In one of the first opportunities for both city council incumbents and their challengers to be grilled by the public this campaign season, candidates from Ward 1 and Ward 12 (encompassing Downtown, Smith Hill, and Fox Point, among other neighborhoods) met at the Pavilion at Grace Episcopal Church in Providence this Tuesday during a Q&A session led by the Downtown Neighborhood Association (DNA).
Up to bat for Ward 1: Councilman Seth Yurdin, who has pushed for labor, ecological, and civil rights reforms during his 12 years in office, and Justice Gaines, an organizer with Jobs with Justice and member of the working group who helped implement the Providence Community-Police Relations Act, who remains close to the city’s activist circles. Answering for Ward 12 was incumbent Councilman Terrence Hassett, who has been on the council since 1997, and 21-year old Democratic challenger Kat Kerwin, who returned to Providence after an activist career at University of Wisconsin, Madison, and works as the RI Coalition Against Gun Violence’s director of communications. All four candidates are Democrats; Councilmen Hassett and Yurdin hold the party’s endorsements.
DNA organizers were quick to assert that the Q&A “was not a debate,” and while there were clear distinctions between the suggested strategies of all four candidates, three—Councilman Yurdin, Gaines, and Kerwin—generally aligned in identifying the problems the city continues to face. Councilman Hassett, however, tended to remain an outlier on nearly every point on the night’s agenda.
One clear example, and of pressing concern to the residents in attendance, was an influx of large, upscale developments and a lack of affordable housing in the two wards.
“I hear a lot from neighbors of mine that they’re scared they’re going to be pushed out of a neighborhood they’ve lived in for generations,” Kerwin said.
Gaines proposed that one solution would be to reform the city’s First Source ordinance, which mandates that developers getting tax breaks within Providence are giving priority to Providence residents in the hiring process—a policy which “hasn’t been enforced over the last 30 years,” Gaines argued. “Providence has an unemployment rate of 5.9%, which is greater than Rhode Island at 4.1%,” Gaines added. “We need to make sure that our residents are being prioritized within development, with employment that going to give them opportunities to give back and invest in the city.”
Yurdin said that he agreed with many of Gaines’s points, and that he had previously worked with labor unions to re-tool the First Source ordinance, “but we need to make sure that it’s properly enforced.” He also proposed further measures for inclusionary zoning, which indexes the growth of affordable housing to the production of market-rate housing, and additional protections for renters as further measures for battling the city’s housing crisis.
Councilman Hassett, however, failed to touch on the availability of affordable housing throughout the evening. All four candidates raised concerns with the proposed 600-foot Fane Tower project on Route 195 development land—Yurdin and Gaines both argued that the proposal ignores public input regarding the area’s zoning, and Kerwin expressed concern that many the tower would lead to a surplus of vacant committee—but Councilman Hassett concerns appeared to be primarily aesthetic. “I don’t know about what everybody here thinks, but the design, the way it looks, for me is problematic,” he said. (WPRI’s Dan McGowan tweeted on Tuesday that, as Hassett is the chair of the council’s Ordinance Committee, his reticence suggests that the proposal has a slim chance of moving forward).
The disconnect between Hassett and the other three speakers produced one of the night’s most startling moments regarding the other palpably urgent issue on the table: infrastructure, funding, and segregation in the Providence school system.
Responding to a question on charter schools, Hassett told the audience, “I think charter schools are helpful, they’re productive… I wouldn’t say I want them replacing public schools, I think that’s a different conversation.” Kerwin was much more strongly opposed, calling charter schools “a necessary evil,” saying she wanted to increase public school funding so that “we do not need charter schools.”
Providence Democratic Socialists of America co-chair Will Speck pushed the issue further, asking how the candidates would respond to the racial segregation within the state’s schooling system when wealthier white families have the option to send their families, and their money, to better-funded private institutions. (RI Future reported on school segregation in the state this April).
“Are you saying that you’re alarmed by that?” Hassett asked.
“I am, yes!” Speck responded. “As someone who grew up the East Side, my parents understood that you could not allow your students to attend the public schools that served that neighborhood because they were so poor. You had to access this secondary market of charter, private, and Catholic schools if you wanted a quality education. I believe that’s a culture that still exists in many predominantly white parts of this city.”
“I believe you should be able to send your child wherever you want to. I think that’s your question, isn’t it?” Hassett said. He later added that the city should take a “good hard look” at the issue. In an interview after the session, Speck told RI Future that Hassett “clearly didn’t recognize it as an issue,” and that his response was “a travesty.”
Kerwin was more aggressive about the city’s current educational funding: “If we’re spending such a huge amount of our budget on schools, and this is what we’re showing for it? That’s a disgrace. This is not how we should be working. An overhaul is what we need, and we do need youth voices. When we do get youth voices, it works.”
Gaines came out passionately, arguing that the situation calls for giving students of color more representation and influence over their own education. “In looking at our school system—as you said, it’s 90 percent students of color—those students don’t feel like they have a voice. Last year, the Providence Student Union passed an Ethnic Studies campaign, and the school system has failed putting in teachers, failed putting in resources to make sure the curriculum is good, and those Ethnic Studies classes? Those give students of color more involved than anything else, because those make them feel represented in their schools.” Gaines also said that reducing policing is central in making those students feel respected, arguing that there are more police calls to schools than there are days in the school year.
Yurdin responded by arguing that the split between public and private schools, and subsequent underfunding for public institutions, is representative of a national trend of rising income inequality. “Federal tax rates and state tax rates need to be more progressive,” he argued. He also posited that greater access to career training, such as the district’s partnership with Brown University and Rhode Island College’s nursing schools, would help to combat the school-to-prison pipeline. Yurdin told the audience that he’s supported the creation of an education committee to increase oversight of the education budget, which constitutes around half of the city’s funds.
In an interview with RI Future following the Q&A, Gaines pushed back against Yurdin’s response at the Q&A. “If I can be candid, I believe that both incumbents have not done work to fix our education system, and saying that it’s a national problem is an excuse. It’s a way to pivot the issue and not take responsibility for our school system failing for a long time now.” She also said that while Yurdin spoke to his work on the First Source ordinance, more needs to be done to incorporate its provisions directly into development agreements and to advertise the First Source list so more workers can access preferential hiring.
During a separate follow-up, Yurdin maintained that he has spent 12 years in office pushing for progressive reform.
Among the accomplishments Yurdin recounted was his collaboration with the Hotel Worker’s Union for increased workplace protections and higher wages, campaigns against hiring discrimination for people with criminal records, increased funding to the Department of Public Works for infrastructure improvement, a restructuring of the Providence External Review Authority (PERA) alongside support of the Community Safety Act, and encouraging the city’s fossil fuel divestment campaign.
Yurdin argued that his track record shows the equivalency between incumbency and a lack of progressivism—a sense heightened by last week’s endorsement debacle—can be a false one. “You have to look at a person’s record, and what they’ve done,” he said. On Gaines’s side, she posits, “I’ve had a progressive record outside of office—I’ve been able to navigate power without having it.” Both comments might begin to mark the differences between city council races newly on view Tuesday night—some subtle, and some stark.
CORRECTION: This article originally listed Kerwin as a former employee of RICAGV. She currently works as the organization’s director of communications.