities are split up in dozens of municipalities, it is incredibly inefficient, particularly pensions, and any sort of borrowing that has to take place. I think it would be more effective if we were able to shift those burdens up to a higher level.
Increasing revenue in the city… we have 40 percent of the property in the city owned by wealthy anchor institutions that don’t pay taxes. They make payments in lieu of taxes but far far lower if they had a regular tax bill. I think there is money to be made there. I also think we are giving away an awful lot of money on tax subsidies and tax breaks for companies and developers to come to the city without a lot of evidence that it really works – most of the scholarly evidence indicates that it generally does not and it depletes our tax base. I would rather see a bias towards small, local sustainable business.
What about sharing the cost of services, back office functions with neighboring councils?
Politically it would be really hard to do. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to do them. The current arrangements, where jurisdictions are not only not sharing resources and economies of scale but are actually competing against one another? If a company is seeking to relocate somewhere in Rhode Island they could play different municipalities off against each other to get a better deal? I am certainly open to talk to others on the city council and to our delegation to the State House to see where economies can be made in that regard. The current arrangements harm cities. The more local control that entities have over land use, fiscal zoning and that sort of thing tends to benefit the wealthier suburbs at the expense of the cities.
Where do you stand on the future of the water utility?
I am against privatizing any public utility, period. Whether it is public schools, or water I think in a democracy it is a big mistake. Essential items like water should be publicly determined, publicly funded- when things are commoditized it inevitably leads to inequality so I would oppose privatizing the water board. But to go back to our conversation before, about the benefits of regionalization, there is an an argument that could be made for a regional water board especially if that water board is able to borrow money and spend it effectively to protect the safety and health of citizens and especially if Providence is able to make some money out of shifting responsibility upwards without losing access to affordable water, we should certainly look into it. But I do understand the desire to hold on to our own water supply.
People will say – do we really need another middle-aged white guy sitting on the council, isn’t there enough of them in Rhode Island politics? Isn’t it time for a change?
I think it is a fair question. I think in the end what matters is the policies that get made, what beliefs and skills and individual characteristics they bring to the table. On the other hand, all voices need to be heard in a democracy, particularly those historically who are not represented well in any areas of power.
My sense from walking around the neighborhood, going from door to door is that people are excited about finally having good progressive choices. Nirva [LaFortune] and I – we have some overlapping views, we have some different ones, we have different experiences, different things we know and do well and my sense is that voters prefer to have that sort of choice, we really haven’t hand that sort of choice for a long time in the ward.
Where do you stand on the Democratic Party going forward, with people like Bill Lynch critical of progressives… and should there ever be a dialogue with Trump?
In general, I am a social democrat. I think ‘progressive’ is a sort of empty term people use when they don’t want to describe themselves as liberal or social democrat. As a historian, what progressive meant 100 years ago is not what we mean by it today. To me the future of the Democrat party is similar to the past, which is economic equality, economic security, living wage jobs for all and well funded institutions with equal access to them. We have to add in issues of sustainability now in a way that wouldn’t have been the case with the new deal.
To me, if I was going to pick a couple of programs at the national level and state level that the Democrats should make the core and put that message into practice – one would be paid family leave programs that we see in other countries of comparable wealth and universal public pre-k programs which exist in other countries and even in some states in the U.S. We need far more access to it than that, So if I am thinking about the direction of the party as a whole I am trying to think of another word for half-assed, so I will just use half-assed… we have in Rhode Island a state level pre-k program that has received a tremendous amount of positive attention nationally for the way it is structured, the problem is we have one class-room in Providence in that program., in a global economy, economic inequality and insecurity are undermining democracy, undermining family and community life, undermining public institutions. The Democratic Party is the only party that can put together a policy reboot that tries to re-calibrate the balance between democracy and capitalism at the national level, and even at the state & local level too.
As far as Trump, we already know what his infrastructure program is going to look like – the one item that some Democrats were saying we could talk about? His infrastructure program is going to be a bunch of public-private give-aways not driven by public need but driven by profit – I don’t want any part of that.
One of the issues where Providence might come across Trump’s radar is whether it is a sanctuary city?
To me, as would have been the case a century ago, and now, immigrants of what-ever legal status are a great asset to Providence. To me the way Mayor Elorza has approached it is the way I would have approached it as well – for all intents and purposes we are a sanctuary city. As far as I know we are not in violation of any Federal law, and President Trump has no constitutional right to take funding away from any city that is not in violation… I think it is bluster and court rulings have indicated that.
To me, the way we proceed is in the way many jurisdictions have, in a way the CSA outlined, which is that our Police do not become immigration agents which will do more harm than good. Trump’s fear-mongering about immigrants, undocumented immigrants committing crime, is not backed up by the facts – it is not true here and it is not true anywhere else. I know families have come from abroad, they have come here in pursuit of the same things as many European ancestors came here for, fleeing the same things my family fled, looking for the American dream and for opportunity and I don’t seem any reason we should be criminalizing people who want to be part of a future America or a future Providence.