PROVIDENCE – Katherine Kerwin was still a student at the University of Wisconsin in 2017 when she decided to run for office in her hometown, and she had already handpicked her target.
Showing political wisdom beyond her years and having little regard for traditional Rhode Island Democrats, Kerwin picked a vulnerable incumbent to challenge in the 2018 primary. Terry Hassett was the longest-serving member of the Providence City Council at the time, but he had lost touch with his ward, so much so that he would fail to secure enough signatures to get on the ballot.
Kerwin walked into office without ever having an opponent, launching a political career that has seen her repeatedly ruffle feathers within the Democratic establishment by pushing to defund the police, advocating to decriminalize prostitution, and actively supporting vandalism of a statue of Christopher Columbus.
Her most recent dust-up came this week when Providence police released body camera footage of Kerwin attempting to intervene when officers were responding to a complaint about loud music at a downtown wine bar owned by a friend last month. Kerwin can be heard repeatedly saying that she is a councilwoman and that she was calling the police chief. She later said the neighbor who complained about the noise should “[expletive] get over it” because they live downtown.
For some, the 23-year-old’s actions were the epitome of pulling rank, the political equivalent of a customer demanding to speak with the restaurant manager when her server isn’t up to snuff. But Kerwin’s supporters say her brash tone and willingness to take on institutions is exactly why she has emerged as one of the most influential progressives in Rhode Island.
“We don’t listen to political insiders, we listen to our constituents,” said state Representative Moira Walsh, another outspoken Democrat whose Smith Hill district overlaps with Kerwin’s ward. “That’s who we work for. Our voters are very much on board.”
Kerwin declined to comment for this story, but she made it clear in a radio interview Tuesday and on social media that she has no intention of apologizing for attempting to contact Police Chief Colonel Hugh Clements when the officers were addressing the noise complaint.
In a radio interview on WPRO-AM, Kerwin said she believed the police responded to the Fortnight wine bar noise complaint as retaliation because a banner in the establishment’s window is painted “ACAB,” which stands for “all cops are bastards.” In June, one of the owners and his girlfriend were charged with spray-painting “ACAB” on City Hall.
In a tweet, Kerwin was dismissive of those who criticized her for swearing in the video, and called for police to release body camera footage of Providence police Sergeant Joseph Hanley, who was charged with simple assault for allegedly hitting a handcuffed man. The city is seeking to terminate Hanley, and Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare has refused to release the video while the investigation is still going on.
“Because god forbid I speak just how every other [expletive] old white politician speaks! Remember folks, checking the cops = good,” Kerwin tweeted. “Anyway, release the Sgt. Hanley footage.”
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Kerwin’s progressive values were in place long before she was elected to the City Council.
She grew up on Providence’s East Side, and attended La Salle Academy, a prestigious private school in the city. In her 2015 senior yearbook, she is pictured alongside three students under the heading, “most likely to be an activist.”
Her father, Peter, worked in Rhode Island government for many years, and she was among the youngest City Hall interns for former mayor Angel Taveras, the city’s first Dominican-American leader. She also worked on US Senator Sheldon Whitehouse’s reelection campaign in 2012.
By the time she got to the University of Wisconsin, she was ready for the next step. She initially joined the rowing team, but quickly got involved with the college Democrats and began campaigning against a bill that would have allowed guns to be carried on campus. She joined a group called “Cocks Not Glocks,” which involved carrying sex toys rather than firearms as a form of protest.
“I could always tell she was a super ambitious person,” said John Laing Wise IV, who met Kerwin at the University of Wisconsin, and then ran her campaign for City Council. The two are now dating, Wise said.
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Kerwin hadn’t graduated from college when she decided to take on Hassett, the veteran Democratic councilman who represented Ward 12, which includes Smith Hill and parts of the East Side, Valley, and Elmhurst neighborhoods. If you’re going by landmarks, the ward includes the State House and the Providence Place mall.
Although Kerwin raised thousands of dollars for her race, Hassett’s inability to obtain the necessary 50 signatures to appear on the ballot meant she didn’t have to spend the summer of 2018 running for office. Soon she would join the first majority-female class of the 15-member City Council in Providence history.
“This has been Kat’s dream since she was like 14,” said Nika Lomazzo, a transgender activist and friend of Kerwin’s who now lives in New York City.
On the council, Kerwin has at times struggled to find her place in a legislative body that is known more for the politics of sidewalk repairs and potholes than it is for taking on the large-scale policy initiatives she supports.
She spent her first year on the council completing her bachelor’s degree remotely (she majored in political science and geography) and working as the communications director for the Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence, which lobbies for gun safety bills at the State House.
Kerwin sits on the council’s Public Works Committee, but Chairman Michael Correia said she rarely attends meetings. Indeed, council records show she has been present for just 15 percent of the committee’s meetings since 2019.
“She’s engaged in certain topics within the council, but it depends on what it is,” Correia said.
Her position on more controversial topics has received ample attention in the media.
Shortly before she took office, Kerwin said the General Assembly should consider decriminalizing sex work after prostitution arrests at a strip club in her ward. She later sponsored a resolution urging lawmakers to create a commission to study the health and safety impacts of loosening commercial sexual activity laws.
Last October, Kerwin said in a radio interview that she supported vandals who splashed red paint on a Christopher Columbus statue the morning of Columbus Day. The city removed the statue in June amid fear that protesters would vandalize it again.
“I stand with them,” Kerwin said.
More recently, Kerwin has been a vocal supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement, and has championed efforts to defund the police department. This year’s police department budget has not been finalized, and while officials have warned that it may see a cut, there has not been widespread support from the council or Mayor Jorge Elorza for defunding the department.
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In her own neighborhood, Kerwin remains popular.
Walsh, the state representative, and longtime state Senator Maryellen Goodwin both said Kerwin is responsive to her constituents and a constant presence in the community.
Goodwin, a Democrat who is considered more conservative than Kerwin, said neighbors like the councilwoman. The two don’t see eye to eye on defunding the police – “I support the police,” Goodwin said – but Kerwin has a large following in the district.
“Kat Kerwin and I don’t always agree on everything,” Goodwin said. “But I find her very easy to work with.”
Still, Goodwin acknowledged that Kerwin’s views have led to detractors, and the police body camera footage of the councilwoman attempting to intervene at the downtown wine bar has led to plenty of criticism.
Correia, her colleague on the council, said Kerwin should apologize for her actions.
“That’s not what you say when you’re an elected official,” Correia said. “You represent the city of Providence. You’re just wrong.”
Lesley Bunnell, a community organizer who supports the Black Lives Matter movement, said she was offended by Kerwin’s attempt to deflect blame for the incident by referring to the unrelated case involving Sergeant Hanley, the police officer who has been charged with assaulting a handcuffed man.
“The man who was beaten by Sergeant Hanley has nothing to do with them playing loud music,” Bunnell said.
Bunnell, who is Black, said Kerwin’s comments were tone deaf and emblematic of a broader problem as white activists attempt to address racism in their communities.
“I don’t personally care about what happens with Kat Kerwin, but I do care that white people who think they’re the ‘good white people’ are out there causing just as much harm as a racist would for people of color,” Bunnell said.
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To be sure, Kerwin isn’t going anywhere.
She still has two years left in her current term, and will begin taking classes at Roger Williams University School of Law next week. She has also been working behind the scenes to open a bar in the downtown area, although that plan hasn’t been finalized.
Her friends say they expect Kerwin to keep pushing the envelope.
“People use ‘radical’ as a bad thing,” Lomazzo, the transgender activist, said. “I see it as a good thing.”