Pat Fontes, a stalwart of the local antiwar movement, used to support Senator Sheldon Whitehouse. “I did not vote for Obama but I voted for Sheldon Whitehouse,” she told me in a recent interview. Now the 81-year-old peace activist is making her first-ever run for elected office by challenging Rhode Island’s junior senator in this year’s Democratic primary.
“I don’t recognize the person I voted for in 2006,” she said of Whitehouse, once viewed as one of the most liberal members of the Senate but has since run afoul of some progressive activists on both the proposed Burrillville power plant and military spending.
Fontes, ardently opposed to both, has long advocated against Electric Boat building nuclear submarines in Rhode Island and American funding of Saudi Arabia’s war on Yemen. Whitehouse recently voted to spend more money on the conflict in Yemen and has carefully avoided taking a position on the fossil fuel project in Burrillville. Fontes has publicly confronted him about these issues, she said, but when that tactic didn’t produce results she realized, “I don’t have an option. They are all war-supporting people,” she said of most congressional candidates.
Then, in April, a group of activists associated with Brown War Watch approached her about primarying the two-term incumbent. “It was always about opposing Whitehouse,” Fontes said. “I was really fed up with him.”
She admits she wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of campaigning for a U.S. Senate seat. “When someone comes to you and asks you to run you don’t want to say no,” she said. “That’s saying I don’t want to be the one to stick my neck out, let someone else do it. I said to them, get a group together so we can talk it over.”
When asked if she thinks she can win, she laughed and said, “I have no idea. That’s what we are trying to test. if you really put a strong anti-war candidate to the people and you give them an opportunity what will they do. That’s what we want to know.”
Later in the interview, she said winning is “probably not the dominant framework from which this is happening.” When asked if she thought she had a better chance at beating Whitehouse in a Democratic primary than Bob Flanders in a general election, she said she hadn’t considered it much, and seemed genuinely surprised to learn her candidacy could potentially help Republicans wrest the senate seat away from Democrats. “You couldn’t have picked a worse example to put the fear of god into me,” she said.
A career college professor who worked at the University of Rhode Island, Salve Regina University, and schools in Ireland and Portugal, Fontes is admittedly politically naive. She sees it as a campaign strength rather than a weakness. “There’s no question for which they don’t have an answer prepared for,” she said of Congress. “Not like me feeling my way around here.”
But the devout Catholic who once spent six years living at a convent in Providence speaks with great moral authority when it comes to peace.
“Wars are usually justified about security, either national security or your personal security,” she explained. “But if you start with this premise: no one is secure until everyone is secure. Because the people who are not secure are going to go after the people who think they are secure but really aren’t because unless everyone is secure then nobody can be secure. But if everybody feels secure, it’s highly unlikely they will wage war against each other.”
I asked her if she thought the average Rhode Islander would support losing local jobs manufacturing nuclear submarines for Electric Boat at Quonset. She thought about it for a minute then answered, “What they really think is the moral and correct thing to do is too scary.”
She continued, “The abolition of slavery caused a lot of economic discombobulation, too. The same thing is true of war and the climate.”
She spoke of the “conversion of military industries into more socially useful types of work” but also didn’t shy away from asking people to make personal sacrifices for the greater good. “It’s not going to be pleasant to stop making nuclear bombs. It’s not going to be pleasant to stop using fossil fuels. But that’s why societies have to work together and not like dog eat dog. If that happens you have to compensate. Suppose we had to pay people’s salaries for a year or two.”
Fontes is very progressive on most issues, but not all. She’s opposed to abortion, and didn’t relish discussing the issue in relation to her campaign. “I can’t claim right now to deal with conviction with that issue in the way you just heard me deal with conviction about war and the environment,” she said. But when pressed, she does seem to have strong feelings about abortion. “If I were to find out in this attempt to run or in the results in the primary that in fact the vast majority of the American people are more interested in their sexual liberty than they are in the freedom and well being of the rest of the world it will be a blow to my optimism but I won’t be sorry I know the truth.” She puts gay marriage “in the same cup” as abortion. “It’s really a broader issue than that, what they used to call sexual liberation,” she said.
Fontes grew up middle class in East Providence, one of ten children. She said her parents didn’t have a lot, but they felt they had everything they needed. “We were free,” she said. “We just played. And we can’t explain to people that that was a great life. If you had to go back to that standard of living, people think they would be miserable but you wouldn’t be miserable. you’d probably be happier than you are today.”
These days, Fontes calls home a 10-acre lot in Hopkinton that she bought in 1969 when she worked at URI. She has a doctorate in educational psychology from Boston College and her undergraduate degree is from Providence College. After URI she worked at Salve Regina for three years taking a job in Ireland as a professor. “I thought I would go for a year or two or until the Vietnam War was over,” she said. She returned to the States for a few years in the late 1980’s/early 1990’s to, at long last, build a home on her forested lot in Hope Valley. But then took a job in Portugal for more than a decade before moving back to Rhode Island in 2004.
She’s not eager to leave her rural life in Southern Rhode Island to have a full time job in Washington DC as a U.S. Senator, but she’s more than willing to serve if the people of Rhode Island call upon her.
“Getting a job in Washington D.C. as an end unto itself does not appeal to me,” she said. “I know one thing I’m not going to go out and buy a bunch of $5,000 dresses and start going on the cocktail party circuit.”
And at 81, she’s confident she has all the life skills necessary to represent Rhode Island in Congress. “I think I have a coherent moral conscience.”