Last week, a Rhode Island high school hosted a forum for students to ask questions of candidates running for local, state and national office. The forum, called Candidates Day, was held by the North Kingstown High School, and featured several candidates who will be appearing on ballots throughout the state in the upcoming General Election on Nov. 3.
All opposed candidates on the North Kingstown ballot received an invitation to the forum, which included candidates for Senate District 35, as well as those running for U.S. Senate and Congressional districts. While the forum has traditionally been held in the North Kingstown High School auditorium, this year’s event was done virtually, due to COVID-19 restrictions on large gatherings. The forum was overseen by Lawrence Verria, chair of the social studies department at North Kingstown High School, with the help of students from the Democracy Program. Questions were selected from student submissions.
Sen. Bridget Valverde (D-Dist. 35, East Greenwich, North Kingstown, South Kingstown, Narragansett), who was elected in 2018 and is running for reelection, attended the forum, answering questions about state budgets, the Black Lives Matter movement, unemployment, infrastructure and the minimum wage. Her opponent, Charles Callanan, a Republican, was not in attendance.
The first question touched on the Rhode Island state budget, and whether she would prioritize raising taxes or cutting programs.
“There’s no doubt we’re facing some very tough budget years due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” she said. “We can either cut programs or we can find other revenue to plug those holes, but we cannot cut our way out of this crisis.”
“It will only prolong the economic downturn in Rhode Island if we decide to cut programs and put people out of work,” she continued, adding that the state “can’t be cutting social services at any time, but especially during a public health crisis.”
She also said that the state was hoping for another COVID-19 relief package, though would also be looking into other means of revenue, such as a pause in the rollback on car taxes and an increase in the tax rate for top earners. In March, the U.S. Congress passed the CARES Act, a $2.2 trillion economic stimulus bill, however a second stimulus has not yet been passed by the U.S. Senate.
Valverde was also asked how she would address issues brought up by the Black Lives Matter movement, such as police brutality and racial inequality.
“Those concerns need to be met with actual policy prescriptions,” she said.
Some of the policies she would support include equal access to high quality education, a raise in the minimum wage, reforming law enforcement so police officers accountable, and making sure “our kids are getting culturally and racially sensitive from an early age so that we can break the cycle of racism in Rhode Island.”
Furthermore, she was asked what actions could be taken to address the unemployment rate in Rhode Island.
After getting through the pandemic, Valverde said it would be important to invest in the small business community and provide a public funding stream, affordable child care and expand family medical leave policies.
The State Senator was then asked about Rhode Island infrastructure, specifically the state of the roads.
Valverde said a lot of progress had been made through the state’s RhodeWorks program, which is focused on rebuilding the state’s roads and bridges.
However, she said more long term planning was needed to develop a complete model, such as bike paths and pedestrian friends sidewalks.
Finally, she was asked about raising the minimum wage in Rhode Island, which is currently $11.50 an hour. Valverde said she was strongly in favor of raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
“Right now we’re lagging behind our neighboring states in terms of our minimum wage rate. I would like to see us get on a predictable path to $15 an hour over the next couple of years,” she said. “Low wages are the basis of so many problems we have. It’s one of the most important things we can do to lift people out of poverty in Rhode Island.”
Next up in the forum were candidates for the U.S. Senate and House.
James Langevin, a Democrat and current U.S. Representative for Rhode Island’s 2nd congressional district, as well as his opponent, Robert Lancia, a Republican, attended the forum.
The two candidates were asked what steps they would take to address the growing disparity and income inequality in our nation.
Langevin said that, first, the tax code would have to be amended so that it’s “fair and balanced,” referencing the recent New York Times articles that showed President Donald Trump paid $750 dollars in taxes some years.
“Right now, too many high net worth individuals and big corporations pay little-to-nothing in taxes,” he said. “It’s reported recently, for example, that Donald Trump, in some years, has only paid $750, even though he’s a multi-billionaire.”
He also said that more COVID-19 funding aid had to be delivered to Rhode Islanders through direct stimulus payments to individuals and small businesses.
“We need to come together to find solutions that are going to make income equality more fair and balanced, I think it starts with the tax code,” Langevin said.
Lancia, a former member of the Rhode Island House of Representatives, said that the most important thing to take up when looking into income inequality was education, referencing the low proficiency rates in Providence.
“There are too many children not getting a quality education, and if they’re not getting a quality education, they can’t compete,” he said. “That’s been 30 years of failure in our Providence school system.”
The candidates were also asked about their stances on the Black Lives Matter movement.
Langevin said that he supported the movement, adding that it was “very disturbing to see too often young black lives snuffed out.”
“Communities of color are hurting right now,” he said. “They don’t feel they’re getting equal protection and equal justice under the law. That’s why I signed onto the George Floyd Equal Justice in Police Act, and I hope that will pass.”
He added that he was a strong supporter of police officers and first responders.
“Every day they go to work and most of them serve with distinction and live up to the motto of ‘protect and serve,’” he said. “For some reason, whether it’s bad training or bad apples that should have never become police officers, something is wrong and that needs to change.”
Lancia said that he was in agreement that black lives mattered, adding that he and his wife regularly work with the black community through basketball clinics in Providence and West Warwick.
“it’s not about basketball, it’s about using basketball to change lives,” he said of the clinics. “Kids are struggling with gun violence, drugs and lack of educational opportunities.”
They also addressed what they believed to be the greatest foreign policy concerns.
Langevin said that COVID-19, which “knows no borders,” was the biggest foreign policy and domestic crisis facing the United States, adding that the country also had to work closely together with allies around the world to secure our cyber networks.
Lancia, on the other hand, said that China represented the biggest foreign policy concern, adding that the country was building up its Navy and strategic weaponry.
“The Indian community is having battles with China on their border,” he said. “[India] is a natural ally with us, we need to be partnering up with countries who are concerned about the rise of China.”
“By doing that, hopefully we can begin to hold China at bay,” he continued. “We have a lot of work to do as far as getting our Navy up to where it needs to be so we can compete against China and their militarization.”
Both also said that efforts had to be made against election interference by countries like Russia and Iran, with Lancia adding that Rhode Island’s voter rolls had to be “cleaned” in order to ensure better accuracy for mail ballots.
Candidates for the U.S. Senate also attended the forum, including incumbent Jack Reed, a Democrat, as well as his opponent Allen Waters, a Republican.
The first question posed to both candidates was whether they supported the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court, particularly in light of the handling of Merrick Garland’s nomination in 2016.
Garland was nominated by former president Barack Obama after Justice Antonin Scalia died in 2016, however he was never given a hearing by the Republican controlled Senate based on an argument that the next elected president should fill the vacancy. However, after Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died in September, Trump nominated Coney Barrett to fill the vacancy, just months before the upcoming general election.
The Senate voted to appoint Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court on Monday, with only Republican Senators voting in favor of the appointment.
“You play to win, sometimes the win doesn’t go your way,” Waters said, adding that he supported the nomination. “President Trump had a mandate from the day he began president until the day he ends. Right now, he has the opportunity to add a Supreme Court justice, he’s just doing his job.”
Waters also said he did not support “court packing,” or adding more seats to the Supreme Court.
Reed called it “one of the most hypocritical actions” he’s ever observed in the U.S. Senate.
“They held up Merrick Garland’s nomination for months, then they declared that they would never bring up a nomination in the last year of an election campaign,” he said. “No justice has been considered this close to an election in the history of the United States.”
Regarding a potential packing of the Supreme Court, Reed said that the consideration of Rhode Islanders, and whether it would result in the court becoming a partisan institution, had to be taken into account before a decision could be made.
They were also asked what measures they would take to slow the effects of climate change.
Reed said that climate change was real and represented a national security issue.
“We should take aggressive action to stem climate change, first by undoing things President Trump has done,” Reed said, adding that further incentives had to be given for alternative energy usage. “We have to act, and we have to act promptly.”
Waters said there were “conservative ways to respond to climate change,” such as investing in safe nuclear power and moving from more carbon emissions to less, though in ways that would not negatively impact the economy.
The two candidates were also asked if they supported another COVID-19 economic stimulus package.
Waters said that COVID-19 did “not cause economic suffering”–rather the government’s mismanagement and enforced shutdowns did.
“We need to reopen the economy in Rhode Island as well as the country as soon as possible, but with caution,” he said.
“The government needs to protect those that are most at risk and let us get back to work before we create a great economic depression,” he continued, adding that he would support another stimulus package that was “laser focused” on getting money to the people and business who need it most.
Reed pointed out that a second stimulus package was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in May, though the Republican controlled Senate never took it up. The Senator also said that Trump’s response to the pandemic has been a failure.
“We definitely need a new package, the House passed a package in May,” he said. “The Senate and Republicans have refused to really consider it.”
A second stimulus package would have to provide resources to businesses, particularly restaurants, Reed said, adding that it would also have to provide funding for performance centers who are out of business.
Additionally, a second relief package would have to supply unemployment benefits for people who have lost their jobs.