“I think Rhode Island has incredible potential. For so long Rhode Islanders have felt like our state is an embarrassment. I hear that constantly from my constituents… they just want to get out of Rhode Island. And that’s embarrassing. We can be a state that we’re proud of. We can be a state that really invests in lifting up the people who are struggling. We can be a state that leads this country in showing how powerful we can be at helping the people who need help the most.“
Jackson Cantrell: Welcome to another installment of our candidate interview series on UpriseRI. I’m here with Sam Bell. He’s a state senator finishing up his first term representing Rhode Island Senate District 5 in Providence. He’s known for his progressive stances on issues like funding, affordable housing, expanding health care coverage, and also notably for challenging leadership at the State House.
Sam, thank you so much for doing this interview.
Senator Sam Bell: Thank you for having me on.
Cantrell: I wanted to first talk about the crisis we are in right now. What you are hearing from your constituents on the ground? Are there any issues not being reported in the media or particular concerns that folks are having?
Bell: I’m hearing a lot of concerns about just everyone who’s struggling. You know, people are suddenly struggling to pay their rent, they’re suddenly struggling with medical bills, they’re worried about their health insurance. They’re worried about finding a good job. And the reality is, it’s a crisis out there. There’s a lot of suffering, and people need help. And the General Assembly is not doing that. Instead, we’re talking about making things worse. We’re talking about brutal cuts. And there’s no real focus on any kind of recovery package coming out of the state. Nothing, maybe a little bit for small businesses, maybe, but nothing real, nothing serious, nothing that would come close to meeting the scope of the problem. And the reality is that people needed this kind of help months ago, and the state could have helped but did not and chose not to. And I think that was incredibly cruel. And our decision to not meet remotely to appropriate any funding to help during this crisis was an incredibly reckless and heartless decision, and I put the blame squarely on the leadership, who were not interested in helping the people of Rhode Island alleviate their suffering, and abdicated their responsibility to be responsible leaders.
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Cantrell: What kind of rationale did the assembly give for not meeting and not allocating any state money?
Bell: There’s no rationale. I mean, the true rationale is that they’re against helping people. They do not believe that government money should be spent on helping people who aren’t rich and politically connected. I mean, that’s the reality.
Cantrell: I also heard arguments that some people were waiting for, say the next big batch of federal money. They say: Why sink the state in a budget hole if we might get millions and millions of dollars from the feds? What do you say to that argument?
Bell: We are sitting on millions of dollars of federal money that can’t be used to plug budget holes under the law. And the reason why the federal government did that is so that we would use it to help people, right, it would not be used to plug budget holes. So it’s silly when we have money directly for this purpose. By the time we spend it, it will be too late. And there’s going to be an effort by that point to redirect it and scoop as much of it as possible to plug other holes. And I think that’s wrong. I really do. The budget problems for the state are overblown and not that serious if we are willing to take the steps that we need to take, which means repealing the tax cuts for the rich and doing some serious restructuring the state budget. It’s actually not that hard to close a billion dollar gap. It does mean that we have to do things quite differently. But it can be done. You know, I put forward a 19 point plan that lays out how to do that. And I do think I really hope that we get federal money, I think it will make things a lot easier. But it’s not like we’re ever going to be able to spend all of the more than a billion dollars redirecting it towards the state budget. Honestly, I think the state budget hole is a lot worse because we did not provide immediate assistance. I think if we provided an immediate help the state budget hole would not be anywhere near so bad.
Cantrell: What kinds of immediate help are you talking about here?
Bell: I’m talking about real rental assistance, for one. The governor put forward a very small program and none of the money has actually gone out. But we need a rental assistance program that’s at least a quarter billion dollars.
Cantrell: And that would be compared to this seven – what is it seven million – that was currently proposed.
Bell: They increased it a bit but ultimately very little money has actually gone to people under the program. We need a real rental assistance program that’s broad in scale and applies to every Rhode Islander. We’re talking about a lot of money. And we need to do that. We need some business relief. Now we don’t need it directed towards the small businesses that people pretend are small, but are actually quite a bit bigger — any business that finds a way to qualify itself as small — I’m talking about the actual small businesses out there. You know, businesses with 10 or fewer employees or restaurants, or particularly those that really don’t have access to much and are going to be hurt most by this. And so we should make sure to make our business assistance, give every business the same size of grant. Not giving bigger grants to larger businesses based off their higher cash flow. So we need to make sure that we go to every business and cut them all the same check. And I think that that’s important. We need to do that. And I also think there are a bunch of other problems that are out that need to be solved. The hospitals and the nursing homes, we made them go through this crisis and financial distress that was completely unnecessary. We did not need to do that. We could have easily solved that problem. And in particular, it would have come with mostly additional free federal money because of Medicaid and how the Medicaid match works. So we really are talking about no state money that was actually needed to expand it there. And in fact, we can do it, like we did with the hospitals last year without expanding any net state funds, so there was really absolutely no excuse to not do that. It was absolutely just heartless and cruel.
Cantrell: Did you propose that in the General Assembly and what was the response?
Bell: I mean, I proposed it sure. But the reality is that the people who run the General Assembly do not care. They just don’t care. They just don’t care about Rhode Island. They don’t care about the people in the state who are not politically connected, who are not wealthy. It’s really not their priority. Like, you know, the mass suffering that goes on in the state doesn’t matter unless you get enough of a political lobby to make them care. You know, people often say things like, why aren’t they up here at the State House? You know, this is such a problem, why aren’t we seeing it? You know, why aren’t they showing up at fundraisers, you know, dropping checks? If the people don’t make the State House leadership see a problem, they won’t. It doesn’t exist to them.
And, you know, from this perspective, I think that you have to point to a lack of human compassion. What we did with the hospitals and nursing homes by failing to meet remotely to pass the legislation needed to keep them out of financial distress during this crisis, you know that failure? I don’t think you can explain it away without a lack of human compassion on the part of Dominick Ruggerio and Nick Mattiello. They simply do not care about other people’s suffering. There’s really no other explanation.
Cantrell: Has there been any bright spots in the response, either from the assembly or the governor at all?
Bell: I think the governor has done a reasonable job. You know, not perfect, but it’s a difficult thing. She had to bounce a lot of difficult problems. Certain parts have gone very poorly, obviously, mostly things that were under the purview of the Department of Administration. A lot of the execution has been quite poor, but a lot has been good. She put forward the social distancing regulations at the right time, and has done a pretty good job of balancing those. I think she opened up a little bit too quickly, and as a result, we are going to probably see a second wave that was probably not necessary. But in general, I think that she’s done a pretty good job. There were certainly failures. The Abbott test, it didn’t really work. We’re an example of the total failure to get the state government workforce to be on work from home and to protect our own workers. That blame falls squarely on the Department of Administration for their abject failure at protecting the workforce of the state. You know, it happens that we were going through this crisis with particularly poor management at the Department of Administration, and I do think that that was a problem and helped contribute to many of the state’s problems, but in general, I think the governor did do a good job.
I really point to director, health department director Nicole Alexander Scott for truly doing a fantastic job. And I think the Medicaid team you know, he really did a great job, which, you know, really doesn’t get talked about very much. But they suspended the purge, which I think was an incredibly important decision. They worked really hard to get additional funding, using creative techniques to get as much funding as they could, without help from the General Assembly, to the hospitals and nursing homes.
And I really do think the Governor could have done better, but the General Assembly made the problem a lot worse. She was hamstrung because of lack of legislative authorization. You need legislative authorization to spend money, you need the General Assembly to appropriate money to provide real relief. And part of the reason why the governor was reluctant to spend money early on on things that were needed was that she really didn’t have the authority to do so. And she sort of has moved to do that. Probably not legally, but she did it because it was entirely necessary. The General Assembly really, really hurt the state by not providing that kind of authorization. And it is a decision that will stick with this state for years to come.
Cantrell: Yeah, you talk a lot about how the views of the General Assembly don’t line up with often what the public wants. Do you see this crisis changing the status quo electorally? Have you seen anything different from constituents?
Bell: Yeah, people in Rhode Island have always been fed up with the General Assembly and have never particularly supported the hard-right machine that runs our state. I mean, Rhode Island consistently polls like a normal democratic state, a very, very blue state and so it does not support the extreme right wing positions on tax cuts for the rich or the extreme resistance to provide even basic reproductive rights. I mean, an extremely incremental compromise was important and needed, but real compromise around reproductive rights that just codified Roe v. Wade and banned all abortions not protected by Roe v. Wade was met with massive resistance. We only narrowly got it through. And, you know, we weren’t talking about really rolling back a lot of the restrictions that currently are in effect. It was just preventing the possibility that abortion rights could be eliminated in the state if Roe v Wade is curtailed.
Cantrell: Can we dig into that? The Reproductive Rights Act?
Bell: Yeah, it was an incredibly important and really meaningful effort. I think what it shows is the power of Rhode Islanders when we stand up, you know that there was an incredible grassroots effort of so many people going up to the State House and forcing the State House leadership to listen. And if that hadn’t happened, it would have never passed. And it’s a sign that when we get together, when we rise up, we can achieve really big things and then we can smash through the power of the machine.
Cantrell: And what did that compromise or arm twisting or whatever you’d like to call it look like from the inside?
Bell: Well, so I mean, initially, it went through the House reasonably quickly. But the problem is that the Senate leadership, the Senate President, is just ideologically right wing. And the Senate President really didn’t want to pass the bill. And so he had a Senate version of the bill voted down. He only, under intense pressure, did he eventually agree to let it move to the floor. But it only happened, I think, because it was clear to them that their leadership would be really threatened if they did not allow the bill to move.
Cantrell: And what does the intense pressure look like? And are you thinking about using similar pressure on other issues for goals further down the line?
Bell: Well as a legislator, we don’t speak for the grassroots, I can’t, go out and make Rhode Islanders all come up to the State House. I’m only one person. I try and speak out to let people know about what’s going on in the State House, but I also do try and listen to what people in my district want and what they care about.
In order to force the State House to change, we need to provide strong, well funded and well run primary challenges. That’s the only real path forward. And I think there’s some really exciting races right now. But we need to do a much better job supporting much stronger primary challenges. And I think when presented with a real choice, we need to pick an actual democrat over someone whose policies align with the machine, and often many of the core values of the National Republican Party.
Cantrell: We’ll put a pin in that for now. We’re definitely going to talk about these primary challenges and your own kind of flipped primary challenge coming up here. But you spoke about grassroots activism and people coming out to the State House as the driver behind change. We saw the most people I’ve ever seen at the State House protesting for criminal justice reform and police reform and proclaiming Black Lives Matter. Rhode Island really showed that they were behind that. Do you see anything meaningfully changing with regards to police oversight or criminal justice reform?
Bell: Not meaningful? No. I mean, I think it takes more than just one protest. It takes showing up and not just protesting outside the State House. You have to be in the faces of legislators all the time, not just rallying outside. You have to show up, you have to be around them. You have to be pushing them constantly. You have to show up inside the halls of power to be in the room and force them to listen, and you can’t let them shut you outside. I think on criminal justice reform and police oversight, it’s looking like the house proposed compromise is maybe a step forwards, but nothing real. Mostly what they’re doing is they’re giving the police chiefs more power, but not really empowering, true independent oversight of the police department, which is what is needed. There was an op-ed from the Providence Police Chief’s saying this is great because it gives the police chief more power. And I don’t think that’s what’s needed to fundamentally address the problems of police departments. The problem is not that the police chief does not have enough power over the rank and file officers. That is not the problem.
What we really need is true independent oversight and real professional investigations when there are cases of police brutality, racial profiling. And we need not just independent oversight, but well funded professional investigators.
Cantrell: How would you say that existing boards like PERA are measuring up to that standard you just put forward?
Bell: Well, I mean, the Providence Police Department will fight PERA at every step of the way. And we’re seeing that time and time again. I think PERA is doing a good job within the bounds of the state law, but PERA is not the disciplinary board. It’s not set up to be the true investigative board.
We need something like PERA, but with real powers. The powers of the boards that are set up by the so called Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights, that’s what we need. And PERA only exists in Providence. It’s really the Pawtucket police that have the most officer-involved shootings. Pawtucket really stands out as a key community with really huge policing problems. So this problem actually goes beyond Providence and other areas are especially bad based-off some of the numbers. So it’s not just Providence.
Cantrell: We talked about oversight. Where do you stand on defunding the police?
Bell: I think there’s a lot of real waste in our policing spending. I really do. You know, I pointed to the $35 million new state police barracks in West Greenwich as an example of something that we really don’t need to spend money on right now. I also am concerned about money that we spend on the subsidies to put cops in schools.
We also need to talk about what kind of policing the State Police is doing. I think the focus of the State Police is heavily on highway enforcement – heavily on street policing. Often the State Police will show up as sort of riot police. Whenever there are large protests whenever there are large crowds, the State Police show up in riot gear. I’m not sure that that should be the focus of the State Police.
I think the focus really needs to be on white-collar crime enforcement. We have huge problems in the state with financial crime, political corruption, corporate crime, and there’s very little minimal enforcement and the state police that should be the primary goal of the State Police. The State Police should be mostly focused on solving financial crimes, as well as solving particularly difficult, violent crimes and murders.
One of the things I think we don’t talk about enough with the police is their failure to actually address really important crime problems because of the over focus on street policing. They are not, in fact, addressing many serious crimes. So there are a lot of unsolved murders, that don’t need to be unsolved if we invested adequate resources in addressing murder. There’s a lot of gang violence in the city that we’re not really managing properly because we’re much more focused on the street police.
I really think it’s needed to restructure within the existing Police Department what we’re funding the police to do. And there are important things that we do need some form of law enforcement for, but the overwhelming focus in Rhode Island has been on street level policing, and that is not in fact, the priority that we should be pushing our law enforcement towards.
Cantrell: You just mentioned, white collar crime, corruption and sweetheart deals. Has your time in the General Assembly given you a window into that more than say we see our ground?
Bell: It certainly has. I mean, the General Assembly and politics in the state rubs up against the world of white collar crime all the time. Obviously, many members of the General Assembly subsequently face convictions, and I do believe many people have not been caught and have similar issues. I think most people, most politicians and political operatives in the state who commit white collar crimes, get away with it, and many people will think about it, to be perfectly honest. I think it’s kind of disgusting. There’s a culture in the state where people feel above the law within the machine. And you know, even sometimes progressives need to be better about this. We need to be much better about the political culture that really lacks ethical standards. And there’s a lot of serious, serious problems.
Cantrell: You’ve talked in the past about big real estate tax breaks. Where do you think that fits in on this spectrum here?
Bell: It’s not illegal. I just think it’s wrong to do special deals for certain politically connected developers, so they don’t have to pay the taxes that the rest of us have to pay. Your tax rate should not be based on your political connections. And it shouldn’t be that these big luxury apartment developers get massive amounts of state and city money. While so many Rhode Islanders struggle to pay their rent. I think it’s just wrong.
Cantrell: So given that, do you think there are industries we should be subsidizing?
Bell: I think subsidies should be for industries that provide a public good. I think we should be subsidizing affordable housing. I think we should be subsidizing renewable energy. I think that we should be subsidizing placemaking and creating good public spaces around our developments. We should have subsidies for public access and things like that.
Cantrell: Speaking of subsidies, for the COVID crisis, do you see any sort of state recovery package at all at this point?
Bell: The Lieutenant Governor is pushing for business relief. I thought that the battle I would be having would be to make sure that the people of the state are included, and relief doesn’t just all go to businesses. But now there is a very real feeling that we could let all these small businesses because they don’t have political connections. And let a bunch of small corner stores just go out of business. Let restaurants, which are a huge industry in our state, just fold.
So the Lieutenant Governor is leading a push that I do support for some business relief. I think it’s important that we provide all businesses equal grants instead of making the grants proportional to their income. But I think that hopefully that could happen.
But the governor, who had the ability to do this earlier, just didn’t do it. If it had been the big businesses that were really threatened, you better believe the state money would have been there. But it wasn’t. And you know, a lot of people say they care about small businesses, but usually when a lot of the machine folks and the conservatives say they care about small businesses, it’s a way to hide that what they’re really saying is that caring about big businesses and rich people. They just pretend that they’re small businesses.
Cantrell: So the Governor had proposed 76 million in federal recovery funds to be given out to businesses. Is that different from what the Lieutenant Governor is proposing?
Bell: I think that was under pressure from the Lieutenant Governor. You can’t allow a business to just collapse, and a lot of businesses have folded as a result of this crisis because they were not allowed to open and they had fixed costs. We cannot allow that. That’s not acceptable.
I also think, you know, a lot of families are in just absolute distress. And the states were given this money to solve these problems, and we do not seem to be even using the CARES Act funds. I think we should go beyond the Cares Act funds. I think that we should do some bonds to fund real relief efforts, humanitarian relief efforts for the people in our state who are struggling because we need to invest in recovery. But the real fight right now is going to be against making things worse. Yeah, right now the fight is going to be against brutal cuts. That’s what happened the last time, when the General Assembly slashed taxes for the rich by 39%. And it’s one of the biggest state-level tax cuts for the rich in all of American history.
Cantrell: And do you see any common ground in the legislature or in the assembly where the majority of people at this point might vote against deep cuts? Is that something politically feasible?
Bell: I think a lot of people in the General Assembly don’t support things. But the question is whether they will stand up to the leadership, right?
It’s really much easier to get people in the General Assembly to think something isn’t a good idea than to get them to actually vote no. And there’s some appetite, I think, if the cuts are too brutal, the Senate won’t pass them. In fact, I think that if we had not funded Central Falls Public Schools and allowed arts and music education to end in elementary and middle school in Central Falls, we probably could have killed the budget on the Senate floor.
If there are deep cuts to the schools, I will do my level best to get the budget killed on the Senate floor. I think we would have a decent shot of killing it on the Senate floor. The house is going to be a little bit more difficult, but it’s possible that it could get killed on the House floor as well.
The reality is that because you need two thirds to pass a budget, it is easier to kill a budget on the house or the senate floor than it is to kill something else. But it does require getting people to actually vote no. And that can be difficult, because the machine is very powerful. And a lot of legislators have the right positions but don’t actually stand up and vote the right way.
That is a culture that we really need to change if we’re ever able to organize and show real power. We need to get our legislators who support the core values of the Democratic Party voting that way, and that means voting against bad legislation. That means voting the right way, even when the leadership doesn’t want you to.
Cantrell: You spoke out against the Senate president at the very beginning of your term. You voted no, against the confirmation and you gave a speech about it, which I assume Ruggerio was not too pleased with. I remember there was some talk that you’d never be able to get anything done in the Senate, that you just blew your chance. How did that play out?
Bell: First of all, I really think it’s important to talk about why Ruggerio is a truly indefensible choice for Senate President. Ideology alone, he’s wildly to the right of mainstream. It’s not just that he’s pro life, but he also voted against marriage equality, which is kind of an extreme position. He’s obviously taken thousands of dollars from the NRA and voted for the tax cuts for the rich, but also will say things like he “wasn’t so sure that Donald Trump should have been impeached.”
It should be clear Mattiello is significantly to Ruggiero’s left on the environment. He’s significantly more progressive than Ruggiero and just pretty much across the board, with a small exception with certain labor issues because Ruggiero has been under a lot of pressure.
But you know, the other issue is the Senate President has serious personal misconduct problems. I mean, like, like a long and pretty indefensible history. He was arrested for shoplifting condoms from a CVS, and he wasn’t charged. Mormally if you’re a person of color, and you shoplift condoms from CVS, the police will press charges, and you can face very serious penalties. He also vandalized the car of a businessman who refused to meet with him. There was obviously the mortgage scandal, where he basically fraudulently signed a mortgage saying it was his primary residence when it wasn’t even in his district. And it was a special low interest, loan mortgage, only available to people with political connections. And then of course, there was the DUI that John Oliver covered in such lurid detail more recently. I mean, you have a very, very, very long history of serious personal misconduct problems. And you know, if he were a progressive, the conservatives would never in a million years, allow him to even hold that seat. It’s totally and completely indefensible. The only argument people ever make in defense of supporting him is one out of pure fear. The argument that we’re just afraid of him, and if we don’t, if we vote against him, he will punish us.
Cantrell: Being on the other side of that, is that true at all?
Bell: No. What they do is you get punished in small ways, right? Like people will, they’ll like, make jokes about killing you, and they’ll give you a slightly less nice parking space maybe. They get mad at you, and you get socially ostracized sometimes.
But the reality is, you know, there are more important things than that. I still actually got a bill passed. The one time my district needed a bill, I was able to get it passed. They started talking about pulling all the legislative grants to my district, but when I threatened to make it public, they just backed off of that. So, you know, in no meaningful ways, has it actually hurt my constituents.
And I have gotten so much more on policy than I could have ever gotten if I had voted for the Senate President. Because if you vote for the Senate President and you suck up to the leadership, it means that you just have to support everything. And you can’t oppose anything.
And so because I’ve had the guts and the courage to stand up to them, you know, I get changes in bills all the time. Just recently there was a bill on how airports can condemn land and knock down people’s houses, which is something that is more important to the rest of the state but I think is a really important issue that we not let the Airport Corporation Department of Transportation just go ahead knocking out a bunch of people’s homes. I got the bills severely limited.
All the time I get bills changed, I get them improved. I get bills killed. You know, if I stand up and I fight back against bills very often they never come to the floor. If I raise opposition to something on the floor, it may still pass in the Senate, but because you speak out against it, the bill will never pass the House.
Sometimes the Governor will veto a bill or implement regulations to prevent the bill going forwards. That happens frequently when you speak out. You get a lot of what you want. For example, there was a bill that was a Rhode Island version of the Trump tax cuts for the rich, a wild bill, the kind of thing that you know, it’s shocking that it ever moved out the Senate Finance Committee, and I went around telling people: “Look, do you really want to put this on the floor and have people face primary challenges after having voted for a Rhode Island version of the Trump tax cuts for the rich?” And you know what? The bill never got put on the floor.
When you cave to them, you give up all your power. You don’t get anything in the end for it. It’s not like the people who’ve reflexively supported the leadership have massive amounts of things to show for it. Sometimes the leadership will give you a bill that was gonna pass anyway and give it to you to put your name on it. But you don’t get your policy in.
Cantrell: You had one bill that both you and Ruggerio were on concerning charter schools. Can you speak more about that? With being on the same bill as Ruggerio, did you actually have to be in the same room and debate the terms?
Bell: I work hard to work together with people with very different ideologies. I’ll even work with the Senate President, and I think we have built a better working relationship. I think we built a much better working relationship than if I had just gone in and kissed the ring and sucked up to him from the beginning.
Realistically speaking, you can’t really work with people if your relationship is just subservience to them. You can’t build a real working relationship. And I think I’ve been able to build stronger relationships and be able to get more done.
I really do believe that the charter school bill is important because there’s a real concern from a lot of people that the Providence takeover has kind of become a mass charter-ization of the city. That we’re going to lose our Providence public schools. And, you know, I’m not against charters, I think they’re good charter schools out there, but I do not want to see a mass takeover. There’s real concern that a lot of schools might shut down and get replaced by charters. I don’t want to see that happen.
Cantrell: How do you think the takeover has gone so far?
Bell: Because of the work that a lot of people, not just me, a lot of the rest of the Providence delegation has done to mitigate the damage, there has not been that much damage. Though I don’t think that we’re actually fixing the Providence Public Schools.
There’s absolutely no plan to in any way fix or change things in any meaningful way. I’m hopeful that we will not see the axe fall. I’m hopeful that we will not see massive damage and thus far we have held off any serious damage, but the conditions in our schools, the management of our schools have been deplorable for quite some time.
I really think that the scary thing with the schools right now is budget cuts. Our schools cannot take a massive round of budget cuts. And we can’t use the pandemic as an excuse to do all sorts of truly evil things. We got a taste of that in Mount Pleasant High. And that was just in anticipation of state budget cuts we haven’t even passed yet, which shows just the damage that can be done if we don’t stop these budget cuts to schools.
Cantrell: So you have a challenger from within Providence, Joanne Ryan, who’s on the Providence City Council. Thinking about your campaign going forward, how do you differentiate yourself from her? How are you making the case that you deserve to keep your seat?
Bell: Well, it’s not my seat. It’s For for the people of, you know, of Providence and of the neighborhoods I represent. Mount Pleasant, Federal Hill, Olneyville and of the West End. For me, what I’ve been talking about is the work I’ve done in the Senate. The reason why I’m running for re-election is so that I can go up there and fight for a recovery and fight to stop devastating cuts. And that’s really what I’ve been campaigning on — the need to stop brutal Medicaid cuts. I was one of the few people to vote against the budget last year because it slashed Medicaid for nursing homes. And I do believe that made this pandemic so much worse.
It’s been really humbling. People have been supportive of the work I’ve done in the Senate. I did not realize, to be honest, quite how much people appreciated it in my district, but they really do. And, you know, that’s really what the campaign’s been about it. I’ve tried to avoid attacking my opponent. And you know, we have some issues, some disagreements, but I really want this campaign to be a conversation about where we want to go forwards on policy.
Cantrell: And in terms of talking to your constituents, over your first term has anything constituents have said to you changed your mind or policy positions?
Bell: My mind is often changed by when constituents reach out to me. Particularly when it’s an issue that my constituents know a lot about, maybe an expert on a particular bill that I didn’t know too much about.
For instance, I voted against and I was opposed to the effort to move adult education away from RIDE. That’s because people who were experts in the field reached out to me about it. There’s tons of examples like that.
And I do my best to listen to my constituents on where to focus. My constituents really have huge, huge problems with Medicaid. And so I’ve really put a lot of effort into focusing on Medicaid access. A lot of my constituents have immigration problems and problems dealing with the state on immigration. So that’s been a big focus of mine. I really try and listen. And people cared a lot about passing reproductive rights and codifying Roe v Wade. So, you know, I work very hard to try and support that campaign.
People in my district have very close values to my own. So I’ve never really had the experience of people pushing back on anything. Sometimes I think I’m not quite left wing enough for some people in my district, but because I’m typically on the left at the State House, electorally I face pressure from the right, and almost no one in my district ever supports the kind of right wing ideas of the machine. I almost never hear that.
Cantrell: And do you see a sea change this election season with all these primary challenges. Who gets you excited?
Bell: Well, you know, I think it is exciting. I think that the problem all these challenges face is a lack of institutional support. You know, it’s hard to raise money as a primary challenger and a lot of activist groups in the state are unwilling to support the kind of candidates who really challenge the machine.
I think we as a progressive movement need to be better about supporting the kind of people who are really willing to get up there and fight. Instead of just taking the safe choices on the easy races, we need to invest in the tough races and the races that really mean challenging the power structure. And we have to do that and we have to come together as a movement and invest in supporting the candidates that we really need.
I’m very excited about Tiara Mack, who can really move this state forwards in terms of reducing bigotry against the LGBTQ community, you know, and be a stronger advocate for low income people, which is something that’s very close to my heart. I think that’s a very exciting campaign. I want to point to Lenny Cioe who’s running against the Senate President. You know, I think he hasn’t gotten the institutional support he needs. But I still think he’s an incredible candidate and he’s got a strong chance and people really should invest in it and believe in that campaign. I think I’m really excited if former Senator Jeanine Calkan could come back to the Senate. We desperately need her voice and you know, I think she’ll be a strong champion and really excited about that election. I don’t want to go through all of them but there are a ton of really great candidates out there. Here in the House District where I live, I’m supporting David Morales. There are a lot of really exciting races, and I’m really hopeful that we can make some really important changes.
Cantrell: And for these candidates that you support, what advice are you giving them? You were in that exact same position.
Bell: Believe in yourself, keep fighting. A lot of people will tell you that they support largely what you’re doing but just can’t support you challenging the power structure. And you’ll get a lot of that, and you need to just work hard, go out there, knock on doors and send the message to the people of your district. And if they agree with you, they’ll elect you.
The reality is that money and institutional support matter in elections. They matter a lot in primaries. And so we as a community, as a progressive community, need to better support challengers. I hope people work really hard, and I’m really looking forward to hopefully having some great new progressive voices in the Senate and House.
Cantrell: Other than preventing deep budget cuts? What do you think needs to happen right now for a recovery?
Bell: There’s a real effort to kind of dance around what’s really needed and what’s really needed is extremely large sums of money. We need massive rent relief. Rent is just not affordable in this state. That means public investment on a massive scale. And right now, we have to invest at least a quarter billion dollars in rent relief if we really want to prevent evictions. An eviction moratorium is a good start, but it’s not going to take us all the way. We need massive investments in rental assistance, renters need to get public money from the state right now. It’s the only way to meaningfully help people get out of these problems.
Cantrell: And what’s your strategy going forward on rent relief?
Bell: I want to call attention to it. I keep trying to demand an investment in the recovery and it’s not going to happen until we make the leadership know that it’s needed. We have the money. The Cares Act money is there. We can make these investments.
And yes, in some cases it means wealthy interests getting passed over, but we need to invest in helping people who are really struggling. It’s so important.
One other thing I want to talk about is at the same time as we’re bending over backwards to say, “We don’t have the money to invest a couple hundred million and rent relief right now.” We’re talking about giving more than half of a billion dollars in sweetheart deals to the big gambling corporations.
And the same time folks are saying, “Where are you going to find the money? How are we going to be able to get the funds for rent relief?” We’re talking about giving more money to the big gambling corporations, and pretty much pure waste just because of their political power that they’ve used to get money from the state. And I just don’t think you can separate those two issues. You can’t separate our failures to invest in the people who are struggling from all of the money that we give to the politically connected corporations to rich people, to the luxury housing to the people who don’t need help. You just can’t separate the two and for me. I’ve tried to fight back both against the subsidies for corporate interests and to fight for the Investments because I believe they’re linked on a fundamental level.
Cantrell: Where do you see your priorities for Rhode Island in the far term?
Bell: I’m a realist. But I think Rhode Island has incredible potential. For so long Rhode Islanders have felt like our state is an embarrassment. I hear that constantly from my constituents, so they just want to get out of Rhode Island. And that’s embarrassing. We can be a state that we’re proud of. We can be a state that really invests in lifting up the people who are struggling. We can be a state that leads this country in showing how powerful we can be at helping the people who need help the most.
And we can be a state that leads this country in growth, because the way you really grow an economy is growing it from the bottom up, instead of being a state where our economy is always struggling because we give all of our resources to the wealthy, who don’t really create jobs, who don’t really create value in our economy. My vision for Rhode Island, if not ending the corruption, is making the corruption more manageable. We do not have to be a state with this kind of out of control culture of political corruption. And I really do believe that that is something we can end and we end it by changing the people who are in positions of power.
Cantrell: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Bell: The other thing that I really like to add is it is so important to reach out to your legislators. I hear from people say, “Oh, I don’t need to reach out to my legislators, because I’m sure they agree with me.”
If we do agree with you, it gives us so much strength to know that our constituents are behind us on an issue. It gives us the ability to fight and it matters a lot to hear from people. And sometimes your legislator might not agree with you. You might be surprised.
The other thing is that we have to as a state, is to move beyond just the machine in the state. And that means we need our legislators to stand up to Dominick Ruggerio and Nick Mattiello. And we will never achieve the real change we need until we are willing to stand up to them and whoever their right wing successors may be if we do not unseat them with real Democrats. I really encourage everyone to reach out to their legislators and use this election season and really demand that they stand up and they pledge to vote against Matiello and Ruggierio, should they win reelection.
Cantrell: Thank you so much for speaking with me.
Bell: Thank you.