EXETER – While personal experience and tragedy informed much of her platform, Exeter resident Megan Cotter said a primary reason she decided to run for the Rhode Island House of Representatives was that she was tired of the status quo.
“There’s so many reasons, it’s hard to pick one,” Cotter, a sales representative, said on Monday. “The biggest reason I decided to run is because I’m tired. I’m tired of the General Assembly being the way it is, I’m tired of the issues that impact my family and this community not being addressed.”
Cotter, a registered Democrat, is running for House District 39 (Exeter, Richmond and Hopkinton), which has been represented by incumbent Rep. Justin Price, a Republican, for years. Another Republican, Gerald Zarella, is also vying for the seat.
Cotter is a self-identified progressive in the vein of Franklin D. Roosevelt, one who supports a $15 minimum wage, legalizing marijuana, free lunch for all students and the Green New Deal–legislation that aims to address climate change and economic inequality.
While the district has been represented by Price since 2014, Cotter said that residents are “ready for change,” exemplified by the hardships brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests.
“I’ve been told by some that ‘you’re too progressive to run here,’” Cotter said. “I don’t think that’s true. I live here and I’m super progressive. I think that people are ready for change. If we have learned anything from this past year and the coronavirus and the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s that we’re not doing it right. We’re just not. We need change, we’re ready for change, and I think that now is the perfect time to run.”
Cotter is a member of the Rhode Island Political Cooperative, a statewide grassroots movement whose goal is to elect 25 progressive candidates in the state. She also said her campaign is “100 percent funded by people,” and vowed to never take any money from lobbyists and corporations.
She said that her policy positions stemmed from her own history, including graduating from college in the midst of an economic recession, her father passing away from cancer and her house burning down in a freak accident.
Though Cotter graduated from the University of Rhode Island in 2008 with three degrees, including English, comparative literature and classical studies, she said the job opportunities were thin, to say the least.
At this point, she had already met her husband, who she had three children with.
“When I graduated from URI, I had three degrees,” she said. “Here I am, I’m young, I already started a family, and there should be no issue getting a job. Well that couldn’t be farther from the truth.”
She said the experience included scraping together whatever money they could, and making difficult decisions along the way, like having to choose between paying for groceries or the electric bill.
“When I finished school, I thought that I would be able to quickly find a great job making a livable wage,” she wrote on her website. “Instead, my graduating class faced The Great Recession. Jobs were scarce.”
“With the cost of daycare, it made more sense for me to waitress at night while my husband focused on his career by day. We struggled, and we barely saw each other,” she continued. “The rent, utilities, healthcare and student loans we paid each month were suffocating. We both knew it shouldn’t be this hard to raise a family in Rhode Island.”
It was this experience that brought her to support a “livable wage” of $15 an hour, to afford necessities like food, shelter, medicine and the “chance to pursue happiness.”
“Those decisions are made at the State House,” she said. “And that’s where I aim to be – right in the thick of things, bringing change to the people of our great state.”
Later, it was tragedy that gave her a firsthand look at issues like health care and community action.
In 2016, Cotter’s father was diagnosed with stage-4 colon cancer and, at the age of 57, passed away.
However, before he passed away, her father qualified for a drug trial, saving him from the cost of treatment.
“We were very fortunate with my father,” Cotter said. “He qualified for a trial drug, because the cancer was so advanced. It was like a Hail Mary drug.”
While sitting with her father as he received his chemotherapy treatment, however, Cotter overheard a conversation between a woman with cancer and her two daughters, discussing whether they could afford necessary treatment.
“I was sitting there and there was a woman telling her two daughters that she was ending treatment if the results were negative,” Cotter said. “She was not going to see her children [be left with] debt over her treatment, especially if her cancer was so advanced that it wouldn’t even work.”
“That is horrific that someone has to make this decision based on finances,” she continued.
Soon after that, a toy’s battery-charger exploded in Cotter’s garage, burning her house to the ground.
“We lost everything,” Cotter said. “All we had was the clothes on our back. It was the most humbling experience you could imagine. It was crazy.”
But the experience showed her what kind of community she lived in.
“That was absolutely an incredible experience,” she said. “From the firemen to our neighbors, even strangers, we had so many donations of clothing for the kids and ourselves. I had to have friends come over and help me with the clothes, that’s how overwhelmed I was.”
“There was so much kindness, so much generosity,” she continued. “It really touches you. You look at your community differently after going through something like that.”
On her website, she wrote that, from the tragedy, her family “learned that the kindness and generosity of this community is like no other.”
“When given the choice between selling our land and buying somewhere else, or rebuilding right in the same spot, we immediately knew that this is the place where we want our children to grow up,” she continued. “We rebuilt. Right here. And now, we teach our children how to give back to the community that gave so much to us.”
All of these experiences, she said, brought her to her own compassion-based politics, formed around “fighting for the working class” in House District 39.
“I think right now, when I talk to voters and people in the community, I hear the same issues,” she said. “Whether they’re Democrat, Republican or Independent, they’re all the same: taxes are high, we have no business here, we’re clear-cutting acres of land to put up solar farms.”
Cotter was also critical of both Republicans and Democrats in the Rhode Island General Assembly.
“We need real solutions to these problems and I think people are willing to take a chance on somebody new,” she said. “I don’t really see much coming out of the leadership that we have right now. And I’m not just referring to my opponent, I’m referring to the majority of the General Assembly.”
On her website, Cotter cites climate change as an issue that the General Assembly as a whole, and House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello in particular, hasn’t done enough about.
“There is so much more Rhode Island can do on a state and local level. As a mother of young children, it breaks my heart knowing that if we don’t do something to protect our environment and climate now, our children will not have a livable planet,” she wrote. “This is why I have signed the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge, meaning I won’t accept a single cent from anyone in the fossil fuel industry.”
She added that if action was going to be taken to address climate change, it would have to “start at the local level.”
She also pointed to specific local issues in her district, such as the amount of deforestation happening in District 39 to clear land for solar energy farms, a “practice that defeats its objective.”
“We can transition our state to 100 percent renewable energy by 2030, create thousands of good-paying jobs in the process, without stripping our forests and farms for sustainable technologies,” she said. “Our forests and wildlife need better protection, not more destructive clear-cutting for solar farms. This is not a green project. We do not need to destroy our rural land to install green energy.”
Cotter said that, instead of subsidizing solar projects by companies like Green Development, which have resulted in clear-cutting acres of forestry, the state could invest in the installation of solar panels on municipal buildings. She currently has a petition requesting that the General Assembly amend the law for clear-cutting.
Another topic Cotter highlighted was the $1.2 billion that Rhode Island received in COVID-19 federal relief funds.
“We need elected officials who work for us: the working families in the community and in the state,” she wrote on her website. “Rhode Island has received $1.2 billion dollars in federal relief funds.”
“So, who will decide where that money goes? Will it go to the people, or will it go to the pals of big donors and lobbyists?” she asked. “I am running for office because corruption destroys lives. As state representative, I work for you. Not them.”
She also said she was “big on free lunches in schools,” because there is a “group of people in our community that make too much money to qualify for any aid but they don’t make enough to be comfortable,” adding that the average family income in Exeter is roughly $64,000.
Though Cotter is critical of both Republicans and Democrats in office, she said she already has some allies in the General Assembly.
“There are some people really rooting for me,” she said. “I’ve actually received donations from some members in office and I’m hoping to get a couple endorsements.”
Nevertheless, she said that, if elected, she would work with “everyone, because that will be my job.”
“But we need to move both parties to start thinking about their constituents and the working class,” she said.