PROVIDENCE – The young challenger is embroiled in a controversy involving Elon Musk, while the veteran incumbent is enmeshed in a controversy involving DJ Rukiz.
With more than four months remaining until voters go to the polls, the House District 9 Democratic primary in Providence is already one of this year’s more intriguing and contentious General Assembly races.
Enrique Sanchez, the 25-year-old former political director of the Black Lives Matter RI PAC, is taking on Representative Anastasia P. Williams, the House Labor Committee chairwoman who is 65 and has been in office for nearly 30 years – longer than Sanchez has been alive.
The winner will represent a House of Representatives district that stretches across the West End, Silver Lake, Olneyville, Manton, Wiggin Village, Upper South Providence, and Hartford Park neighborhoods.
In launching his challenge, Sanchez touted the endorsement of two progressive Democratic senators, Tiara Mack and Samuel W. Bell, and he blasted Williams for voting against the Act on Climate, for asking Governor Daniel J. McKee to back off vaccine mandates for health workers, and for questioning how the state can house and support Afghan refugees while so many residents are homeless.
Williams defended her stances on those issues, and she touted her record of sponsoring a law prohibiting discrimination against those who receive government assistance to pay their rent, a measure that removed the word “plantations” from the state’s official name, and a bill requiring that African-American history be taught in Rhode Island schools.
But in recent weeks, debate about the issues has been overshadowed by controversies involving the two candidates.
The first arose when Michael Costa, also known as “DJ Rukiz,” claimed Williams had “hijacked” his business plan for a Black radio station and submitted a House resolution seeking $685,000 for the Black and Latino Caucus Community Partnerships, a nonprofit that she founded.
On April 4, Costa wrote a letter to House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, a Warwick Democrat, accusing Williams of “a knowing and willful violation” of the state Code of Ethics.
“I write this letter today in great disappointment and disgust,” he wrote, citing a March 31 Providence Journal article about the controversy. “Anastasia Williams is supposed to serve the people – not take from the people, which in this case I can prove she has.”
Costa said he has been trying to create a Black-owned radio station in Rhode Island since 2009 and he talked to Williams about the idea in 2019, asking her for help in securing funding.
“She picked apart pieces of the business plan I created and presented it to the General Assembly as hers,” he told the Globe. “What makes me upset is she took my business plan and made it Latin when there are four Latin radio stations in Rhode Island now.”
Williams denied stealing Costa’s idea or doing anything unethical.
She said she that when the pandemic began, then-governor Gina M. Raimondo was focusing on getting public health information to the Latino community, and Williams wanted to also find ways to reach the Black community.
Williams said she spoke with Costa about his plans, but he wasn’t licensed with the Federal Communications Commission and he wanted to run a for-profit station, while she wanted a volunteer organization.
So Williams said she began working with others on a radio station plan and submitted the resolution, seeking $685,000 for a radio station nicknamed the “Soul of Providence,” with the call letters WSOP-LP.
It would be licensed to the Black and Latino Caucus Community Partnerships, a nonprofit that until recently was called the Black and Latino Caucus. That name is nearly identical to the Rhode Island Black and Latino Legislative Caucus – which consists of state legislators, including Williams – but it is a separate entity.
Williams said the radio station would not benefit her. “Not a dime in my pocket,” she said.
Williams said she founded the Black and Latino Caucus nonprofit 12 years ago but removed herself and stopped participating about seven years ago. She said she is no longer the group’s registered agent.
State records from 2011 show Williams was the group’s first president, and the vice president at the time was former Representative Leo Medina, who was later sentenced to prison for unlawfully appropriating $28,000 in an unrelated matter.
This year, state records list Juana Negron as the group’s president and registered agent.
Williams is now seeking a state Ethics Commission advisory opinion regarding “whether the Code of Ethics prohibits her from participating in General Assembly discussions and decision-making that will financially impact the Black and Latino Caucus Community Partnerships, a private organization incorporated by (Williams) and for which (Williams) was, until recently, the registered agent.”
The Ethics Commission had been scheduled to take up the request on April 26, but Williams asked to move the matter to May 17.
Sanchez criticized Williams for the funding request, saying it would be “very unethical” for her to secure hundreds of thousands in public funds for a nonprofit that she incorporated.
“It would not look good for anyone in a position of power,” he said. “It’s a conflict of interest. The intention behind it is not a bad idea, but it would have to include many, many people to oversee that.”
Sanchez said the episode is part of a pattern for Williams. For example, he noted that in 2016 WPRI-12 reported that Williams had gone for years without mentioning that she was president of the Black and Latino Caucus nonprofit on Ethics Commission disclosure forms.
Meanwhile, Sanchez finds himself in a controversy of his own.
On April 25, Sanchez, who works as a substitute Spanish language teacher at Central High School in Providence, tweeted about the news that Elon Musk had reached a deal to buy Twitter for $44 billion.
“Of course I explained to my students in all five of my classes today why Elon Musk buying off Twitter is the worse thing that could have happened,” he wrote. “No individual and especially wealthy elites should be given these types of opportunities to buy off social media platforms.”
Of course I explained to my students in all five of my classes today why Elon Musk buying off Twitter is the worse thing that could have happened.— Enrique Sanchez for RI State Representative (@EnriqueForRI) April 25, 2022
No individual and especially wealthy elites should be given these types of opportunities to buy off social media platforms.
The tweet drew more than 1,300 responses, sparking criticism online and on local talk radio. Even the London-based Daily Mail picked up on the backlash to Sanchez’s tweet, including one person who tweeted: “@EnriqueForRI needs to keep his political beliefs to himself when he’s teaching. Public education will fall if teachers don’t get back to doing their jobs, which is teaching, not proselytizing.’”
The tweet also drew the attention of the Providence Public School District. “The issue is currently being investigated by our human resources office,” spokesman Nick Domings said. “District guidelines prevent us from discussing ongoing human resources matters.”
Sanchez said, “It was probably something that should have been worded better. I should have written about open discussion and not just my opinion.”
He said the discussion about Musk was not part of a lesson, and he said students often discuss current events. “So it was not a planned discussion and not indoctrination of any sort,” he said. “I work in schools with Black and brown youth that have been left behind for so long by the Providence school system. I want to set example that maybe they can run for office and be future leaders.”
Williams criticized Sanchez for the tweet, saying, “First and foremost, it’s inappropriate to be forcing your personal interests, beliefs, personal stances on any students, especially when you have a curriculum you are supposed to be following. The priority is to be educating, uplifting, and supporting our students, not fulfilling your beliefs or recruiting innocent minds from a classroom.”
With the election year under way, and first quarter fundraising complete, Williams enjoys a substantial lead in campaign cash. She had $47,064 in her campaign account, while Sanchez had $6,487, according to the state Board of Elections.
The primary is set for Sept. 13.
Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.