Two city council seats, one state rep, the mayor and the governor's offices - meet the democratic candidates on this month's primary ticket:
Meet the Candidates: Seth Yurdin and Justice Gaines
If you were to look up gerrymandering in the dictionary, you would see the Ward I Council map. The Ward is made up of Fox Point, Lower Wayland, the Jewelry District, and a large section of Downtown. While the growth in residents is more in the Jewelry District and Downtown, the “foundation” remains in Fox Point.
For decades, Ward 1 was a solid working-class neighborhood where the Councilperson (Alderman, before that) was born here or was a long-term resident. The Ward was always plowed first in a storm because the plow drivers or their mothers lived here! Then a very ambitious Brown student with a very progressive agenda, David Segal, leveraged the Brown undergraduate vote in a presidential election year and captured the seat and it has stayed in the Progressive Democratic corner since.
While there are some Fox Point residents that walk across the Point Street Bridge to work or to downtown, there is little in reverse traffic except for Adler’s and the Wickenden / South Main / Ives restaurants.
Both candidates are Progressive Democrats and have similar positions on most of the issues and fundamentally agree that Ward 1 is in good shape.
Seth Yurdin, 50 of Governor Street is the incumbent who was first elected in 2006. He is a native of Long Island, New York, who came to the East Side in 1999. Yurdin is a lawyer with an eclectic resume encompassing community service and political activism. He led the RI chapter of Democracy for America and traveled to Mississippi with the American Red Cross to manage a shelter for residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina.
“After a lot of hard work, we’re finally seeing some exciting changes for Ward 1”, exclaims Yurdin, "Ives Street streets and sidewalks have been improved, Wickenden Street will be repaved, and new local restaurants and businesses are having great successes. Gregorian Elementary School remains one of the top elementary schools in the City and the funding that I helped obtained to turn the Fox Point Bath House into a library has been completed as well as major repairs at India Point Park and new plots for the Fox Point Community Garden. The power lines will be relocated from the Park - but we need to keep pushing to get those buried.”
“Citywide, we’ve seen some gains in affordable housing, living wages and I have been a leader on issues of transparency and corruption, and improving police policies regarding the treatment of youths and LGBTQ individuals as well as the environment, climate change and common sense solutions to gun violence. I opposed the proposed Fane Tower which most of the Jewelry District believes is out of character for the area,” he adds.
That being said, new challenges and threats to the Ward will need to be addressed. The issue of how many non-related people can live in a house is at the top of the list as a return to the flop-houses on Benefit Street and in Fox Point would hurt, not only the character and quality of life but also property values. “The City is finally ramping up Code Enforcement, from what I’ve been hearing as I walk, but the legal department still hasn’t come up with a solution on the number of non-related residents and this remains a priority for me.”
Justice Gaines, 23 of Wickenden Street, grew up in Somerset, NJ and came to RI to attend Brown. Gaines is a trans woman, which she explains “drives her perspective.” She works as an organizer and labor rights advocate for RI Jobs with Justice and was a member of the working group for the Providence Community-Police Relations Act. She is active in the poetry and performing arts communities and has served as a mentor in creative writing for local youth.
She is running for City Council because she believes that the City needs “more creative, non-traditional solutions” and believes that she is someone who can “bridge communities.” “Providence has the potential for great things from within but need more proactive thinking,” Gaines explains.
“Ward 1 is in better shape than other areas of the city but still needs work, especially the maintenance of the streets,” she says. “Residents should be informed of quality of life issues that affect their neighborhood, like street closures, detours, and festivals so they are not inconvenienced,” she adds. She has issues with the police department, the lack of affordable housing (which is a “crisis citywide”) and wants more student input and involvement in social and educational policies that directly affect them. She thinks that Brown “takes more than it gives back” and always seems to come out ahead when dealing with the City.
She would like to see a “rent stabilization or rent control ordinance that would protect landlord’s rights but would also protect tenants” and is also against the Fane Tower.
Meet the Candidates: Helen Anthony, Mark Feinstein, Ryan Holt
The decision of Sam Zurier, the well-respected city councilor who has represented Ward 2 in the heart of the East Side for the past eight years, not to seek reelection caught many of us by surprise. But to his credit, the Councilman announced his decision several months before the filing deadline to allow any resident interested in the position plenty of time to step forward. This has not always been the case on the East Side, where in the past, a few incumbents made their decisions at the last possible moment seemingly preferring what unfortunately resembled more of a hand-off than an open election. “I’ve always felt strongly about the need for transparency in these situations,” explains Zurier, “and as a result I will not be endorsing any of the three candidates who will be seeking the office except to say I think they are all excellent candidates and are committed to representing our community as Providence continues to wrestle with its ongoing challenges. Any endorsements came from the Ward 2 committee and I specifically refrained from involving myself in their decision.”
As it turns out, the three candidates do in fact share many common positions with the outgoing councilman. They all opposed the Fane tower, objected to plans to rezone the area around the proposed suboxone project, are committed to the importance of the City’s doing what is necessary to maintain the high standards at Classical High School, and of enforcing regulations that currently prohibit the number of unrelated individuals in our residential dwelling units. Each of our 15 City Councilmen have different priorities, Zurier admits. “In my case it was education and fiscal responsibility.” Here is a look at the backgrounds and priorities of the three candidates seeking to represent the Ward.
While two of the candidates running to succeed Sam Zurier have a long history in Providence, candidate Helen Anthony feels her relatively short time (five years) should not be seen as a deterrent. A land use attorney working with the Providence law firm of Handy, LLC, the Connecticut native returned to the East Coast after more than ten years living in Columbia, MO when her husband took the job as head of pathology at Rhode Island and Miriam Hospitals. But it’s not like she has no experience in the intricacies of city governance. “I worked on the planning and zoning committees in Columbia for four years before winning a seat on the City Council there as a Democrat after a rigorous campaign in this Republican part of the country.” She believes this experience will serve her well as she adapts to her new home base and perhaps provide some useful new perspectives for the Council.
In the years she has been in Providence, Anthony has quickly become active in many of the civic areas that have always interested her. She was recently appointed to the Zoning Board of Providence by Mayor Elorza and has taken leadership roles at Crossroads on issues of domestic violence and at the Providence RI Coalition for the Homeless free legal clinic. She admits to falling in love with Providence – ”its parks are way better than Boston’s” – and as a community activist at heart with actual hands on governmental experience, she’s excited about trying to help her adopted new city deal with its problems.
She has identified three areas she plans to concentrate on if elected: Preserving the quality of life here in the city, addressing what she feels is the threat of overoccupancy in all family dwellings throughout the city, and the need to join with our other Providence elected officials on securing more funding for local public education.
She acknowledges that one of the issues that affect the East Side is that only three of the City’s 15 wards are here. “There was a time when much of the City Council leadership came from the East Side, I’m told. While it’s important that whoever represents the East Side has a clear vision of what needs to be done, there must also be recognition to the importance of establishing relationships with other stakeholders in the Council.” While admitting she doesn’t know many of the other members of the Council, she feels her success in dealing with similar issues in Columbia, particularly during a heated ward redistribution controversy there for example, will serve her well here.
Anthony (age 58) and her husband Doug live on Angell Street near Patterson Park. They have four adult children.
A successful businessman and active board member for many local charitable entities, Mark Feinstein is the first to admit there are a lot of things he will have to learn in terms of the way the City Council formulates and implements policy. “But I’m a quick study,” he laughs, “and I do know a lot about businesses and how things should run.”
A graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Insitute (RPI), Feinstein moved to Providence almost thirty years ago, initially to lead a business in northern Rhode Island. Soon however he began running his own businesses, ultimately owning some 29 Blockbuster stores and 10 Discovery Zone locations around RI and MA. His business acumen earned him a spot in Providence Economic Development Advisory Committee for the past 22 years and to which he has been appointed by four different mayors. He has recently become an investor in Providence Bagel, which he hopes to help franchise around the state, as well as finding time to teach business at Bryant. Feinstein shares his expertise in the non-profit world as well, serving on the Boards of Miriam Hospital, Temple Emanu-El, and Bank Rl, among others.
So why does a successful and already actively engaged man like Feinstein want to join the City Council? “Because of my kids and to protect their future. Rhode Island is a wonderful place to live and work. I have both the time and the energy at this point in my life to try and find solutions to the problems that are holding us back. My experience has taught me that the best way to do this is it to analyze how we got into a bad solution and learn from it, so we don’t do it again.”
If elected, Feinstein has several areas he hopes to work on in the Council. Most important to him is economic development, something he feels he knows quite well. He is especially interested in seeing how the City can help in the development of startups and developing the economic engines our city and state so badly need. On a more basic level, he also feels it’s important that the City at least follow the rules it already has in place: to take care of our sidewalks and parks, implement existing zoning, and insure public safety.
“I may not have all the answers, but I would very much like to part of a group to analyze and correct the things that continue to hold us back.”
Feinstein (age 62) and his wife Cindy live on Laurel Avenue and have three adult children.
Though the youngest of the three candidates, Holt represents the kind of resident that Rhode Island needs more of: A lifelong Rhode Islander who left for work but now has chosen to move back and wants to be part of the effort to rejuvenate our City and state. He and his wife Lilia were both born and bred in Providence, he from Smith Hill, she from the East Side.
Holt went to PC and then the Law School at Northeastern. Both he and his wife Lilia started their working careers in Boston but soon bought a house on the East Side and moved back a few years ago. Ryan is an attorney and lobbyist with the law firm of DarrowEverett, LLP. Now a member of both the boards of College Hill Neighborhood Association and the Mile of History Association that deals with Benefit Street, he is fully committed to historic preservation and the importance of community building. “My goal is to help neighbors effectively address their concerns to the powers that be over issues like infrastructure and public safety so that they are dealt with quickly and efficiently.”
In terms of his priorities, Holt lists three. His first is on what he calls “a community-centered policy of sustainable and smart economic growth. But it must be smart growth which is why I have opposed the Fane building both in terms of its size and especially its placement.” His second area of concern is over public service. Here’s where he thinks his Providence roots kick in. “I’ve known the police chief since I was a young boy and would love to work with him to develop a more rapid response to property crimes and emergency situations on the East Side.” His third priority is to improve our public schools. As a member of the Classical Alumni Board for twelve years, he feels he is ideally positioned to advocate for our East Side schools.
From his earliest days, Holt says politics has always been at the top of his life’s goals. He logged some valuable time working for the Obama campaign in Pennsylvania and he now hopes to meet every one of his constituents before the primary during his door-to-door sweeps, usually accompanied by his wife or mom… or both. Holt feels that because of his local background, his having lived in several different parts of the city, and his ongoing experience as a part-time lobbyist up on the Hill, he’s the only one of the three candidates who can hit the ground running and start getting things done in the City Council from day one.
Our interview ended with another one of those “only in Rhode Island” moments. When asked if he had any final thoughts, he mentioned with a grin “Well, should I add that my wife Lil was a baby sitter to some of Mark’s children growing up?”
Holt (age 31) and his wife, now a business development consultant, live on Halsey Street.
Meet the Candidates: Mark Tracy and Rebecca Kislak
Although its borders have changed somewhat, State Representative District 4 has been an important launching pad for many of those who have occupied the seat. In particular, David Cicilline and Gordon Fox both started their political careers here. And while the two current candidates for the position have expressed zero interest in using the spot to further their political careers, that hasn’t dampened the enthusiastic and well-organized campaigns the two have begun as they hustle from door to door to make their case in advance of the upcoming September 12 Democratic primary. Both have well-established progressive bona fides and impressive records of community involvement. But both express somewhat different priorities and life experiences which make this an interesting race to follow.
In her preamble to explain her decision for running, the Fourth Street resident comes straight to the point: “I’m just committed to try to bring my lifelong experience working for economic, racial, and reproductive justice to the state house.” Her activist background is writ large on her resume.
Though born in Miami, Kislak has established deep ties to Providence. After her undergraduate degree from Brown and a law degree from Georgetown, Kislak returned to Providence and has plunged into her progressive activism with gusto. She began her local career as an attorney for the RI Legal Services before becoming policy director at the RI Health Center Association. She now is president of Kislak Consulting and spends significant time at the state house lobbying for the causes to which she remains passionately committed. She also has been the president of the RI Chapter of the National Organization for Women as well as a Vice President of Membership and Outreach for Temple Emanu-El. She has somehow even found time to teach health policy at RIC.
Kislak has spent quite a bit of time on the Hill already as a lobbyist for the many social issues that are important to her. She has been active on earned sick leave legislation, anti-gun legislation, the move for a $15 minimum wage, and supporting small businesses. She feels her time spent in the trenches is what gives her an advantage over her opponent. “I have already been there advocating directly on the important issues facing our state and hope to continue the tradition of my predecessor’s [Aaron Regunberg] leadership on social issues we both feel are important.” Regunberg is among the several endorsements Kislak has received along with Planned Parenthood.
She feels her work on the Hill has also prepared her for what she admits will not be an easy relationship with the current Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello. “I have differences with him over the gender equity issues, in particular the need for legislation to protect a woman’s right to choose given the current concerns over the future of Roe vs Wade and need for greater transparency in the way business is conducted in the legislature.” At this point, she stops for a second before adding, “but then again, I’m also an optimist. If I’ve learned anything on the Hill, it’s important to be able to work with anyone if you hope to achieve useful results in the General Assembly. I have enjoyed a successful lobbying career at the State House and feel comfortable in my skills in working with both sides of an issue.”
In terms of local issues, she is definitely against the Fane building, and believes that we need more middle and low-income housing rather than expensive and high-end. On the PawSox project, she is more undecided. On the one hand she enjoys the PawSox herself and even had a party at the stadium for her nine-year-old. But she remains unsure about the degree to which the state should be involved financially.
Kislak (age 46) lives on Fourth Street and is married to Dr. Joanna Brown. They have two sons, Ezra (age 12) and Simon (age 9) who are students at Nathan Bishop and the Jewish Community Day School of Rhode Island respectively.
While not as well-known at this point as his opponent, Mark Tracy has initiated his candidacy with a rather unique letter to his constituents. While he succinctly identifies what he feels would make him an ideal representative for his neighbors – ”a progressive candidate with a vision for inclusive economic growth” – he writes that it’s his life itself that provides a unique narrative from traditional Rhode Island candidates. “Because I had to deal with unfortunate tragedies as I was growing up… my father passed away when I was nine, and my mother when I was 19, I was brought up to be self-reliant on the one hand, while dependent on the workings of the social safety net on the other.” Raised in New York, he arrived alone at Brown as a freshman where “I was welcomed by Providence and is why I remain so committed to this city.”
He went on to forge a successful career working in Iowa as an IT specialist for Cargill, the country’s largest family owned agribusiness trading company with sales of over $140 billion a year. “There, my position as an IT specialist was to analyze change in the agricultural marketplace and try to anticipate where the next threat might be coming from.” He hopes some of these skills will be useful for city governance. “If we continue to govern in the same way we always have, we’re going to continue to get the same mediocre results.”
Since returning to Providence about ten years ago, Tracy has thrown himself into a broad range of social activities on both an organizational and participatory level. He was appointed by Mayor Tavares to be part of the investment commission for the City of Providence. But he also enjoys hands-on projects as well. He’s a board member and secretary of Hope Hospice, and includes the RI Public Health Institute, Save the Bay, and the board of the Summit Neighborhood Association as some of his other non-profit involvements. “And every Friday I enjoy going over to help provide the muscle – which in my case is rather modest – to help unload the food truck at the Camp Street Ministries.”
Is he concerned that his opponent is being endorsed by Regunberg? “Not at all. I feel being a representative of our district ought to be a full-time job. Aaron has done that. But I also feel you shouldn’t be running around focusing on Donald Trump. My focus will be on working on the problems of District 4 and Providence. And I expect to be hands-on. If there is a late-night need for my presence to help solve a constituent problem, I expect to be there.”
As for Mattiello? “My background is in finance and creative problem solving. I also run a small business. These are areas which I feel will be useful to help my fellow legislators and will insure that our voice is better heard and more respected in advocating the progressive causes so many of us believe in.”
Tracy (age 45) lives on Arlington Avenue and is married to Dr. Molly Tracy, a neurologist. They have two children, Kate (age 8) and Jonah (age 5).
Meet the Candidates: Jorge Elorza, Kobi Dennis, and Robert Derobbio
Here’s the first thing you should know about the race for Providence mayor: since the beginning of World War II, only two incumbents have lost their bids for re-election to the top job in City Hall. Democrat Joe Doorley was beaten in 1974 and Republican John Collins was unseated in 1940.
So, it’s safe to say the odds are stacked against retired school administrator Robert DeRobbio and community advocate Kobi Dennis as they seek to unseat Mayor Jorge Elorza in the Democratic primary on September 12.
But that doesn’t mean the two challengers are making it easy for Elorza, the well-funded former Housing Court judge and college professor whose first run for office four years ago became an international story because of the guy he was running against, former mayor-turned-felon-turned-mayor-turned-felon-turned-radio-host Buddy Cianci.
During a recent forum at Martin Luther King Jr. School on Camp Street, the three candidates sat on stage together for the first time as residents voiced their concern about the city’s schools, economic development policies, and Elorza’s proposal to monetize the water supply in an attempt to strengthen the City’s ailing pension fund.
DeRobbio, who turns 73 on September 3, has made education a centerpiece of his campaign. A former superintendent in Lincoln, he also had a lengthy career as an administrator in Providence schools and served on the School Board. He has vowed to resolve a year-long contract dispute between Elorza and the teachers’ union by bringing all sides together and hammering out a deal.
A former chairman of the RI Ethics Commission, DeRobbio has also been a vocal critic of what sees of clear conflicts of interest from the mayor’s office. He has promised to ban former members of his staff from serving as city or state lobbyists after they leave City Hall while pointing out that former Elorza chief of staff Anthony Simon now works as a lobbyist for the firm hired to oversee the city’s speed camera program.
Dennis, 47, launched his campaign last October with a promise that he would reach voters who are often overlooked, namely the young African-American and Latino youth he has spent most of his adult life working with at various nonprofits. He has spent the last year hustling between his day job as a manager for a mentorship program called Princes 2 Kings and building buzz for his campaign.
On the trail, has been critical of the high percentage of city employees who don’t live in Providence, although he has backed off an initial pledge to seek legislative approval to restore residency requirements. Instead, he has said he wants to offer incentives to city workers to live in the city. He has also promised to build a better relationship with the City’s nonprofit hospitals and colleges rather than solely depending on their annual cash payments each year.
While Elorza’s financial advantage – he has $729,000 in his campaign account, 13 times more than that of DeRobbio and Dennis Combined – and campaign organization suggests he’s a strong favorite to win re-election, disputes with firefighters, teachers and police officers have cost the mayor endorsements from his major public employee unions.
At the same time, Elorza has repeatedly made the case that his administration has stabilized the City’s financials, committed to making hundreds of millions of dollars in repairs to schools, roads, and sidewalks, and improved the delivery of city services to residents. His decision to become the most outspoken politician in the state against President Donald Trump’s positions on illegal immigration and guns has also strengthened his standing among progressives.
The winner of the primary won’t necessarily be allowed to waltz to victory in November, as Independent Dee Dee Witman has the financial resources to run a credible campaign. Another Independent, Jeff Lemire, is also running in November.
Meet the Candidates: Gina Raimono and Matt Brown
If you were to ask the state’s top political operatives a year ago who was most likely to give Governor Gina Raimondo a credible Democratic primary challenge, chances are they wouldn’t have said Matt Brown.
Before Brown burst back on to the state’s political scene in March – first with plans to run as an independent before ultimately entering the race as a Democrat – it appeared as though former Governor Lincoln Chafee was the one poised to take on Raimondo from the left.
Now it’s Brown, a former secretary of state and co-founder of a nonprofit that advocates for the elimination of nuclear weapons, who has positioned himself as Bernie Sanders to Raimondo’s Hillary Clinton. His promises include Medicare for all, a $15 minimum wage, driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, and the restoration of cost-of-living adjustments for retired state employees. Even Chafee has endorsed him.
So can it work?
“Primaries are a very strange animal because you don't know who is coming out to vote,” Joe Fleming, a well-known pollster and political analyst, said. “Is it traditional Democrats or is it a lot of progressives? That’s what helped Bernie Sanders in the presidential primary two years ago.”
But while Sanders beat Clinton by nearly 12 percentage points in Rhode Island in 2016, Fleming said he’s not sure Brown has proven he has the ability to “expand the universe” of voters to upset Raimondo, the state’s first female governor. He noted that Raimondo had $4 million in her campaign account as of March, which gave her the ability to run TV commercials throughout the summer.
Raimondo, of course, believes she has made a strong case to return to the State House for a second term. Rhode Island’s unemployment rate dropped from 7.8% in June 2014 to 4.3% in June 2018. She’s helped recruit major companies like General Electric and Johnson & Johnson to the state. And she pushed through a free community college program for new high school graduates.
Still, a WPRI-12/Roger Williams University poll released in March found that while 50% of voters statewide had a favorable view of Raimondo, only 37% had a positive view of her job performance. There appears to be little doubt that near-daily reports of errors with the state’s Unified Health Infrastructure Project – the computer system that was supposed to streamline state benefits programs – have taken their toll.
Although Raimondo has rarely mentioned Brown or her other Democratic primary opponent, former State Rep. Spencer Dickinson, on the campaign trail, her proposals have largely been aimed at voters on the left. In the final two weeks of July, she pledged to expand the state’s free college program to both Rhode Island College and the University of Rhode Island while also promising to reign in payday lenders and increase access to paid family leave.
One big question will be turnout in the primary. Four years ago, 128,000 Democrats voted in the race between Raimondo, then-Providence Mayor Angel Taveras, and Clay Pell. But with little excitement in the down-ticket matchups – with the possible exception of the lieutenant governor’s race – the campaigns will need to put together strong ground games to get people to the polls.
Fleming said Raimondo appears to be in the driver’s seat, but a strong performance from Brown could make her more vulnerable against whomever emerges from the Republican primary between Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, State Rep. Patricia Morgan, and businessman Giovanni Feroce. The winners of the two primaries will also face Moderate Bill Gilbert and Independents Joe Trillo, Luis Daniel Muñoz, and Anne Armstrong in the general election.