Progressive activist and East Greenwich resident Justine Caldwell announced she is considering running for House District 30 against incumbent Republican Anthony Giarrusso. Caldwell was an important part of the effort to remove Joe DeLorenzo from a leadership position in the Democratic Party, and her and husband David Caldwell have been key organizers in the effort to remove Gayle Corrigan as town manager of East Greenwich.
We caught up with her to talk about her background in politics and her thoughts about issues at state level the recent events in East Greenwich.
How did you get active in politics?
It happened when I was in graduate school in Bowling Green, Ohio. In my last year a discrimination order was put on the ballot. All the voters in the town were going to vote on whether gay people could be discriminated against in housing and employment. I started working for a campaign that was trying to make sure gay people could not be fired from their jobs or kicked out of their homes. It was an unusual situation for me because I had been in academia for a while and I was studying American studies which I wanted to do because I wanted to make a difference in the world and talk about systemic problems in politics with groups that were discriminated against. I wrote my dissertation about mental illnesses and how we can be more empathetic towards that population and when I started working on the campaign I realized that it made a difference in people’s lives. I was really moved by talking to people every day who would be effected by this legislation. I was moved by working with students on campus who had really never come into contact with people who thought a lot differently from them. From that I moved onto the marriage campaign in Maine which was the first state to win at the ballot box. I was a field organizer at Portland and I realized that is how to make a difference – to talk to real people about real issues.
And how did you get active in Rhode Island?
I am originally from Rhode Island and I moved back with my husband when we were going to have our first child, who is now five. I wasn’t active for a while because I was raising two kids, which I am still in the midst off, but like a lot of people I became a lot more active after the 2016 election. I thought Hillary would win and after the election I struggled with the fact that I hadn’t done enough to help in that movement, not only to support Hillary but to work to combat against everything that Donald Trump and the GOP stood for. I just knew I had to throw myself back into the world of politics again, because I think we are all responsible for what happens around us.
Do you think women have a responsibility to get politically active or that there is a responsibility to encouraging women to come forward as candidates?
I think it is both. I feel a personal responsibility for myself. People have always looked to me as a leader in these circumstances and I have the means to do this, but I also feel it is everyone’s responsibility to encourage women. We know that when women are encouraged to run for office they actually run at the same rate as men and they either win at the same rate or a higher rate than men. That encouragement doesn’t happen enough and it is something we need to do. Most women hit this barrier where they run for the school board, which is great, but we need to encourage women to run for higher offices and we need to help them run, give them the opportunities and the means. There are so many more barriers to women running than men. I have two young kids so any time you see me anywhere a lot of work has gone into that.
What’s been your disappointment with the party & the General Assembly?
I feel some some disappointment there can’t be a more open and honest discussion about the dangers to women’s reproductive rights under the Trump administration. States have a huge responsibility to protect their citizens right now. Whatever happens at the national level, states can make their best efforts to protect their constituents and the Democratic Party here in Rhode Island has often been reluctant to take a stance on abortion and a woman’s right to choose. Women know there is a true risk of Roe v. Wade being overturned and women are scared about that. People can disagree with that but I am disappointed that there is not a conversation where women at the table on not being heard on that issue.
Turning to your neighborhood – the local house representative appears to be reluctant to comment on events at East Greenwich Town Council, (telling Bob Plain he has been away) but given he endorsed them before the election, what is your reaction?
I am shocked and disappointed. Representative Giarrusso has certainly not been away for the last nine months while this has been happening. In fact we lobbied him back in March during the House Committee hearing on the Reproductive Healthcare Act and on that day he told me he hadn’t read that bill. He wasn’t away in September when our only high school got taken away because of the candidates he endorsed. Not only was he not away, he was at the State House casting a vote against taking guns out of the hands of domestic abusers. If I ran for office and I was in his seat you can be sure I would be doing everything I could to talk to members I had endorsed about what I thought they should do for the town and I would be giving up my volunteer lists and my donor lists and doing whatever I could do to help to make sure the High School had a library. This is more than 80 percent of his district. It has become a laughing stock of the state. When you represent people, you vote on their behalf at the State House but you also represent them in their homes, in their towns… It is a lack of leadership that he doesn’t have a comment on what is happening in our town.
What needs to happen with East Greenwich Town Council?
Our council needs to show they are listening to their constituents and they are following the law. We have a petition with over 500 signatures asking them not to reappoint Gayle Corrigan as our town manager. Like the Judge said, they need to start doing their business in the light and not under the cover of darkness.
Last week a court finally said “no” to the East Greenwich Town Council’s defiance of open government laws and last night, Town Council President Sue Cienki said something like “yes” to residents who wanted to witness their government at work. But what about residents who want to participate in their town government? Will Cienki say “yes” to them? Will she allow the public to speak about the town manager position at the next meeting? Our democracy has broken down, and nothing short of allowing public participation in our decision about the Town Manager position will be sufficient to fix it.
As I consider running for state representative, I ask my representative, Anthony Giarrusso, “where have you been as our local democracy collapses?” I’ve been here, standing by your constituents, fighting alongside them. And should they choose me to represent them, I’ll still be standing with your constituents, wherever they live, work, send their kids to school, and anywhere else that matters to them and their families.