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Steve Stycos wants to be the Mayor of Cranston – An interview

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Steve Stycos is a Democratic city councilman running for mayor of Cranston. He is campaigning
against former Councilwoman Maria Bucci in the Democratic primary this September, the
winner of which will face off against either Council President Michael Farina or Councilman
Ken Hopkins in November. Stycos sat down with UpriseRI to talk about the important issues of
his campaign, namely improving education, environmental sustainability, and transparency in
Cranston government.

UpriseRI: It’s a pleasure to be able to speak with you today. My first question is: why are you
running for mayor of Cranston?

Steve Stycos: I’ve been on the school committee for 10 years and I’ve been on the City Council
for 10 years. I’ve worked on many issues and there’s a lot of stuff left to do, particularly on
environmental issues and education and supporting the public schools. Many things that I’d like
to see done, I’ve had difficulty getting them done because of opposition or lack of interest from
the mayor. And obviously, the mayor has a lot of influence over what happens in the city. There
wasn’t another candidate that I was very comfortable with and I decided to run.

UpriseRI: What other experience do you bring to the position of mayor?

Stycos: I run a farm on Centerville Road in Warwick that grows vegetables for several food pantries
in Warwick and Cranston. I’ve also worked as a union representative for the Clothing and Textile
Workers Union
; I was the admissions director for awhile at Dorcas Place, the Adult Education
Center, and I did a lot of freelance writing, when my children were younger, for different
publications in Rhode Island, including The Phoenix. So I think, through those experiences, I
have some knowledge about important public issues. And also a desire to learn more about them
and dig into things rather than accept urban myths that often dominate city affairs.


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UpriseRI: Could you talk about some of your educational initiatives, which include opposing
the expansion of charter schools, improving teacher diversity, and expanding the Head Start
program? Why are these important to you? And what are you looking to do?

Stycos: Let’s start with diversity. The city of Cranston is now 28% people of color. That number
is rising. And the full time workforce on the city side—the police, fire department, public
works—is 3% [people of color]. And in the school department, it’s around 4%. And we have to
improve that. Number one so that everybody feels like they’re part of the city and an equal part
of the city. The schools are 51% children of color. So that’s just not a good situation with a lack
of teachers and custodians that look like a lot of the kids; everybody needs to feel comfortable.
As for Head Start, about five or six years ago, the federal government—in one of those budget
showdowns between Congress and Obama—ended up cutting the Head Start program nationally
and the effect in Cranston was a $50,000 cut. And I, at the time, chaired the finance committee
and put the money together from other parts of the budget to replace the $50,000 with city
money, and that $50,000 has continued to current time. The current budget started July 1. And
that’s important for preschool education in general and particularly for the disadvantaged children who are served by Head Start. You mentioned the third thing that I’ve now forgotten.
What was it?

UpriseRI: Opposing the expansion of charter schools.

Stycos: I’m not a supporter of charter schools. They siphon money off from the public schools.
And there’s not public oversight of them. I think if the public’s money is being spent, then the
public, through elected officials, should control it. That’s not happening with Cranston. It’s
hundreds of thousands of dollars a year that are going to charter schools and we have a good
school system in Cranston. But if we keep nibbling away at it by siphoning money off to charter
schools, we’re going to weaken it. I don’t want to see that happen.

UpriseRI: A large part of your campaign emphasizes the importance of honest government. Can
you talk about what transparent and honest government looks like to you? Is that what we have
in Cranston? And if not, what changes are you interested in implementing?

Stycos: Well, one of the things that I propose, as a council person, is that code violations be put
online. So if a notice of violation is issued by the city, that goes online and then people can track
what’s happening with the complaint. Right now, they often disappear. It’s very hard to find
them. As a city councilman, I call the mayor’s office and say what’s happening, the mayor’s
office calls the building inspector, the building inspector replies to the mayor’s office who then
replies to me, then I call the constituent. That’s just a system that’s designed to not inform people
about what’s going on. That’s one thing I think is very important. As mayor, I would also hold
office hours where people could come in and air their concerns and grievances…or compliments.
I think that’s important to have. I run into situations with the city where they refuse basic
information to constituents and I have to, as a councilman, ask for it. Again, the citizens should
get it. There’s this unnecessary feeling, a why-do-you-want-it feeling? And that doesn’t really
matter. The citizen wants the information and you give them the information as long as it’s not
private information about employees. So those things are important and I think it’s important for
the mayor to come out and say, when issues arise that he or she is involved in, what they think
about that issue so that people can engage in a conversation with the mayor and maybe change
the mind of the mayor because maybe the mayor is wrong. I don’t see enough of that happening.

UpriseRI: Relatedly, it seems like a crucial part of your vision for transparency is making
participation in government much more accessible by providing childcare or translation services,
for example. Can you talk about some of the barriers to participation in Cranston government
right now and why those initiatives are important to you?

Stycos: Yeah, particularly the translation. We have a population, more than 10% of which speak
Spanish. And of course, many of the people who speak Spanish also speak English, but some
don’t speak English that well. And if you come into City Hall and you want to start a business
and you don’t speak English well, there’s only one person in City Hall who can speak Spanish
and he only works three days a week. That has to change. We have to have people who can
speak the languages that our residents speak. The daycare at the city council meetings was a
good idea but now, in the age of Zoom, doesn’t really fit because we’re not meeting in City Hall.
We’re meeting by Zoom and residents can access it by Zoom. I do think there’s a problem that a lot of people don’t feel comfortable with using Zoom. I do think everyone on the city council,
Republican and Democrat, wants to improve that situation. And we’re all sort of struggling with
how to do it.

UpriseRI: In light of the Black Lives Matter protests across the country and here in Rhode
Island, how are you planning to respond to the demands and concerns of this movement for
racial justice?

Stycos: Last night at the council meeting, and previously a couple times before that, I asked that
we have a public meeting where the police chief can talk about the various issues that people are
so concerned about—about the use of chokeholds, de-escalating violence, and how the police
respond. I’ve gotten questions about those and they’re fairly complicated questions and we need
to hear from the police chief. And I have asked him, at a council meeting, if he would be willing
to do that and he’s very willing to do that. I think we have a good police department and we
ought to have the chief out there bragging about how we handle those situations. So that’s
number one is we’ve got to have the public have an opportunity to ask the chief: how are you
handling this? or what about that? and show that the police department is not some alien group
but part of our community and working to preserve the community. So I think that’s the first step.

If I was elected mayor, I’m not going to tolerate any bad behavior in the police department or any
other department. And when that happened several years ago, I think was in 2013, four of us on
the council voted against a police contract and defeated it. We felt that in the police contract, the
money was loaded to the higher officers and that that wasn’t fair. And in general, it was too
expensive. Right after that, the next night, cars in my neighborhood and the neighborhood of
Paul Archetto, another councilman, were mass-ticketed by the police department for overnight
parking. And I did the research, I had gotten information of where the tickets were issued that
night. And something like 90 tickets were issued, where, on a typical night, they issue two or
three and they were all in my ward and Paul’s ward. And we’ve stood up and we said we want a
state police investigation of what went on. And it took a while but eventually the mayor agreed.
And the state police took over the police department and did a big overhaul, a lot of looking into
bad situations. And the chief was removed. The number two was removed and the union
president was removed. And I think, as a result of that, we have a good police department. But
that wasn’t easy at the beginning. Criticizing the police department was difficult, but we felt there
had clearly been a violation of behavior by the police. By not all the police, obviously, but by
primarily the top brass and the union president. So I think we cleaned up the police department.
And then as a result, we have this new leadership that I was talking about before.

UpriseRI: Relatedly, what power and presence, if any, do you think the police should have in
Cranston?

Stycos: I don’t have any really astute things to say about that. They’re a body that enforces the
law. And that’s what they should be. Now, that being said, I do think that around the country a lot
of good points are being raised. We’re expecting the police to basically be incredible human
beings and solve all these difficult situations and that a number of situations would be better
handled by mental health professionals. And that I think that needs to really be looked at. People
have asked me about body cameras. And there was an experiment that the police department did,
that was funded by the company that sells the equipment, where 10 officers wore cameras for 60 days. And from the little that I heard about that, that was generally positive, but it’s $150,000
investment to do that, for all the officers and a hundred dollars an officer a year. That’s another
approximately $50,000 or $60,000. So that’s a lot of money in the time when I’m worried that our
schools are not going to be adequately funded. So honestly, I would rather put the money into the
schools unless a real problem was demonstrated with the Cranston police, which I would be open
to listening to and investigating, but I haven’t heard of that difficulty.

UpriseRI: Are there different budget priorities that you would like to change, for example, what
you were just saying about having more money moved into schools versus into police budgets?

Stycos: Well, in the last couple of years and before that, I’ve tried to move money to the school
department. In the most recent budget, I offered amendments that moved $45,000 for the school
department and another democratic councilman, John Donegan, offered another amendment
which I supported that added another $25,000. And we did get some Republican support or it
wouldn’t have passed because they are the majority on the council currently. So that’s what I
would like to do as mayor is shift some money to the school department because I think state aid
is in danger. What’s happened in the last eight years or so since 2014 is that the state has
increased its funding to Cranston schools by 49%. Over the same time period, Cranston has
increased its share to the schools by 3%. So if the state doesn’t have any money, either we’re
going to have schools short on money or the city is going to have to put some money in. All the
members of the council after the Parkland shooting voted for about $100,000 for random police
visits to the elementary schools. That money might be better spent if it was in the hands of the
school department, maybe by hiring an additional social worker.

UpriseRI: Can you talk about your positions related to immigration? Do you have plans to
support undocumented Rhode Islanders, especially considering the lack of federal support for
undocumented community members during COVID-19 and the economic crisis? And what do
you think the role of local government is, specifically, in supporting undocumented community
members right now?

Stycos: Well, I think number one is that we have to treat all our residents equally and recognize
that some of them are undocumented. And that it’s not the city’s job to run operations for ICE.
The schools are very important. Many undocumented people have children and we need to make
sure they get a good education. I have talked with the police chief about the whole question of
people getting picked up for some kind of offense and then immigration shows up. And he has
assured me that, number one, if an undocumented person in Cranston, if there’s a traffic stop,
running a red light or something like that, that they do not do any kind of communicating with
immigration about that. And, number two, if they are arrested, that, like every community in the
state, the information goes to the Attorney General, and the Attorney General has an arrangement
with ICE to provide all information on arrests. So, again, according to the police chief, if
someone is arrested who’s undocumented, and that information goes to the Attorney General, the
Attorney General sends it to ICE, they could show up at the Cranston police station for the
person and the chief said that that has happened rarely. He gave me a number that was in the
single digits. And they don’t hold anyone. If they’re going to release them, they release them;
they don’t hold anybody. I don’t know really how we could do any differently than that and the
chief is comfortable with that. Sounds pretty reasonable to me. And so those are a couple of issues. I also think we need to look at improving the neighborhoods that, my guess, many
undocumented people live in in Cranston and those are the neighborhoods primarily next to
Providence. Whether that’s tree planting—I sponsored a city tree planting program—improving
parks. And as I mentioned, schools. Making sure that the schools are in good shape. I’ve started
community gardens at two schools in those neighborhoods: Arlington Elementary School and
Edgewood Highland Elementary School. Those are open and nobody checks papers to see if you
want a garden; that’s something that’s available.

UpriseRI: Last month, you signed the Green New Deal pledge, which is a commitment to
develop and support Green New Deal legislation in an effort to stop climate change and create
new jobs. Why is it important to you to sign that pledge? And if elected mayor, what are you
planning to do in office to address climate change?

Stycos: Well, it’s important because climate change is this incredible problem that we need to
deal with and the sooner we deal with it, the better off we’re going to be. I sponsored and wrote
an ordinance that will be on the November ballot asking voters for commission to borrow $5
million and that money would be used to reduce the city’s use of fossil fuels through improving
the energy efficiency of buildings, temperature controls in various libraries, solar panels on
roofs, insulation—things that really need to be done and that will save money. And that’s the
kind of situation where we should be borrowing money, where we can save money in the long
term by spending money upfront. So that would be one thing. I mentioned the tree planting tree
program. A couple of Saturdays ago, we had a celebration marking the planting of the 200th tree
under this program that is merely a $10,000-a-year program run by the Rhode Island Tree
Council
and funded by the city. I think that’s important. We need to look at shifting at least some
of our vehicle fleet to electric vehicles. We have building inspectors go around in regular cars
and there are a number of regular vehicles that don’t need to have rapid acceleration. So that
would be another step we need to take. We need to educate the public about what we’re doing
and what they can do as members of the public to help this effort.

UpriseRI: Relatedly, there’s a lot of support to end fossil fuel development in Rhode Island,
including ending the construction of pipelines, compressor stations and power plants. Where do
you stand on these demands?

Stycos: I don’t support the Burrillville power plant. I authored the resolution that the council
passed opposing that power plant which fortunately was eventually defeated largely due to the
incredible organizing efforts of people from Burrillville and other parts of the state. So I don’t
support the expansion of fossil fuel use. We have to go in the other direction.

UpriseRI: A significant part of your platform includes initiatives related to public health and
wellbeing, as you’ve mentioned already, including increased access to local food, outdoor spaces,
and public arts projects. Could you talk a little bit more about why these initiatives, specifically,
are important to you and why they’re needed in Cranston right now?

Stycos: I started the Pawtuxet Village Farmers’ Market with a friend of mine. I think it’s
important to get that locally-grown food, which has a higher nutritional value, into people’s
hands. And it also helps our economy because if you go to the Farmers’ Market, the people who are there selling are people from Rhode Island and they’re not all from Cranston, but some of
them are. So I think that’s important. I think we have a problem in the city where the building
inspectors are not enforcing the lead law. We have 20 or 30 kids a year who enter kindergarten
who are lead-poisoned. And state law says that if you have an apartment built before
1977—where it’s likely there’s lead paint—you need a lead certificate that says that apartment is
safe. And the building inspectors are not checking those. I’ve asked them to; it’s not happening.
That’s something that would happen if I was mayor. And I think that the heat that people are
dealing with this week—I’ve been out knocking on doors and the heat is just really oppressive.
And part of that is that many streets in our city just don’t have any trees. I go and I park my car
and start walking and I have a hard time finding any shade on the street to park my car under. So
that’s a public health issue. And that’s going to become an increasing public health issue as
temperatures continue to rise. So those are a few of the public health things and, of course, the
coronavirus is on everyone’s mind and I think we have to follow the recommendations of the
Centers for Disease Control. None of us like them, but it’s very important that we don’t make
each other sick.

UpriseRI: As you’ve been campaigning, what have you been hearing from people? What are
people bringing to you as issues that they’re worried about that I haven’t touched on?

Stycos: A lot of people are worried about their kids going back to school because of the virus. I
would say that’s number one. And I share their concerns. It sounds very risky to me. So that I
would say is the number one thing that people are concerned about and people are concerned
about their taxes, particularly older people on fixed incomes do not want their taxes to increase.
That’s going to be difficult because of the situation with state education that I was mentioning
because schools are more than half the Cranston budget, and the city council and the mayor in
the last decade haven’t had to put major money from the budget into the school department. That
money’s got to come from somewhere or the schools are going to continue to decline. We need
to look at the budget. And we also need to look at places where money can be cut. And I think I
have a record of doing that more than any other campaign. This last budget, they had $60,000 for
a survey of pavement in the city and the conditions of various roads. Well, I suggested putting
that off for a year and that passed for $60,000. I also objected when the plants were moving
ahead to put new roofs on baseball dugouts when the kids aren’t playing baseball—that’s not an
emergency expense. Or power washing the outside of a building was another one that when I
raised it, they agreed not to spend the money. So we have to not just be saying, oh, we need more
money and we need more money. We also have to look at how to make cuts and save money so
that we can put it in other places.

UpriseRI: Is there anything else that you feel is important for Cranston residents to know about
you and your campaign?

Stycos: Well, I think the thing that separates me from other candidates is that I have experience
in both the school department and the school committee and the city council, and that I’ve
produced results as a city council and a school committee member, whether it’s starting the
universal free breakfast program in the schools when I was on the school committee or starting
the community gardens or cutting money out of the budget. This is not just talk for me. I’ve done
it. I’ve often stood on the council alone on things that I thought were important. And I’ll do the same as mayor. And if I have the honor of being mayor, as I have had the honor of being city
councilman, what I’m being elected to do is to exercise my judgment. So I need to do that. And I
need to say what I’m thinking so that people can discuss that with me and change my mind if I’m
off track, because like everyone else, I make mistakes. Again, I’ve done that. I’ve had community
meetings where I’ve had the greatest idea, and the community has come out to the meeting
saying, you know, we got a better idea. And they were right. We were going to expand a
playground where there had been tennis courts and people from the community said you know,
that would really be better at Chester Barrows Elementary School to get more use. So we moved
the playground to Chester Barrows. The other thing I can promise is that I’ll listen to people. I
would enjoy getting people’s support in the Democratic Primary on September 8.

This interview has been lightly edited and abridged for clarity.