Politics & Elections

They’re not as strong as we think they are: An interview with Senator-elect Cynthia Mendes

“…winning this, I’m hoping, will prove to other people that not only is it possible to run for office, to win, but it’s also proving to people how fragile leadership really is. They’re not as strong as we think they are, as they want us to think they are. They’re not as intimidating as they want us to believe they
Photo for They’re not as strong as we think they are: An interview with Senator-elect Cynthia Mendes

Published on October 6, 2020
By Steve Ahlquist

…winning this, I’m hoping, will prove to other people that not only is it possible to run for office, to win, but it’s also proving to people how fragile leadership really is. They’re not as strong as we think they are, as they want us to think they are. They’re not as intimidating as they want us to believe they are. It is on us. It is on us and it’s worth it.

Political newcomer Cynthia Mendes shocked the political establishment by beating William Conley Jr in Senate District 18 (East Providence, Pawtucket.) Conley, first elected in 2013, had never faced a primary challenge. He was a stalwart member of Senate leadership and chaired the influential Senate Finance Committee. He was perhaps the most powerful member of the General Assembly to lose his seat in the recent progressive wave during the primaries. Mendes took over 61% of the vote.

Mendes is a single mom working two jobs. She overcame personal tragedy and political tides to prevail. She ran with the support of the Rhode Island Political Cooperative, which helped launch the political careers of a host of new progressive challengers. I’ll let her tell us more about herself in the interview below.

We started the conversation with me asking about why she ran for office.

Mendes: I’ll start from the beginning. I never envisioned myself in politics. That wasn’t an aspiration of mine and I wasn’t raised that way. My dad was a minister that gave up law school to become an inner city minister, a prison chaplain when he could have been an amazing lawyer. He chose to serve people, and that’s how I was raised. I was raised to serve people and that’s what I did in my spare time with my daughter, but politics wasn’t an aspiration of mine.

That being said, I think one of the defining features of this campaign is that I had no political aspirations. I was able to fight for the people without having to worry about some political end game because there wasn’t any, besides accomplishing what I could for working families. I didn’t have to worry about my political career, which unfortunately is something that a lot of people in the political establishment do worry about.

So how I got into it was that some friends in the community, people that I had served with in various volunteer capacities, came to me and said, “We’re so sick of the State House and our lack of representation, would you consider running for office?” And I laughed. And then I had to really think about the world I was leaving for my teenage daughter. I had to think about all the families – particularly moms. I had a really strong image of moms that I had worked with in health care that would turn down their treatment plans because they had to choose between the cost of their medical care and their mortgage, you know? Another deciding factor was my daughter and the planet that she was going to be inheriting. And then also my dad and the legacy that he left me, which is you do whatever it takes to look out for people and to fight for people. There’s nothing so valuable, nothing so priceless, nothing that you can’t give up to do that. It’s worth it. And he was an example of that.

So I said, “Yes, but it’s impossible, right? Like how do you do this? How do you get into the State House?” Soon after that I had coffee with Jeanine Calkin and Jennifer Rourke and this was the beginning of the Rhode Island Political Cooperative. And they were like, if you want to do this, we’ve done it. We’re figuring out a way to help people do it. Once I realized that there would be a support system that had never existed before, I knew it was possible and that’s how I got into this.

UpriseRI: Let me just touch back a little bit. What denomination was your father a minister in?

Mendes: He was a Baptist minister in New Bedford. And he passed away recently because of COVID. I lost him in May…

UpriseRI: I’m so sorry.

Mendes: Which made this campaign very difficult. A lot of people don’t know the personal costs that went into it, going through COVID, being a single mom, working two jobs, trying to get a nonprofit through the COVID crisis, losing my dad. I also lost someone in November that was basically like a child to me. She was someone that I mentored. She was a young adult – self-inflicted gunshot wound – suicide. So when I say I have gone through a lot in this campaign personally, it really was a lot.

UpriseRI: This has been a tough year. I’m so sorry. I’m glad you got some good news on being elected, although that might open up tougher years in the future for you.

Mendes: I think it will get tougher and I’m not afraid of that but I think it’s a veiled toughness that we see in the State House leadership. I don’t think they’re as tough as they appear. I think that’s demonstrated in this campaign because they are very comfortable, they feel very entitled to their seats of power. That’s their kryptonite, just how comfortable they are.

UpriseRI: I’ve heard that when men are asked to run, they think, “Sure. Why not?” But when women are asked to run, they have to be asked several times before they become convinced that they’re ready for it.

Mendes: I heard the number was seven and that was mentioned to me when I was first thinking about it and I had to think, “The planet literally doesn’t have time for me to wait seven times.”

UpriseRI: I like to try to be the first person to ask women to run when I meet them. When I meet advocates at the State House who’s doing really good work I ask, “Who’s your rep?” And when they tell me, I’m say, “You should consider running.” I say it right away. And they sometimes reply, “You don’t even know me that well.” I say, “Yeah, but I know you’re a good person because you’re here now on this issue.” I think it’s important to ask each other to run, to consider running because a lot of people think, “I’m not a lawyer. I’m not a business person. I’m not this or that. Therefore I cannot run.” But in truth, we need people from all walks of life up there.

Mendes: I one hundred percent agree. I also think that diversity brings a different perspective. My hope in this campaign was to get people to imagine a new vision of what leadership looks like. And leadership looks like the way I was raised and the way that my father lived, which is the service mindset, right? That you’re not better than anyone else, that you’re here to serve people. This happened on the doors quite a bit. For a second, people were able to imagine leadership differently than this co-opting of power, strong arming, skirting with corruption impenetrable State House of people that just aren’t interested, that don’t have to even fake that they’re interested in working family issues. That was exciting to see.

UpriseRI: Did you go out and recruit other candidates for the Co-op?

Mendes: Yeah, myself and my friend Tiara Mack are responsible for Brianna Henries coming on. We both knew her. She saw that this was possible through us. Tiara and I didn’t know each other prior – we had this mutual connection in Brianna. It was empowering and exciting. Brianna knew she didn’t have to do it alone. She knew she had a system of sisters that were going to have her back and we did. We got her across that finish line.

UpriseRI: I was watching that race, but I didn’t really know Brianna until basically the day she won. And then I found out from my daughter that they went to school together. My daughter says she’s cool.

Before you considered running, how often had you interacted with your opponent, Senator Conley?

Mendes: That’s a great question. Not much, not at all. I know that I had gone to the State House and testified for a couple of things. From my recollection, no real direct communication. But I will say that some of my biggest supporters – I had a very strong team. Most of those people, the majority of them, came on due to the fact that they actively reached out to him – emails, phone calls, in person – and never got a reply back. Conley built my team because they were so angry. He built my team by sheer neglect.

UpriseRI: Well, he has never had an opponent before you, from what I can tell.

Mendes: That doesn’t mean you don’t have to do your job.

UpriseRI: He walked into an open seat with nobody running against him and never had a serious challenger…

Mendes: People in the community were reaching out to him about their various concerns – they wanted to be heard. Not an email -not even a fake, placeholder auto reply.

UpriseRI: I what think kills incumbents is that they don’t engage. A lot of people are comfortable with their legislator, maybe not agreeing with them on every single issue, but happy to have somebody who’s at least responsive to them, talks to them, cares about their support and cares about their community.

Mendes: I think it’s a little bit more than that. I agree, but I think it’s this idea that at some point there’s a tipping point when you’re not replying and you’re so absent that you’re giving the message that you feel entitled to the seat, that you’re not actually beholden to your constituents anymore. I understand it’s difficult to respond to everyone. There’s a lot going on. Believe me, I feel it and I’m not even in yet. But there’s this idea that there’s somebody that these incumbents are listening to and somebody that they’re working for and somebody that they feel beholden to – and it is not their constituents.

UpriseRI: Can you describe what it’s like to knock doors in the days of COVID?

Mendes: We pushed that off until really late. Fortunately I also door knocked in the fall. After I announced I started door knocking, just myself. With COVID, we quickly realized after signature gathering that people were okay with outside distance conversations. And the reason we know that was because people sent us emails saying, “Hey, we’d love to sign. This is how you do it: You knock on the door and we’ll come out, we’ll have a mask on.” So we had a good sense of people’s comfort level after that. It was during the declaration and signature gathering when we were able to get a feel for it. We actually heard from people after who said, “Will you come?” Even when I had enough signatures, “Will you come by? I want to meet you anyway.” And that’s when I really started to know that people are going to start being offended if I don’t show.

UpriseRI: I think people love the interaction. It’s hard to win a campaign these days without at least somebody out there knocking doors for you. I certainly wouldn’t mind a conversation from six feet away outside on my doorstep talking about important issues.

Mendes: Yeah, we didn’t go into any homes or buildings. We wouldn’t go into Rumford Towers, for instance.

UpriseRI: I think that’s also smart because you don’t want to be responsible for spreading COVID.

Mendes: I know the cost of it. I lost my dad. So if anybody took it very, very seriously, it was me. We had huddles before the team went out. We geared everyone up. Everyone had hand sanitizer. We talked about the parameters. Every time we went canvasing, everybody got a spiel

UpriseRI: Can I ask about your dad? I hope this isn’t too sensitive, but how did he contract Covid?

Mendes: He had previously had a stroke and other conditions. So he was in a rehab facility.

UpriseRI: I know a lot of people have gone through this and you’re not alone there. This is going to be the story of this particular time going forward. It’s just so tragic.

Mendes: It hurts because even though this was in Massachusetts, we’re talking about cuts to Medicaid and Medicare here in Rhode Island and that’s infuriating. We know what that means for our patients and the people that are caring for our most vulnerable. If we can’t take care of the people that are taking care of the our people then we’ve got a serious problem.

UpriseRI: We’re talking about Medicaid or Medicare cuts at the state level right now, given the uncertainties of the state budget.

At what point did the Metacomet Golf Course issue get on your radar?

Mendes: Being active and involved in listening to my community didn’t start with campaigning. It was on my radar pretty much as soon as it happened, because I talked to people and I’m very connected with friends and neighbors. It was pretty quickly that I started participating, watching and being a part of a dialogue – really just as a constituent, as a neighbor, as somebody that was concerned. To the point where many people didn’t know I was even running for office when I was having some of these initial conversations. But it got out as people started getting more and more upset with Conley representing the developer, and the blatant disregard that demonstrated. At that point, the people hadn’t heard from any elected official about how maybe this is even a little bit wrong.

I participated in a very respectful way. I understood that there were people that were taking the lead on this, and I think one of the worst things about a lot of the people at the State House is that they like to jump in and take the lead. I was just so proud. I sat back and I was so impressed by the five women that were organizing Keep Metacomet Green. They were inspiring. Justice work doesn’t know any gender, age or race. These ladies are proof positive of that. When something’s wrong, you have to do something about it. And that’s what made me so proud of them.

When I’m talking about justice with my community or, issues like KMG and other issues across the state, the thing that defines it for me is when there is a problem, when there’s an issue that’s hurting people, hurting our planet, when the people with the most power to address it, the people with the most power to change it, shift the burden of responsibility onto the people with the least power to do anything about it. And it’s usually the same people that are suffering under it.

That’s why people that are suffering under racial oppression are the ones that have to march. That’s why our children, who are the people that are going to have to live with the disaster of the planet we’re leaving them, have to march. That is why community members in Riverside and East Providence have to work all day and then go picket outside a country club. That is why the citizens in Burrillville have to stand up to an LNG power plant because the people with the power, that should be addressing it, have not only neglected that, but they have pushed the burden of that downward onto the people that are already suffering under it. That is the heart of injustice.

UpriseRI: And even more. I think in the case of the Metacomet Golf Course, Senator Conley was profiting from this…

Mendes: Absolutely. And this is the best part – Unembarrassed. Not ashamed. When he got called out – he was the face of Marshall initially, and everyone’s like, “Hey, is this wrong? Could this be wrong? Let’s do an ethics thing. Let’s question.” There was a sense of impropriety, a sense that this could be wrong. Rather than addressing these concerns, he doubled down. And that is the arrogance and entitlement that we see across the state for leadership. They feel like they can get away with it. I had told people in my community, I don’t plan on just winning, I plan on making an example out of him.

UpriseRI: And you won handily. We’ll get to that but I just want to go back a second. It always startles me when politicians, like William Conley – and I don’t want to really pick on him too much, but he’s the guy in the moment – He’ll say things like, according to the law, I can do this job. According to the law, I can be a lawyer for Marshall. And according to the law, I can be at the State House legislating for the kinds of sweetheart laws that benefit my client. And there’s no ethics problem because there’s no law that says this is an ethics problem – yet the person who helps make that law about it being an ethics problem or not is in fact William Conley.

Mendes: Exactly. And it’s just insulting to us because, what a low bar. It is basically saying that whatever I can get away with, I will do. And that is a low bar. It doesn’t matter if it’s legal or illegal, because he already lost people’s trust. I think that’s what I meant by re-imagining leadership. Honestly, if the State House had a fraction of the character that my community has, we would have a different State House. While knocking on the doors and having conversations I’d see people realize, “Hey, wait a minute, the character and the core values that you and I live by are not reflected the State House.” When I ask, “Do you want better?” the answer was always, “Yes.”

UpriseRI: Isn’t the point of a representative democracy that we send representatives to the legislature that represent our values, that hold some or most of our values and therefore they go and they speak on our behalf? So if a legislator is not sharing the values of the community they are serving, then it seems fitting they should be replaced.

Mendes: Yeah, that should be the way it is. We should be represented that way, but I think it is crippled by the involvement of money in politics. It is crippled by this very example of the lack of accountability of the people that, for example, had been able to influence the law about ethics while doing unethical things and when questioned say, “The lowest bar is not illegal.” For a very long time, as long as most of us can remember, that’s been the State House here that that we’ve lived through. I think that’s why this has moved from a campaign to a movement – because people started to believe that it could actually be that.

UpriseRI: As you get into the Senate and as you find your way and bills come up, are you thinking of sponsoring bills that would address some of these ethical issues and try to expand the of rules? Is that something that you have an appetite for?

Mendes: Absolutely. Not only do I have an appetite for it and my community has an appetite for it, but I think I am obligated because one of the biggest conversations that I’ve had, in addition to fair wages, healthcare, and the environment, was good government. That was a universal conversation. Everyone across my district agreed that we wanted better government. So getting money out of politics – I didn’t run into one person, not one that says, “You know what? money in politics is not so bad.” So yeah, not only will I do that, I have to do that.

UpriseRI: I’ve covered fights like the one around the Metacomet Golf Course. I’ve covered instances where the community wins, like in Burrillville against the power plant, and where the community lost, like the liquefaction facility in the Port of Providence. I have to admit when I first heard about this, what got me most interested was the presence of Conley and and House Majority Leader Joseph Shekarchi as Marshall’s lawyers. Shekarchi is a very powerful figure in the House, maybe he’ll be the next Speaker.

Conley and Shekarchi as an East Providence City Council meeting working for Marshall Development

Moving on. So you’ve won your race. You’re the Senator-elect, you’ll be sworn in in January. When you get to the State House, you’ve already said, I think on The Public’s Radio, that you are not going to vote to re-elect the Senate President.

Mendes: Absolutely not.

UpriseRI: Has anyone reached out to you about the Senate presidency? Have you been part of any conversations regarding who would take over being the Senate President in January? I know this is a politically fraught question.

Mendes: Yeah. So I will say a couple of things. One, I will say that there’s an expectation across the state that leadership will look different, right? Anybody that underestimates that is really underestimating the commitment of this movement. And you can talk about me and Senator Sam Bell committing to a No, but the biggest No is the one that is echoing across the state. I think that we shouldn’t assume it’s all progressives. I think that leadership should look different in the State House and I think that a lot of people would be willing to agree to that.

So I am curious. Like you and many people, I am very curious about who’s willing to agree that leadership should look different, that the Senate President should look different this year. I’d like to have an option of somebody to vote for. I will tell you he won’t get my vote, but I would love an option. I can guarantee you people across the state would love to see leadership look different in the State House.

UpriseRI: Reporters don’t get a lot of access to the inner workings of how those votes go. After the fact I might hear from someone inside that will give me a little bit of insight into what the process is, what the conversations were like or what carrots and sticks were used to make the vote happen, but we don’t hear a lot. Do you think there is a possibility that the new people going in will be more open about what the process is like and be more open about what’s being said behind closed doors and how these decision are being reached?

Mendes: The power at the State House and the power of the Senate President has been weakened. What that means is people that have been strong armed and muzzled by him are a little bit freer now. So I hope, I can’t speak for any other candidates, but my hope is that shift, that loosening of the grip of the corrupt establishment, will allow people already in the State House to be a little bit bolder, a little bit looser and pull back the veil a little bit. I think we’ll see more of that.

UpriseRI: Alright. Now I want to say one and a half nice things about William Conley with the idea that you tell me what you think about these ideas.

Your your opponent is known as an environmental champion. I don’t see him that way and I don’t think the Sierra Club sees him that way since they revoked their endorsement, but Conley has pushed through some semi-important environmental legislation or at least championed it in the Senate. But at the same time he supported the Burrillville power plant. He undermined people in Burrillville when they were at the State House and he was the lawyer that fought to allow the proposed power plant to use water from the Scituate Reservoir. What are your thoughts on the environment? And do you think you’ll be able to do better?

Mendes: I have very specific feelings about what he quote unquote did during his tenure in the Senate, and my feeling is that he did a lot of half measures for headlines. He sponsored bills but he didn’t make sure they saw the light of day or actually work towards systemic change. He demonstrated his lack of urgency by shipping things off to study commissions, while our planet is burning. That’s one. Two, he is not the bar by which I will gauge what I’m going to be doing, because that’s a very low bar for me. I’m thinking about what’s happening on the west coast and how I’m breathing in the smoke of that. I’m thinking about the planet that my daughter’s having to live in.

I think about my friends that live on the other side of the river and that their kids are drinking water with lead in it. I’m thinking about the fact that we are shipping billions of dollars out of the state for energy and we are dependent on the fossil fuel industry while our elected officials sit on their hands and let corporate lobbyists fill their pockets. I’m not okay with that. So my standard is that we have a very small window to change this. It’s full throttle ahead on every single thing that we can do to address the climate crisis before it’s too late so my children and my neighbor’s children have a chance.

UpriseRI: Conley was pushing a bill, which I don’t think had much of a chance – wasn’t going to pass the House, even if it somehow passed the Senate – to raise taxes on the rich. Is that a bill you will continue to champion? Is there a better version of that bill that you’d like to see?

Mendes: I’ve not been quiet on that. That’s on the Rhode Island Political Cooperative platform. We wrote a policy about taxing the top 1%. I believe what we proposed was far more aggressive than what was proposed by my opponent, which by the way, was conveniently proposed after I announced, after we posted that policy. This goes to the heart of the matter of both the tax issue and the environmental issue. We are in a place right now where people no longer believe in politicians that cannot genuinely, authentically fight. They do not buy half measures for headlines. They do not buy eight years in as chairman of the finance committee and suddenly, now, you think we should tax the top 1%? Nobody is buying it. There’s a common thread here that the expectations have changed. The people in the State House that still have their seats need to get with the program, understand that the expectations across the state is that you fight for us, fight for working people, fight for the planet, or you lose your seat in 2022.

UpriseRI: What’s speaking to you right now, what’s important to you right now?

Mendes: I think for me the important thing right now is the cost of this. I’m a single mom. I work two jobs. Putting yourself out there in this political seat, to lose someone that was like a child to me, to lose my father, to give every waking hour to this, wasn’t easy. But winning this, I’m hoping, will prove to other people that not only is it possible to run for office, to win, but it’s also proving to people how fragile leadership really is. They’re not as strong as we think they are, as they want us to think they are. They’re not as intimidating as they want us to believe they are. It is on us. It is on us and it’s worth it. No matter how painful it is, as a single working mom, working class, life is pretty painful anyway. I’d rather it be hard, I’d rather it be painful and actually see the change and fight for our neighbors and fight for working families in our community. You can do both. It can be hard and we can be successful together. I think that’s the message that I want people to know.

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