PROVIDENCE — The six Democrats vying to fill the state Senate seat vacated by Gayle L. Goldin agree on a range of issues, such as providing driving privileges to undocumented residents and lifting a ban on abortion coverage in state employee health plans.
But differences between the candidates begin to appear when they are asked about support for current Senate leaders and whether they would repeal or revamp the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, which dictates how departments deal with police officer misconduct.
And each of the six make distinct arguments for what sets them apart in the Oct. 5 Democratic primary in Senate District 3, which includes Providence’s East Side, Fox Point, and Summit neighborhoods.
Goldin, a progressive Providence Democrat who championed abortion rights legislation and challenged the Senate leadership, stepped down on Aug. 17 to join President Biden’s administration as senior adviser in the US Labor Department’s Women’s Bureau.
The six Democrats who submitted nomination papers by Tuesday’s deadline are Shirley Francis-Fraser, Bret Jacob, Hilary Levey Friedman, Geena Pham, Ray Rickman, and Sam Zurier. The winner will be the overwhelming favorite in the Nov. 2 general election against Republican Alex Cannon.
The Globe provided 10 questions to the six Democrats. The candidates provided similar answers to some of the questions about issues they’d likely face if elected to the Senate. But answers to the following five questions (answered in alphabetical order) reveal distinctions and will help voters become more familiar with the candidates:
What is the single most important issue facing the residents of Senate District 3 in your opinion, and what will you do about it?
Shirley Francis-Fraser: The fact that 90 percent of Providence students cannot read or do math proficiently is the single most important issue today. An illiterate workforce cannot sustain Rhode Island’s economy and will not attract new business. I will continue to work with the Rhode Island Department of Education’s turnaround/community redesign team to provide the programs and wraparound services to turn this mass illiteracy around, as I have for the past three years.
Bret Jacob: Residents of District 3 recognize how interconnected all of our futures are, and that underlies the big issues like education, climate, housing, justice, and economic stability. In the near term, one of the most important practical issues this district faces is aging infrastructure — our state will receive a once-in-a-lifetime federal investment in infrastructure spending, and we need to be ready to fight at the State House to ensure Providence gets its fair share for roads, sewers, sidewalks, libraries, and flood prevention measures.
Hilary Levey Friedman: The top issues are education and public safety, which are deeply intertwined. We must provide better funding for our schools and after-school programs. By centering student outcomes we can address inequities, ensuring every child has access to opportunity. This will help reduce inequality, which has fueled a recent spike in crime and violence. (Let’s be clear: ATVs and dirt bikes are neither safe nor legal on our city streets.)
Geena Pham: Our district faces a series of overlapping problems: a rapidly accelerating climate crisis, a deeply dysfunctional health-care system that is failing to keep us safe during the pandemic, and a serious shortage of affordable housing. When elected, I will work to pass a Green New Deal, enact universal health care, and invest in green affordable housing to ensure that every Rhode Islander has clean air, clean water, clean energy, high-quality medical care, and a safe home.
Ray Rickman: I am running to be laser focused on improving Providence schools serving 23,000 youth. They are in the hands of the state, and I have seen no improvement in the last two years. Like the rest of Providence, people on the East Side are rightfully unhappy with the quality of public schools. Virtually no East Siders attend Hope High School because every year it ranks as one of the three or four worst high schools in the state. I will join the struggle to keep Vartan Gregorian School successful and put enormous energy into restoring Martin Luther King Jr. School to its high-quality performance of 10 years ago. I favor building a new MLK School.
Sam Zurier: The most important issue facing our neighborhood (as well as the state as a whole) is to complete our recovery from the pandemic and strengthen our public health systems. The state should use American Rescue Plan Act funds to address these issues on a more urgent basis.
What is the main thing that sets you apart from your opponents in the Senate District 3 race?
Francis-Fraser: I am a third-generation African-American resident of Providence’s East Side. My family has lived here for more than 100 years. We have advanced civil rights daily as we overcame racism and thrived. I campaign in honor of my grandmother Icye Jenkins, a daughter of the Jim Crow South made illiterate by a system that did not value her worth. She needlessly suffered because she could not read. I run to stop the illiteracy of 90 percent of Providence students.
Jacob: I have lived the issues that many progressives support addressing. And I’ve brought that personal experience to bear on work for Providence over the last decade. I think to champion legislative change at the State House you have to have a strong voice, be willing to take a stand, and have an ability to work with a wide range of people. I’m ready to work hard on behalf of District 3.
Levey Friedman: We need leaders who can build bridges to address the policy issues we face. As the only candidate who has been actively advocating for legislation for our community in recent years, I have been a part of coalitions that have helped pass many major pieces of anti-discrimination legislation, like the Fair Pay Act and the Uniform Parentage Act. Professionally, I am a sociologist who has taught in the Department of Education at Brown.
Pham: If elected, I would be the first Asian-American ever to serve in the Rhode Island General Assembly. Additionally, I’m the only candidate in the race who has signed the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge. I’m also the only candidate in the race who has signed the Green New Deal pledge, promising to advocate for a bold Green New Deal to decarbonize our state, build climate resiliency, make large-scale investments in green affordable housing, and shut down polluting facilities in overburdened communities.
Rickman: I have life and legislative experiences that no other candidate in this race possesses. I’ve served as a government official at the federal, state, and local level, and have been a fully engaged community and civil leader in Rhode Island for more than 40 years. As a three-term state representative for the East Side, I was one of the foremost reformers and received the Common Cause award of the year three times. This Senate seat is for only one year, a short term, with no time to learn the ropes, and requires a person who knows how to navigate the Senate. I am the only candidate who can hit the ground running to get the job done.
Zurier: I believe my prior accomplishments in public and community service (Providence School Board, East Side Public Education Coalition, Providence City Council) provide me with the knowledge, skills, and experience to help develop legislative solutions to some of the most difficult problems confronting our neighborhood, our city and the state. Among the problems I wish to address are public education (in Providence and in urban school districts), the pandemic response, and the city’s financial stability.
Former Senator Goldin challenged the current leadership team of Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio and Senate Majority Leader Michael J. McCaffrey. Would you support the current leadership team? And in choosing Senate leaders, will their views on abortion rights and gun control be significant considerations?
Francis-Fraser: As a state senator, I will evaluate the merits of legislation on a case-by-case basis. On points that I disagree with I challenge vigorously. I believe that a woman has the right to choose per Roe v. Wade. I believe in strong gun control and traditionally never agree with the NRA.
Jacob: Right now, I’m focused on winning this race. I have seen progressive legislators vote for and against the current leadership, and I would want to see who is in contention, what they support, and what other legislators think. My strong support for reproductive health care and common sense gun safety will not change. My focus will be how to make important ideas into real legislation for the people I represent.
Levey Friedman: No leadership vote is expected to be held this year. If I am elected in 2021, and then reelected in 2022, I would look deeply at who the candidates for Senate president and Senate majority leader are — including their stance on issues that are important to District 3, along with their ability to work with others in the Senate to help Rhode Islanders. My record shows that I am not afraid to take on leadership at the State House.
Pham: I will not support Senator Ruggerio or Senator McCaffrey. Neither one of them shares my values. Both of them oppose taking bold climate action. Both of them accept campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industry. Both of them oppose reproductive freedom, common sense gun control measures, and serious racial justice policies. Rhode Island can and will do so much better when we oust corrupt and regressive politicians like Senator Ruggerio and Senator McCaffrey from their positions of power.
Rickman: My first two years in the House, I was a practical legislator who was successful in naming a bridge for Dr. King; securing $76,000 for the five-way stop light at a dangerous intersection at Thayer and Hope streets; securing $44,000 to restore the glass ceiling in the Great Hall at the RISD Museum ... In my last four years in the legislature, I became a leading reformer and was successful in bringing about a host of changes in how the House and Senate functioned ... In this short term, it is my goal to stay out of the politics of the Senate and promote legislation to improve our public schools.
Zurier: I support a woman’s reproductive freedom and robust gun control. If elected, I will work with leadership on issues that serve the state’s interests, and oppose leadership when that is not the case. In my second City Council term, I vigorously opposed the top two leaders (who both pleaded guilty to felonies and resigned in disgrace), but while they were in office I gained their support for projects that addressed important city concerns.
Following an outcry over the killing of George Floyd, state legislators introduced bills to revamp or overhaul Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights (LEOBOR). Would you repeal LEOBOR or revamp it? What changes do you think need to be made?
Francis-Fraser: I would revamp it, bringing all parties to the mediation table.
Jacob: I support the full repeal of LEOBOR. This law is a barrier to the justice that survivors of police misconduct deserve and to building greater transparency and trust on all sides. For example, repealing LEOBOR would lift restrictions on police chiefs from exercising disciplinary measures that are commensurate with the offense. It will also allow departments to share information about incidents in real time, not months after a LEOBOR proceeding has concluded.
Levey Friedman: No one should live in fear of the police and no police officer should feel invincible. We need to overhaul the Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights, including considering its repeal. There are two bills, one in each chamber, that are not aligned. This tells me we have a lot of work to do, but we do not have a lot of time. Action is necessary and we cannot afford to wait — or get this wrong.
Pham: I would vote to fully repeal LEOBOR. Nobody should be above the law, but LEOBOR provides special protections to police officers that allow them to avoid punishment when they commit unlawful acts. By repealing LEOBOR, we will ensure that all police officers have to fully comply with our legal system — just like everyone else — and we will help to reduce unlawful police violence, particularly against people of color.
Rickman: I have been opposed to LEOBOR since the day it was created. We need leadership in the Senate that will change the dialogue. I am committed to be a strong leader against LEOBOR. On Jan. 15, 2022, I will facilitate a one-day legislative conference co-sponsored by the Roger Williams University School of Law to spotlight this inequity and build support to vote for its total repeal.
Zurier: I support revamping LEOBOR. Following the Senate Task Force’s recommendations, I support extending the length of the summary discipline period and changing the composition of the hearing panel. I also support scaling back the doctrine of sovereign immunity to permit victims of police misconduct greater access to justice in civil lawsuits.
Do you support the bill, introduced in the last legislative session, that would have placed a three-year moratorium on new charter schools? Why or why not?
Francis-Fraser: I do support this. I have reviewed the Rhode Island Department of Education report card data for charter schools in Rhode Island. The data show that charter schools are not preparing students any better than public schools presently. Often, they show a low two-star ranking similar to public schools. The moratorium would allow public school funds to be used to strengthen and improve public schools instead of diverted to charter school experiments.
Jacob: As a public school graduate, I believe in bold investments in public education. The vision for charter schools came from teacher’s unions as a way to create innovation, but sadly they have become a national battleground. There are some great local charters, but I think we need to work out the fiscal impact on our public districts that serve the vast majority of our students before we allow continued growth of charter schools.
Levey Friedman: I would not have voted for that bill because the retroactive moratorium would have prohibited students already signed up from attending their selected school. As a parent with kids in elementary school, I can only imagine how chaos-inducing that would have been for families. We must invest in our public schools with the focus on every child having access to an excellent education.
Pham: I support placing a moratorium on new charter school construction. As a public school teacher, I see firsthand the devastating effects that decades of systemic under-funding have had on our public school system. Charter schools exacerbate this problem, siphoning money from our public school students and leaving them to struggle with enormous class sizes and crumbling school buildings. I will fight tirelessly to make sure that our state provides public school students with the resources and education they need to thrive.
Rickman: I favor a two- or three-year moratorium on the creation of any new charter schools. I am also in favor of a state-funded report on the status of existing charter schools and how they might be improved. I want to know the status of their libraries, gyms, playgrounds, and if these spaces are adequate for their students. We are so busy yelling back and forth about charter schools that we are neglecting to discuss the children who attend them. A two-year moratorium will give us a break in the harsh anti- and pro-charter school debate.
Zurier: As I wrote in my testimony at the time, I support a moratorium on the approval of new charter schools, while permitting those already approved to open. I believe the “money follows the child” feature of the current funding formula has been devastating to traditional public schools and needs to be reviewed.