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Stabbing at the heart of the beast: An interview with Lenny Cioe



More than anything else, I am motivated by the patients I meet in the hospital and their inability to afford life-saving medical care. I see healthcare as a right, not a privilege. I want to see healthcare coverage detached from employment status…

Lenny Cioe‘s entry into politics is audacious. He’s challenging Senate President Dominick Ruggerio in Senate District 4 (Providence, North Providence) in the Democratic Primary on Tuesday, September 8. It’s difficult to challenge an incumbent, it’s much more difficult to challenge and incumbent who is as politically powerful, connected and well-financed as Ruggerio.

Cioe has been critical of the Senate President, who, along with Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello, has effectively shut down the General Assembly in the midst of a global pandemic. Ruggerio is also extremely conservative, voting against both reproductive rights and same-sex marriage.

Cioe is a Registered Nurse on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis. He is a 2003 graduate of the Community College of Rhode Island in respiratory therapy and a 2008 graduate of Rhode Island College where he received a Bachelor of Science in Nursing. Lenny has been a health care professional for 18 years. We conducted this interview by email:

UpriseRI: What made you decide to run for State Senate against a powerful, connected Senate President?

Lenny Cioe: My parents taught me that I can fight to make the world around me a better place. First, this drove me to become a nurse. I buried many friends during the AIDS crisis, and decided I wanted to enter the healthcare system to make it better at protecting the people it usually left behind. But I can’t help the people who are too afraid to even come into the hospital because they’re afraid of the bill. I am running for State Senate because I want to fix our broken healthcare system. I happen to live in the same district as Senator Ruggerio. And while it’s been difficult to run against someone with so much power and so many connections, it has only pushed me to work harder. Our Senate should not be controlled by someone who cares more about private interests and profit than he does the people of Rhode Island. I am running to bring true civic leadership to Smith Hill.

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

Cioe: Our State Senate serves some Rhode Islanders very well, but leaves many more behind. For instance, the 2006 tax cut on the top 1% of earners in our state served the very wealthy, but resulted in a huge decrease in tax revenue that could have been used to serve everyone else. That money should have gone to our healthcare system, our schools, and affordable housing developments. That is how the State Senate can truly serve the people of Rhode Island: reform the tax system so that the super-rich pay their fair share, and use that money to fund public services.

UpriseRI: Is your opponent serving his constituents?

Cioe: My opponent is serving his friends. He has spent 35 years in office making connections that benefit him and his supporters.

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

Cioe: More than anything else, I am motivated by the patients I meet in the hospital and their inability to afford life-saving medical care. I see healthcare as a right, not a privilege. I want to see healthcare coverage detached from employment status.

I will fight for single-payer healthcare. Healthcare is an investment in every Rhode Islander. We must guarantee this basic right so that the people of our state can focus on their jobs and their families, not their outrageous medical bills.

I have been so encouraged by the conversations I’ve been having at the doors. Voters are really excited for change. Regardless of how they feel about Ruggerio’s time in office, they are ready to see someone new in the Senate. They are excited to see someone whose values align with their own as Democrats. Voters are excited to have a choice this year.

Outreach during COVID has been difficult, because people are reluctant to come to the door and talk to a stranger. But we have been practicing social distancing at the doors, and all our canvassers always wear a mask and travel with hand sanitizer. The hardest thing has been that we can’t host the fundraising and informational events that we would during a normal election year. That just means we’re leaning more heavily on online outreach.

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?

Cioe: In the short-term, measures like removing “Providence Plantations” from our state’s name are good ones that show us we’re moving in the right direction to address our history of racism and slavery. But that is not nearly enough.

Our police are supposed to keep our communities safe. To do that, they need to be well-trained in anti-racist settings. But we must also understand that community safety doesn’t just come from law-enforcement: it comes from secure housing, access to healthcare, and quality public education. Our state funds must be distributed across all of these areas.

In the medium term, we need to put our money where our mouth is. Right now, the top 1% of earners in our state only pay 7.9% of their annual income in taxes. The poorest 20% of Rhode Islanders pay 12.1%. We must get rid of this regressive tax cut and have the rich pay their fair share. This will allow us to provide healthcare to all Rhode Islanders, invest in affordable housing, and institute a living minimum wage.

We’re also facing the climate crisis, and we have to take bold action to act immediately. I will fight for the Green New Deal, which will create thousands of jobs for Rhode Islanders, addressing the growing unemployment crisis.We cannot delay bold action against climate change. We need a just transition to 100% renewable energy by 2030 that prioritizes those made most vulnerable by a changing climate. We must create jobs along the way, and make it work for our economy.

UpriseRI: Can you expand a little on your thoughts about housing?

Cioe: We need to invest in affordable and safe public housing, rather than prioritizing profitable sales to private developers. We can make no progress in our state if the basic need for safe and stable housing is not met for Rhode Islanders.

UpriseRI: I’d like to ask about a few subjects we haven’t quite covered yet. Your opponent has voted against both same sex marriage and reproductive rights. Where are you on these issues?

Cioe: I will always protect a woman’s right to choose and as a gay man, I will always fight for LGBTQ rights. I would like to see the definition of common-law marriage in Rhode Island expand to include queer couples living together.

UpriseRI: Thank you!

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.