“…although I’ve lived in my district for 20 years, I’ve never heard from my representative. As I got more involved in advocacy, I was consistently disappointed to learn he was not standing up for our community’s values, from watching him vote against codifying Roe v Wade into state law, to seeing that his sole request to the governor during this COVID-19 crisis was for a golf course, the Pawtucket Country Club, where he holds his fundraisers for corporate lobbyists.“
Leonela Felix is challenging incumbent Raymond Johnston Jr in the Democratic Primary for the House District 61 seat in Pawtucket. In his ten years as Representative, Johnston, a close ally of House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, has not had a primary challenger since defeating John Enright Sr in 2010.
Leonela Felix, who goes by Leo, has lived in the district since she moved to Rhode Island as a teenager. She and her twin sister graduated from Charles E Shea High School and her first job was at McDonald’s on Lonsdale Avenue. Her mother worked two jobs to support their family and is a small business owner.
Felix became a lawyer after being directly impacted by the criminal justice system. She graduated from Community College of Rhode Island, Rhode Island College, and earned a law degree from the New England School of Law in Boston. Her work in advocacy began at Progreso Latino, and she now works for the City of Providence in the legal department. She has been part of several coalitions including the Rhode Island Immigration Coalition, the Interfaith Coalition Against Poverty, and the Commission on Health Advocacy and Equity. Felix is a board member of OpenDoors, an organization serving formerly incarcerated individuals and their families.
This interview was conducted by email.
UpriseRI: What made you decide to run for State Representative against a connected incumbent?
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Leonela Felix: This district is my home. I worked my first job here, for minimum wage. I woke up at 5am to commute to law school and stay in my community. My fiancé and I live down the street from the house I grew up in. My twin sister lives nearby and her daughter, my beloved niece, goes to the local public school. I know my neighbors and I know I can represent them.
But although I’ve lived in my district for 20 years, I’ve never heard from my representative. As I got more involved in advocacy, I was consistently disappointed to learn he was not standing up for our community’s values, from watching him vote against codifying Roe v Wade into state law, to seeing that his sole request to the governor during this COVID-19 crisis was for a golf course, the Pawtucket Country Club, where he holds his fundraisers for corporate lobbyists.
Of course, it wasn’t an easy decision, choosing to run a primary challenge to an incumbent in the middle of a pandemic. But I really believe our community deserves better.
UpriseRI: Do you think the Rhode Island House has been serving the people of Rhode Island?
Felix: I’ve been an advocate for many years. I’ve seen how the State House works for corporate lobbyists and insiders, but not for families like mine or my neighbors. With a global pandemic and long overdue uprising for racial justice, we cannot wait for leadership and change. I’ll fight for the needs and priorities of the working families in my district, because I’ve experienced firsthand the struggles my constituents face. We need leaders making the laws who know what it is like to work a low-wage job or be barred from career and educational opportunities because of a criminal record. I’ve worked incredibly hard and overcome a lot. That direct experience matters.
UpriseRI: Your opponent is a reliable vote for Speaker Mattiello’s agenda, but is he serving his constituents?
Felix: Representative Johnston has had power for close to a decade as a state representative, but it seems like he’s been more concerned about being on the ins with Mattiello than about standing up for working families. We’re living in a crazy and terrifying time — my community can’t afford representatives who are just there to go along and get along.
UpriseRI: You are a woman of color running against a white male incumbent. Can you speak to that?
Felix: I’m running for those who have been purposefully left out of the decision-making by our current political system and who so desperately long for a future that’s equitable and just. I can see a future where all aspects of government represent and are representative of the people they serve.
As a Black woman, I know we need to start putting racial justice at the center of all our policy-making decisions. That means transforming our criminal justice system, it means reinvesting the excessive resources we currently put into law enforcement and incarceration into programs that actually help our communities, it means fighting for environmental justice and clean air and water in communities of color that always get shafted by pollution, and it means changing our school funding formula so it doesn’t continue systematically underfunding communities like Pawtucket that have the most English Language Learners.
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?
Felix: In addition to all the critical policies already discussed, Rhode Island needs to do even more to invest in its working people. We often think nostalgically about the good, blue-collar factory jobs we used to have — but we never remember that those used to be terrible, dangerous, awful places to work! It was a series of organizing victories and policy changes that made those jobs good — and now we need to do the same thing with the service and care jobs that make up such a large portion of our frontline sectors. We need a universal care program (perhaps funded by taxes on the wealthy) that provides everyone in our state with the childcare and long-term elderly care they need, while investing in the wages, training, and advancement opportunities necessary to make those jobs as just and fair as they are critical. We need to win justice for tipped workers, who continue to get left behind in our minimum wage increases. We need to win policies that promote fair scheduling, to protect workers from having their time exploited. We need to invest in affordable housing for communities like mine, where more and more families are having trouble affording the rent.
UpriseRI: Let me ask about particular subject areas. Where do you stand, and what are your ideas on,
Felix: Climate change is the challenge of our lifetime, and an existential threat to all of human civilization. Rhode Island needs to step up. Both the costs of an extractive fossil fuel system and the disastrous effects of the climate crisis fall disproportionately on immigrants, low-income communities, and people of color — in other words, on families like mine. My neighborhood can’t afford more of the same, and as state representative I will fight to transition Rhode Island to 100% clean energy in ways that create good-paying jobs for my neighbors and reduce the racial and economic inequalities that have weighed down communities like Pawtucket for far too long.
Felix: Quality healthcare is a right for everyone, not a privilege for those who can afford it. It is fundamentally the responsibility of the government to make sure this is the case. This pandemic has laid bare some of the problems in our healthcare system. Our system is built to prioritize profit over public health. Even as hospital workers were doing life saving work, they were facing cuts. That is backwards. I support a shift to Medicare for All, where health insurance is provided to everyone. This is not only the most just approach — it’s also the most efficient, as far too much money is wasted in our for-profit health care system. That is a big transition and will take time, so in the meantime our state needs to invest in primary care, mental health care, and substance use disorder treatment to make sure we address root causes of health crises early.
Felix: I’ll always support a woman’s right to choose and make sure reproductive healthcare is accessible to all. We also need to be sure that people have the healthcare, respect, and resources they need to bear and raise children if they do choose to become parents.
Felix: We need to keep pushing for true equality — not just in marriage, but in every aspect of people’s lives, so we can end discrimination against LGBTQ people in their careers, their housing, their reproductive and parenting decisions, and more.
Felix: My priority is real community safety — for everyone. To make that real, we have to make some big changes. We need to transition our focus (and investments) from the militarization and criminalization of our streets, so we can prioritize the real needs in our communities, like actually treating mental health and substance use. I also know from personal experience how urgently we need to move away from imprisoning people for minor and non-violent crimes — it ruins their lives and costs us all far too much.
Felix: The United States is the only industrialized nation in the world where tens of thousands of citizens are killed and wounded by guns each year. As a nation we need to do better. We cannot continue to lose our residents to senseless gun violence. We need leaders who are not afraid to take on the NRA and do what is right for residents. I am committed to being that leader. I have advocated for sensible gun reform in my state and will continue to do so if I am elected.
Felix: Affordable housing is a right. Yet Rhode Island is the only state in the Northeast without a permanent funding stream for the creation of new affordable homes. I will fight to create a dedicated funding stream to increase the supply of available housing. I support the passage of the affordable housing bond proposed by Governor Raimondo to develop and preserve affordable homes in the state. An affordable housing bond would provide a much needed economic stimulus, and boost jobs and infrastructure development as we recover from the pandemic. And I will fight to prevent any cuts to housing and homeless services. As a result of COVID-19 and the looming economic crisis, thousands of Rhode Islanders are at risk of losing their homes, and our state needs to step up to end evictions and support people in need.
Felix: I graduated from the Pawtucket Public Schools, and I know that public education is one of our state’s most important responsibilities. I will fight to ensure that our schools get the resources they need so that every child from every zip code can succeed. Making schools safe in this moment of crisis requires resources. And making remote instruction work better — especially for low-income families — also requires investment. Even before this pandemic our schools were suffering. We are far behind in repairing school buildings. We don’t provide enough support for English Language Learners. And we don’t make the investments in the arts that we should.
We also must work to disrupt the link between our schools and our criminal justice system. We should be prioritizing restorative justice practices and social and emotional support systems, rather than focusing on criminalizing our young people. Many of the challenges schools face are rooted not within their walls, but rather in the society around them. Stable housing, living wage jobs for our students’ parents, and safe and healthy communities all contribute to a young person’s academic achievements, and we must prioritize investments across these sectors.
Finally, We must take teaching seriously! We must support, empower, and train transformative teachers to move our schools forward. We need to pay teachers what they are worth, just as we do doctors and lawyers.
Felix: As the daughter of immigrants, and someone who formerly worked in immigration law firms, I am deeply familiar with the pain and damaged caused by xenophobic policies like those blocking undocumented Rhode Islanders from getting drivers licenses. Rhode Island’s economy and labor force benefits from the active participation of immigrants, who comprise nearly two-fifths of workers in production occupations and one-third of workers in healthcare support occupations. But we are more than our economic contributions – we are neighbors, business owners, taxpayers, and workers. We are an integral part of Rhode Island’s diverse community. Rhode Island’s leaders need to ensure that our immigrant communities have the freedom to thrive, along with everyone else. I live in a community with a lot of immigrants, but we are represented by someone who has never spoken up on these issues. I want to change that.
UpriseRI: Thank you so much for your time!
Felix: You’re welcome. Stay healthy and safe.