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R.I. NOW president weighing run for either state House or Senate

Hilary Levey Friedman says she would not challenge progressives Rep. Ajello or Sen. Goldin but wants to be ready if status quo changes

Hilary Levey Friedman, president of the Rhode Island chapter of the National Organization for WomenCourtesy of Hilary Levey Friedman

PROVIDENCE — The president of the Rhode Island chapter of the National Organization for Women made waves this week in announcing that she is exploring a run for the General Assembly.

Hilary Levey Friedman’s announcement drew attention in part because she did not specify whether she is running for the state House or Senate, and because she lives in a part of Providence’s East Side now represented by two of the state’s most well-known progressive female legislators – Representative Edith H. Ajello and Senator Gayle L. Goldin.

Levey Friedman is making clear that she doesn’t want to run against Ajello or Goldin. But, she said, she wants to be ready in case legislative redistricting changes political borders, or Goldin seeks statewide office. Another possible sea change: Ajello is in her 29th year as a legislator and has not decided whether she will seek re-election next year.

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“This is about being ready no matter what happens,” Levey Friedman said. “A year ago, who would have thought Rhode Island politics would look the way it does now? You never know what happens.”

When she made her announcement, East Side activist Wendy Becker tweeted: “Can’t think of legislators that have done more for women than Edie Ajello and @gaylegoldin. Your news makes this feminist sad.”

Levey Friedman said she reached out to Becker to emphasize that she, too, admires Ajello and Goldin and would not try to unseat them.

In an interview, she said, “Senator Goldin has been openly exploring a run for statewide office, so that is her decision to make, and Representative Ajello is literally a legend in what she has accomplished.”

On Twitter, she said, “I have so much respect for #EdieAjello and @Gaylegoldin, who I look up to & with whom I share the same values. But as one of them looks to higher office, and again with redistricting on the horizon, want to be #readytorun.”

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Levey Friedman noted that Rhode Island just received new census data, meaning the redistricting process will soon begin. “We don’t know what the districts will look like, so I want to be out there this summer and be able to talk to voters,” she said.

If the opportunity presented itself, Levey Friedman said she would try to continue fighting for the issues that Goldin and Ajello have championed. She said her legislative priorities would include abortion rights, child care, affordable housing, and reducing gun violence.

Goldin, a Democrat first elected to the Senate in 2012, is considered a potential 2022 candidate for secretary of state. She introduced the Senate version of the Reproductive Privacy Act, which the Assembly passed in 2019 to protect abortion rights in Rhode Island in case the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade.

“I have made no decision about what I will be doing in 2022,” Goldin said. “(Levey Friedman’s) announcement does not signal any decision-making on my part.”

Ajello, a Democrat first elected to the House in 1992 who also was instrumental in passage of the Reproductive Privacy Act, said she has not decided whether she will seek re-election next year.

At age 77, she said she sometimes would like more time off from her duties at the Assembly and working at V. George Rustigian Rugs. But, she said, “I am still enjoying serving in the General Assembly.” And, she said, “I haven’t figured out what I’d like to do if I’m retired – I’m not a golfer.”

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Ajello said Levey Friedman told her she would not run against her, and she said, “I don’t want people to think that I feel threatened by her saying she is exploring running.”

Levey Friedman, 40, is a sociologist and expert on beauty pageants, childhood and parenting, competitive after-school activities, and popular culture who teaches in Brown’s Department of Education, where she is a visiting assistant professor.

She has written two books, including “Here She Is: The Complicated Reign of the Beauty Pageant in America.” Her mother was Miss America in 1970. She has degrees from Harvard University, Princeton University, and the University of Cambridge.

Levey Friedman said her sociology work would help her in politics. “I talk to people and interview them and figure out how they see the world,” she said. “I am able to hear where they are coming from and put it in context – systems and institutions.”

While she has not run for public office before, Levey Friedman said she is familiar with the legislative process, having served as president of the Rhode Island chapter of NOW since 2018. She said she has testified at the State House hundreds of times, working in coalitions and pushing for legislation such as the Reproductive Privacy Act and the Uniform Parentage Act.

“Legislative advocacy is something that gets me excited, and it shows me one way to make change in the world,” Levey Friedman said. “So running for office seems like a logical next step for me.”

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Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.