United States Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (Democrat, Rhode Island) and Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza shared the spotlight Tuesday evening at the Davey Lopes Recreation Complex on Dudley Street. Both politicians face re-election campaigns this fall. Just over 35 people were in attendance to hear the pair speak and to ask questions about their policies and values.
Elorza opened with a few words on education and Whitehouse spoke about the possibility of winning back both houses of Congress for the Democrats. Whitehouse highlighted the importance of accountability and integrity in our elected officials and the importance of working towards an economy that works for everyone, noting that the recently passed Republican tax bill “was a joke.” 43 percent of the tax cuts, said Whitehouse, went to non-Americans.
The first question from the audience concerned former Judge Robert Flanders, one of Whitehouse’s two potential Republican challengers in the upcoming general election. The questioner wanted to know what Whitehouse’s response was to Flanders’ political positions that would be “harmful to the minority community and beneficial to the very wealthy?”
Whitehouse avoided the question, saying that he would rather wait until after the primary, because Flanders’ opponent, Representative Robert Nardolillo (Republican, District 28, Coventry), “may well be the candidate that comes out of that primary.” Whitehouse did not say the name of either Flanders or Nardolillo, describing the latter as an owner of a well-respected business and as a Representative who has been active in politics for some time.
His question politely declined, the questioner changed topics and asked why plastic in the ocean can’t be recycled. Whitehouse noted that if current trends continue, by 2050 there will be more plastic waste in our oceans than fish. Whitehouse further claimed that most of the plastic waste is from four or five Asian countries with lax controls on plastic waste.
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Whitehouse would love to rid of the electoral college, saying the move would make Rhode Island a player in national elections.
President Donald Trump “has had as little a role in funding in the funding of the United States government as any President I’ve seen in history,” said Whitehouse, noting that Trump is an ineffective President with little power to effect real change.
Trump’s ineffectiveness, said Elorza, means that voids in national leadership are being necessarily filled by city and state leaders. Cities have had to take the lead on issues such as climate change, immigration, social and economic mobility, voting rights, and more as the Trump Administration “steps back” from its duties.
Elorza called it the “New Localism,” in which the power to effect real change comes from cities and mayors, not from the Federal government. There is a book on the subject: The New Localism: How Cities Can Thrive in the Age of Populism.
A woman asked about the “silent revolution” of powerful corporate interests and right wing ideologies that have been filling Trump’s leadership void in in other parts of the country.
“There has been a very silent encroachment by powerful interests to basically shift the balance of power in our country,” said Whitehouse, who then pivoted to his work on minimizing the damage caused by the Supreme Court‘s Citizen’s United decision. The key, thinks Whitehouse, is not to amend the Constitution to declare that money is not speech and corporations are not people. The key is Whitehouse’s Disclose Act, which would prevent corporations from hiding their contributions to campaigns and bring much needed transparency and sunlight to money in politics. Whitehouse added that he thinks eventually the Supreme Court may overturn Citizen’s United.
Asked about potential 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, Whitehouse estimated that there may be as many 20 candidates interested, but no obvious front runners. Preferring for now to concentrate on the 2018 midterms, Whitehouse said that the most important thing for Democrats will be to support the candidate that wins the primary.
However, the issue of superdelegates is still a sore spot for Democrats and Independents, especially in Rhode Island, where it is felt that despite Bernie Sanders‘ convincing win in the 2016 Rhode Island primary, Hillary Clinton received the lion’s share of delegates at the Democratic convention. “We just voted to change the superdelegate system,” said Whitehouse but under questioning from those in attendance admitted that there was still much work to be done.
Things got very interesting when the questions turned to the continued development of natural gas infrastructure in Rhode Island. Rhode Island resident Lorraine Savard noted that there are two problems here in the state: National Grid‘s new LNG facility aimed at the Port of Providence and Invenergy‘s $1 billion fracked gas and diesel oil burning power plant aimed at Burrillville.
“I’m focusing on trying to solve the climate problem in the lane that I’ve been assigned by the voters,” said Whitehouse, “Which is in the Senate. That’s where I am regarded as the Senate’s leading climate advocate. I think that there is a solution that we can achieve. I think that it is a significant price on carbon emissions. That, I think, is doable. I think that people are getting closer to accepting that. And I see a window of opportunity to actually pass a significant price on carbon that will not only influence LNG facilities here in Rhode Island, but everywhere across the country, by taking away what is now a $700 billion subsidy that fossil fuel enjoys. That’s the lane that I was given as a Senator, that’s where I think I can make the biggest difference, and that’s where I’m putting my energy. So there are plenty of people that are fighting this at the local level, there aren’t a whole lot of us in the Senate that are doing this, and that’s what I am going to keep pushing on.”
To Savard, Whitehouse added, “I know that we’ve had the conversation a dozen times, I understand that you disagree and disapprove, I’m sorry.”
Savard countered that the liquefaction facility planned for the Port of Providence will allow National Grid to begin exporting LNG to Europe. “Well,” said Elorza, about National Grid’s liquefaction facility, “It’s not going to be built. We’re not going to let that happen.”
Later, in answer to Cristina Cabrera, executive director of the Environmental Justice League of Rhode Island, Whitehouse said, “Well, you just heard Mayor Elorza, who has a vote in all of that, and the City Council is determinative on the zoning of that, saying there isn’t going to be the LNG facility in Providence, so that’s that.
“And on the other side,” continued Whitehouse, “the proposal up north in Burrillville … is in a contested case – it’s in formal litigation before the Energy Facilities Siting Board. I personally have huge confidence in Meg Curran and Janet Coit, who are the two key decision makers – there will also be the state planning official there as soon as that gets posted – so my guess is that will end well.”
As to how Mayor Elorza plans to stop the LNG facility from going up in the Port of Providence, given that National Grid has won every variance it has asked for, the Mayor said, “We’ll keep showing up, we’ll keep writing the letters we need to, submitting the testimony that we have to and we’re going to do everything in our power to make sure it doesn’t happen. They came to the City a while back looking for a TSA [tax stabilization agreement], [saying] that their going to invest in the project only makes sense if they get a cut on their taxes. Well, we can determine who’s going to get those kinds of incentives, and that’s not the kind of program that deserves those kind of incentives in our city. So we have a number of levers that we’ll squeeze in every way that we can.”
“The biggest danger, if we don’t take the Senate, is the Judges,” said Whitehouse in answer to the question about Trump stacking the court with unqualified right-wing judges. Trump’s choices “have been pretty horrible,” said Whitehouse, “Some of them are just a joke.”
Whitehouse admitted that the Authorization for the Use of Military Force needs to be reworked and that the Democrats allowed it to linger too long because “we had a lot of confidence in President Obama.” Now, in the era of Trump, John Bolton and Mike Pompeo, Congress is finally getting around to it.
In answer to a question from Jonathan Daly-LaBelle about Whitehouse’s vote in favor of the largest military budget in history, for the same Trump Administration that he thinks is dangerous, Whitehouse said that to preserve the domestic programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, many Democrats felt they had to vote for the military programs in a Republican controlled Washington. “I remain proud of what we did considering we hold none of the power.”
“You raise a very good point,” continued Whitehouse, “One that has been true for a long time, which is that the power of defense contractors in determining the disposition of the military budget and control over elements of the Pentagon, is too much… that is a real and genuine issue and is one we need to continue to focus on.”
That said, Whitehouse further added that he thinks “the Russians are extremely dangerous. I think that Putin is extremely dangerous…
“So I think we do have to remain a strong country militarily. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be doing it smart, that we shouldn’t be trying to police people who buy our weapons to make sure they are not using our weapons cruelly, and to make sure that we do it with the tax payers dollars at the forefront of our minds. So you raise a good point, it’s a very complicated set of issues, but those are the values and the framework that I try to approach them through.”
Whitehouse did not respond to Daly-Labelle’s point that when military strikes occur, the value of stocks in companies such as Raytheon, General Dynamics and Textron rise, and that Whitehouse himself has holding sin such companies.
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