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An interview with House District 16 candidate Brandon Potter



“[Millea] asked me to call him, and when I did, for some reason he brought up racial injustice. He told me he thought, ‘Black Lives Matter is a farce.’ He said, ‘I represented these people as a public defender.’ When he said that, and knowing that he was anti-choice and endorsed by the NRA, I just knew this person didn’t reflect my values as a Democrat.

Brandon Potter is running for challenging Chris Millea in the Democratic primary to serve as the Representative for District 16 in Cranston. The primary is on September 8. This interview was conducted by email.

UpriseRI: What made you decide to run for State Representative?

Brandon Potter: A lot had to happen for me to get here. This wasn’t a personal aspiration of mine. I felt obligated to do it. I had reached out to my Representative a few times and never heard back from him. When I talked to other people, they had the same experience. After the RI Rank report came out, I publicly mentioned him on Twitter and only then did I get his attention. He asked me to call him, and when I did, for some reason he brought up racial injustice. He told me he thought, “Black Lives Matter is a farce.” He said, “I represented these people as a public defender.” When he said that, and knowing that he was anti-choice and endorsed by the NRA, I just knew this person didn’t reflect my values as a Democrat. I knew there was too much of a disconnect to be able to expect this person to represent me. And I believe people have an obligation to hold their government accountable. So I told myself I wouldn’t be one to sit back and complain about my government if I wasn’t willing to stand up and do the hard work needed to change it.

UpriseRI: Millea voted against the codification of Roe v Wade. Where do you stand on reproductive rights?

Potter: We’ve seen a decades long, deliberate effort by the far right-wing to strip women of their rights, and I believe defending a woman’s right to choose is fundamental to the values of what it means to be a Democrat. The fact that my opponent twice voted against codifying Roe v Wade into state law is inexcusable. I think people need to remember that Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell have made no bones about the fact that they’ want to build a Supreme Court majority set on overturning Roe v Wade. I don’t fall for a so-called Democrat feigning ignorance and voting against women’s rights and failing to stand up to the Trump agenda. I’m proud to be endorsed by Planned Parenthood, and quite frankly I think any Democrat who’s endorsed by a right-wing extremist group like Right to Life should be embarrassed.

UpriseRI: And you also mentioned that Millea is endorsed by the NRA. Where are you on guns and gun rights?

Potter: I support the right to bear arms, but I don’t support a right to have an assault weapon. I don’t support high capacity magazines. I support common-sense gun restrictions, and I think we need to be proactive in keeping our community safe. I was endorsed by the Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence and Moms Demand Action.

UpriseRI: Do you think the Rhode Island House has been serving the people of Rhode Island?

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Potter: No, I think they serve the needs of the people that make big campaign contributions. They serve the needs of special interests that can hire lobbyists to wine and dine them for special favors. They don’t serve regular, everyday people. They don’t serve the people that need them to the most. The instances where they do act in a way that benefits regular people are few and far between. In my opinion, the people are an afterthought.

UpriseRI: Your opponent, Chris Millea, is a close ally to House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello. Is he truly representing your district, or is he representing the lobbyist interests you just mentioned?

Potter: In my opinion Millea represents Speaker Mattiello. His relationship with him is widely known and he doesn’t shy away at all from saying he continues to support him, even as Mattiello is subject to criminal investigations. I believe elected officials need to be leaders. They need to be bold and be proactive in working to solve the challenges our state has. I think my opponent shows up to serve at the pleasure of Speaker Mattiello, and considering that people I’ve met at their doors have called him “one of Mattiello’s minions” and “his henchman,” it seems like I’m not alone. I’m running to be an independent voice for the people of my district.

UpriseRI: What issues are motivating you? What are you hearing from voters as you knock on doors? How does outreach work during COVID?

Potter: Fixing our broken healthcare system is one of my biggest priorities. From talking to voters, people are concerned with everything from the economy, schools, roads, healthcare. I’ve heard a lot of people really concerned about Donald Trump. It reminds me of why it’s so important we have Democrats that actually act like Democrats. As far as how to stay safe during COVID, I basically ring a doorbell, take 10 to 15 steps back, pull my mask down so someone can see my face, and pull it back up as we get talking closer. I’ve gone through a lot of hand sanitizer. I’ve never run for office before, so it’s the only way I’ve ever campaigned.

UpriseRI: How do you imagine fixing health care?

Potter: My girlfriend, Katie, is 31 years old and has a genetic kidney disease. She’s been on dialysis for three years, and qualifies for Medicare, but hasn’t been able to stay on the transplant list. While Medicare will pay for her surgery, they won’t approve it without her having a secondary insurance policy that will pay for the medication she’ll need to be on after. So for all of last year and part of 2018, we paid for a private insurance plan to keep her on the list. In January we received a letter saying that because of new guidelines and regulations, her policy was cancelled, and she didn’t qualify for a new policy. She was then removed from the transplant list, again. This is while she does her dialysis treatment herself, at home, each night, and Medicare is billed $55,000/month. Our healthcare system is broken. Sick people shouldn’t be thought of as a business opportunity. We need a universal healthcare system and we need it now.

UpriseRI: In addition to the crisis of COVID, Rhode Island is facing a reckoning with our history of racism and slavery, as well as an economic crisis, a housing crisis and an unemployment crisis. It’s a big job right now. What are your instincts as to what should be done in the short term and the medium term?

Potter: There really is just so much work to do. One of the questions I often get asked by voters is what my most important issue is, or what my top three issues are. I have to be honest and tell them we can’t just pick a few, we have simultaneous crises that are going to take an awful lot of hard work to resolve. These issues you’re talking about are symptoms of deep rooted inequities. We’ll need long term fixes to address them, but the challenge is that real people are hurt and affected by them right now. They don’t have the luxury to wait for long term solutions.

So the question becomes, how do we relieve the impact on people right now? The pandemic is a health crisis before anything else, and we need to treat it as such and get that under control first and foremost. Many of the other challenges we see branch off of that. I think bold government investment in the renewable energy market can stimulate our economy in a massive way. But we need reform in so many ways to make sure working class people get their fair share in that economic growth. There’s no short term fix. We can Band-Aid, and we have to Band-Aid to help the most vulnerable and those most affected right now, but we also need to do the hard work for real, long term solutions.

UpriseRI: You spoke about renewable energy. Where are you on the climate crisis? What should we be doing?

Potter: The climate crisis is paramount. It’s unlike anything we’ve experienced. That’s why I found it so profoundly ignorant when Speaker Mattiello said there wasn’t anything we could do locally to combat climate change. In my opinion it shows a complete lack of any sense of leadership. This is up to all of us to play our part in, but it starts with our government leading by example and acknowledging the problem with the urgency it deserves. That’s the bare minimum.

I believe Rhode Island is in a unique position, and big thinking in a small state can go a long way. Quite often we hear politicians talk about how we don’t want to disturb the economy. It seems like they don’t recognize how much money we spend on repairing the damage caused by climate change. Or they’re just more concerned with protecting the profits of the fossil fuel industry as they take campaign contributions from lobbyists. But we not only have a moral obligation to step up, we also have a huge economic opportunity with real investment in renewable energy. For the economic reasons alone we need to act right now to propel us through this recovery period and start to build an economy of the future.

UpriseRI: There are efforts underway across the nation and here in Rhode Island to defund or reform the police. What are your thoughts on that?

Potter: We need to have zero tolerance for police brutality and abuse of power. Policing is clearly a very dangerous job, and I have the utmost respect for those that serve honorably in uniform, but I believe there’s a lot of room for improvement within the culture of policing. Police need to be held to the highest of ethical standards and lead by example. If an officer witnesses another officer abuse their power, or conduct themselves unethically, they have an obligation to intervene and report it. People need to be able to trust police, and that trust has eroded more and more.

I understand why so many people are so frustrated and angered right now, but I don’t agree with the broad anti-police sentiment we’re seeing a lot of. I’ve been critical of the “defund the police” narrative for a few different reasons. One being that I believe racial injustice is so deeply embedded in our country, and we have so much real work to do to address it, that we’re doing the cause a disservice by trying to condense the solution into a bumper sticker sized slogan. We need to recognize police brutality and hold police accountable, but we can’t lose sight of the work that needs to be done in our education system and in our economy that leads to the conflicts between people and police. When we draw these stark lines between “sides” I think we’re being really counterproductive and doing a disservice to justice.

UpriseRI: Tell me more of your thoughts on education.

Potter: I believe we need to recognize education for what it is— an investment in our people, and an investment in our economy. I believe we need to reform our funding formula so the quality of education isn’t disproportionately tied to local home values and reliant on property taxes. It’s another example of where government needs to reflect our priorities.

UpriseRI: We’re in the beginning stages of a major housing and eviction crisis. What can be done?

Potter: We’ve had a housing problem building for quite a while, but the true economic fallout from COVID-19 is yet to come, and I fear this is the first shoe to drop. We need government action right now. We have to appropriate federal funds for those in immediate need of housing stability, and we need serious reform to correct the underlying conditions that have built an economy where so many people struggle to maintain affordable housing.

About the Author

Steve Ahlquist is Uprise RI's co-founder and lead reporter. He has covered human rights, social justice, progressive politics and environmental news for nearly a decade.