Politics & Elections

An interview with Congressional candidate Dylan Conley

About a week ago, Dylan Conley, attorney and current chair of the Providence Board of Licenses, announced his campaign or Rhode Island’s 2nd Congressional District, running against James Langevin in the Democratic Party primary, who has served as in the United States House of Representatives for almost two decades. UpriseRI conducted the following interview with Conley, with the first question
Photo for An interview with Congressional candidate Dylan Conley

Published on July 3, 2020
By Steve Ahlquist

About a week ago, Dylan Conley, attorney and current chair of the Providence Board of Licenses, announced his campaign or Rhode Island’s 2nd Congressional District, running against James Langevin in the Democratic Party primary, who has served as in the United States House of Representatives for almost two decades.

UpriseRI conducted the following interview with Conley, with the first question being: Why are you running?

Dylan Conley: I was compelled to run. This wasn’t a long thought out thing. I mean, two weeks before I decided to run, I wasn’t even considering it, but with everything that’s happening in the world right now, waiting on the sidelines wasn’t an option for me.

UpriseRI: What kinds of things are you talking about? Like COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, the economic crisis?

Conley: Yeah. All of that. The night I really decided to run was the day after the riots in Providence. I walked through some of that destruction and there were rumors that the riots were headed to my neighborhood. My son’s bedroom is closer to the street than ours. So I was sleeping in the front room, just feeling utterly ridiculous that the only thing I feel like I can do to protect my family is to sleep in the front room of the house. And the thing that I kept being drawn to is the number of systems that have to fail, or the number of systems that have to produce poor outcomes – in order for it to not be a nice stable neighborhood where I’m afraid of someone breaking into my house and hurting my family. It gives you a taste of what other people have experienced throughout their entire lives. I had one night of it, but I know that other people don’t sleep easy terribly often. And just sitting on the sidelines felt like I was doing a disservice, that I was failing.

UpriseRI: This is a pretty big move politically for someone in your position. It’s a national position that you’re jumping to. I know right now you sit on the licensing board in Providence and you head that board up, but the House is quite a jump. Your opponent served in the General Assembly for a while before he’d made his move. What do you think about your experience when it comes to this jump?

Conley: This election isn’t about me, it’s about going to where the problems are and the problems are at the federal level. In order for us to actually fix the systemic inequities in our society, we need congressional level action. And you know, the establishment always kind of gives you the ‘wait your turn thing,’ and if people just sat around waiting for their turn, we wouldn’t get any of the change that we actually need. I mean, society moves at a very quick pace, but government seems to move at a very slow pace, and I think one of the reasons for that is there’s institutional pressure that everyone sit back and wait their turn.

UpriseRI: I agree with you on that. I don’t think people should wait their turn. I think it’s good for people to jump up and challenge the status quo at any time and for any reason.

Conley: Experience wise, besides being a part of a family owned law firm, I have a strong view of a small business issues from my position on the Providence Board of Licenses. And I know what other municipalities do. I’m a solicitor for Westerly, Johnston, East Providence and to a degree, Warwick. So I have a very close look at what’s going wrong on the ground. I think people get detached from that when they move into government and they go to higher and higher levels, I think they’re insulated from the communities that they serve. It’s the nature of the job.

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UpriseRI: Speaking of that kind of experience as a city and town solicitor, the places that you’re working for tend to be more on the conservative side of the Democratic Party spectrum. Is that a fair way to put it?

Conley: Yeah, That’s fair.

UpriseRI: So where does that put you? If you’re looking at certain issues like gun control, women’s rights, environmental stuff – I mean, I know Johnson isn’t really known for its concerns when it comes to the environment.

Conley: I am dramatically to the left of basically all my clients, which up until this moment has forced me to essentially be relatively mute. It’s appointed work. So the nature of appointed work is, you know, all of my clients need to understand that I will deliver high quality results for them. Because they’re the client. It doesn’t matter what my personal political beliefs are. If you hire me to write in a high quality ordinance, I write a high quality ordinance. It’s not what my position is. I think for some of them it may be a bit of a surprise as to where they thought I was politically versus where I am personally – and it is a bit of a career risk to be honest, but I’m not running to do anything other than win.

UpriseRI: So let me ask you this then: I know a lot of people would like to see an end to fossil fuel development in Rhode Island. Where do you stand on something like that? No more pipelines, no more compressor stations, no more fossil fuel power plants. What do you say to that??

Conley: I’m happy with all of that. The only thing we have to do is we’ve got to make sure that we build out the green infrastructure at a comparable rate so that we don’t pay for that in increased electricity rates that are not affordable.

UpriseRI: On gun rights, things like a ban on assault weapons, magazine capacity, stuff like that. What do you think? Your opponent has been, maybe not effective, but at least vocal on things like that.

Conley: I will be both vocal and effective. I think in terms of gun safety, it’s an all hands on deck approach. I think too often what happens on the national stage is you get sold on a concept that one bill or another is a magic bullet or that you need to do something really large in one particular place. And I don’t think that that’s generally how the world works. You have to approach issues in a comprehensive manner from a million different perspectives. So you know, you have assault rifles, but you also have downstream retail gun show loopholes, a lack of there being true liability for improper use of guns or for improper sale of guns. There was a study that showed that a massive percentage of the gun homicides in Chicago could be traced to a single gun store.

UpriseRI: A gun store outside of Chicago, outside of the state, right.

Conley: And the fact that we haven’t zeroed in on that is bizarre.

UpriseRI: Especially since we’re very willing to blame Chicago for its gun problem, without seeing the bigger issue of cross-border gun sales.

Conley: And it’s not just an issue of violence against someone else. It’s also a critical issue in terms of suicide. The difference between life and death during a mental health episode, especially for young men, is access to a handgun.

UpriseRI: What is it to be an effective representative for Rhode Island on issues that might not be at the forefront of people’s mind right now?

Conley: Right now, the way money flows through our economy is the top down, trickle down approach. And it is fundamentally inefficient because people at the top can afford to save. And the economy only grows when money is flowing through the economy. So we essentially need to reverse the flow of money from trickle down via employment compensation to ‘gush up’ via discretionary consumption. At the lowest levels of the socioeconomic ladder, we need to tweak their rates of income taxes, earned income tax credit, the child tax credit. Senators Brown and Bennett from Ohio and Colorado have proposed a child tax credit program that effectively functions like a universal, basic income that could lift millions of kids out of poverty. Those are the things that may be off Rhode Island’s radar but it’s incredibly important to Rhode Island’s economy because we don’t have billionaires hanging around that money trickles down from.

We have small businesses whose margins are getting thinner and thinner and thinner. So we need to pay attention not just to the tax structures and the costs that are imposed on small businesses, but also the spending power of the people that shop there. And those are median income families and lower. During the pandemic, the $1,200 one time payment was cute, but we need a regular monthly expectation of income in order to keep up the level of spending necessary to keep these small businesses afloat. The PPP loans, the idea that that’s something that’s going to solve small businesses issues is just such a drop in the bucket in the sense that it works for some places and not others. The only thing that works for everyone is increased spending power for everyone.

UpriseRI: So to do that, we would need to think of things like a progressive tax structure and a stronger minimum wage.

Conley: Yes.

UpriseRI: This morning, just before this call, RIBBA, the Rhode Island Black Business Association held a press conference talking about support for Black and Brown owned businesses and the trouble they have getting state contracts. One of the oldest and biggest Black businesses in America is right here in Rhode Island and they’ve only received $50,000 in state contracts, ever. What does that say in this new era of Black Lives Matter?

Conley: I always have to be conscious of the way I talk about this because obviously economics doesn’t solve racism, but it plays a huge role. Just getting money into disenfranchised neighborhoods is difficult. It’s difficult to even get loans out to businesses with the layers of stress and disorganization that are imposed by a system that makes it incredibly difficult to access to money. You don’t get two or three chances as a startup business, you get one. My approach is to make sure that our first $50,000 in income is ours. That we’re not taking it. We need people to have the money because people spend it where they live.

UpriseRI: Let’s shift into a whole other subject here. What about immigration? That’s a very big issue right now. Really big issue for Trump, really big issue for undocumented people being held at the Wyatt, for undocumented Rhode Islanders not able to access driver’s licenses or any public services at all. I mean, Governor Raimondo basically set up a charity because she couldn’t use state funds to help people who were undocumented who are feeling the effects of COVID-19 and the current economic crisis. What are your thoughts on all that?

Conley: What’s happening, with children in cages, is despicable. For so much time the talk was about a wall as if a wall is relevant. Even if this wall was built or not built, that really doesn’t have too much to do with immigration. Immigration is about families trying to get to a better place to live. There’s two sides to that coin. Why is it about where they’re coming from? What is our responsibility there? If people want to come to America, we should help them. There should be a system, a life affirming system, so that people don’t feel like they’re being criminalized because they came here. It’s a philosophical change that needs to happen, but also a recognition that people are leaving where they are because things are terrible and they’re coming to America knowing that their child may be placed in a cage, because for them that risk is better than whatever they’re leaving. It’s a system that is designed to appear as if you can get here legally, but the actual goal is to prevent anyone from immigrating.

UpriseRI: I’ve asked about a few of the issues I work on a lot. What other issues are moving you?

Conley: I’m not interested in doing this as an individual. I’m interested in doing this as a member of a coalition. I want people with experiential knowledge of problems, not to have a seat at the table, because in that image, you see the person with experiential knowledge whispering into the ear of the elected official, who is actually sitting at the table. I want someone from that community at the table with me as I get everyone else to listen to them.

Someone who has experiential knowledge will think of things that just won’t dawn on me. The true secret about ignorance is that you don’t know what you’re ignorant of. So if it’s an LGBTQ+ situation, I want someone from that community at the table with me hovering over their shoulder.

The other thing that is very important to me is just the economics of the whole situation. For instance, people who want to fix education through education policy alone are kidding themselves. The challenge to education issues is poverty. Medicare for All needs to happen, but that said, we’ve got to be careful during a pandemic that we don’t flip the medical industry on its head. Medicare for All is a partial solution because poverty is a health issue. Going to the doctor is addressing symptoms that are resulting from an illness that could be prevented if you just had the benefits of a stable life.

UpriseRI: Although theoretically, Medicare for All would force the government to at least address some of those systemic inequities, because it would make it cheaper to administer the program if they do. Right now, there’s no reason for the government to do anything about those health inequities because the medical industry is a for profit business that seems to be doing okay. The fact that some people are left out, isn’t a problem because they’re not being served by that market, but if everybody’s being served by the government, the government would have to get in there and do something about asthma in South Providence, for instance. Theoretically, anyway.

Conley: I agree a hundred percent. My fundamental point is doing healthcare without bottom-up economic restructuring doesn’t work and doing bottom up economic restructuring without healthcare doesn’t work – and same thing with education. Financial stability impacts every corner of everyone’s lives.

UpriseRI: When the state took over the Providence schools, I remember thinking, the state hasn’t done a crackerjack job in Central Falls. So why do we believe that the state is going to do a better job in Providence? If anything, Providence is going to be way more expensive, way more difficult.

Conley: If my memory serves there, there is a study or studies that indicate that educational outcomes of children are driven by schools at a rate of 30%, the other 70% is the result of their lives, what’s happening at home. We can put money into that 30%, but that’s like putting a cast on my right ankle which is sprained when my left ankle is snapped in two. My right ankle is a little bit better, but I still can’t run. We have come nowhere near approaching the solution to the problem.

UpriseRI: What are you hearing when you like talk to people about your campaign? What are people bringing to you as issues that they’re worried about?

Conley: You know the phrase, ‘It’s the economy stupid?’ I keep on feeling like ‘It’s everything stupid.’ I think that what the pandemic did was it just laid bare how all of our institutions have become weak and how vulnerable we all are to downturns. When I first started to consider this, I was coming from a place of anger. I was just so upset that these things, like systemic racism and me trying to learn what my role is in that for my wife and my son, and trying to understand these massive economic inequalities and how vulnerable people are to the pandemics – not because of the virus itself, but because our economic structure doesn’t provide people any safety. And then I saw the social energy around the Black Lives Matter movement. And everyone that I reached out to to talk about running spoke about the energy of this moment where we can have really big change.

UpriseRI: I was talking to someone about that this morning, that there is a change in the air. If anything’s going to happen, this is the moment.

Conley: Unified government on the federal level – I mean, look at what Obama could do in his first two years versus his last six. You put that on top of a social mandate, screaming for change, just screaming for change, and you have a window of opportunity here to do stuff that can change the American system for the next hundred years. There’s a book I just finished the other day called The Fourth Turning. A couple of guys basically predicted this crisis moment. The idea is that society is cyclical and different eras, different generations, are moving into different time periods in their lives, and as they are moved from one time period of their lives into another, our perspective shifts. So there are these hot moments in time where, because all generations are shifting into the next era of their lives – from childhood to young adulthood to being a senior – all of our perspectives are shifting at the same time. And in those moments, huge things can happen. And this is one of those times.

UpriseRI: We have a census underway, and after that, Rhode Island may or may not have two Representatives in the House in 2022. If you were to win, you’ll be more than likely running for the one seat in Rhode Island has in the House against David Cicilline. What are your thoughts on that?

Conley: First and foremost, serving in Congress is the honor of a lifetime. I run to win today, and I run to govern for the next two years. As for the next election, we’ll cross that bridge when we get there. Specific to someone like Representative Cicilline, I have tremendous respect for him. I’ve known him for a long time. It’s one of those situations where I couldn’t fathom running against someone like him. I don’t know that I would provide more value than he does.

Representative Cicilline seems to be doing a fantastic job. He’s energetic. He seems to be effective. He’s moved into leadership in a short period of time. It’s kinda hard to find a bad thing to say about his work, quite frankly.

UpriseRI: Coming back to Providence for a minute and to the Board of Licenses, what are your thoughts about the role of the board of licenses in establishing a nightclub district in South Providence, near the Port? What are your thoughts on those kinds of issues that have come up before and around the board of licenses?

Conley: What the Board of Licenses can actually do, what we have the power to do, is relatively limited. With the nightclub district, I was hopeful to start a policy conversation that would be an opportunity for businesses while getting nuisances out of neighborhoods. And that was really the focus of that. I don’t know that there’s a direct connection with those types of policies and federal government. Where I do think the connection is, is I do have an understanding of how bad it is for the restaurant industry right now and how the federal government has completely left them behind. The biggest problem with that, specifically to Providence and Rhode Island, is that the restaurant industry in Rhode Island is an independent restaurant industry. When you go to Florida, everything’s a chain. In Rhode Island it’s all mom and pop places. All the chains will be fine on the back end of the pandemic because they have access to scaled financing that these mom and pop places don’t. So what happens is that this is an opportunity for these chains to basically swallow up all these mom and pop places. Think about BLU On The Water in East Greenwich, if we’re not careful, that’s going to be an Applebee’s in three years.

UpriseRI: Alright, we’re almost out of time. I’m glad we’ve covered some ground on the issues.

Conley: That’s one of the reasons why I really wanted to talk to you because running wasn’t something I had been planning over time. I haven’t been able to have all the conversations with the people that deserve to have a one-on-one conversation with me before all of this got out in the news. I regret that, but because of the timeline, I’m trying the best I can to get in touch with people and I’m trying the best I can to make sure people know me and understand who I am.

UpriseRI: There’s still time. I think there’s 10 weeks, right? Which is a lot of door knocking to do and a lot of conversations to have. It’s going to be a very busy 70 days.

Conley: Yes. That part is going to be a lot of fun.

UpriseRI: You’re from a political family, so you must have some contacts to meet some of the political people who you might want to work with. How does that work? My dad was a firefighter, so I don’t really have that. I never had that introduction to the greater political world, if you know what I mean.

Conley: I absolutely have the benefit of a lot of positive relationships throughout the Rhode Island political realm, but you do not get the benefit of their support when you run against an incumbent. I don’t have any issue with it, my opponent has been there a long time. Most people don’t want to go to war with someone they’ve known for a long time and I get that. But that’s also how government stagnates and that’s why things aren’t working.

UpriseRI: I really appreciate your work reaching out to UpriseRI. I think it shows something because a lot of people get afraid of us because they think we’re so lefty or whatever, but I always feel like we treat people pretty fairly, overall.

Conley: I would say you treat people pretty fair. I would say that’s symbolic of what’s happening right now across the whole country. I think people are now realizing that Uprise’s perspective on the universe is way more accurate than what they believed.

UpriseRI: Maybe you’re right. Maybe people have finally caught up to us. I don’t know…

Conley: That’s what I’m seeing and feeling right now. A lot of the stuff that I’m talking about is stuff that I dreamed I would use someday, but I didn’t then think it would ever happen. And right now I’m like, Oh my God, it can happen.

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