Politics & Elections

Senate District 3 candidate Bret Jacob

“I think what’s key is that you need actual lived experience with the challenges that so many of us progressives care about around housing insecurity, food insecurity and the criminal justice system. I have that lived experience.”
Photo for Senate District 3 candidate Bret Jacob

Published on September 21, 2021
By Steve Ahlquist

UpriseRI conducted interviews with all five candidates in the special Democratic primary election to replace east side State Senator Gayle Goldin (Democrat, District 3, Providence) who has taken a job with the Biden Administration in Washington.

Bret Jacob is the Director of Research and Development with the Providence Mayor’s office. We conducted the interview by Zoom, and the conversation has been edited for clarity.

Links to all the interviews

Samuel Zurier Bret JacobGeena PhamRay RickmanHilary Levey Friedman

UpriseRI: Let’s jump right in. What do you see as the major issues confronting both the East Side of Providence and the State of Rhode Island?

Bret Jacob: So all of my priorities are really future facing, right? Number one, we need to make investments in our public schools. It is unconscionable that we have children going to buildings that are falling apart. That doesn’t set students up for success to learn, doesn’t set teachers up for success to teach, and administrators and principals cannot create the environments that they want for learning if their buildings are falling apart. Also around schools, we need social, emotional supports. You know, kids are complex beings. They’re not machines that just take in information. They need social, emotional supports to be better equipped to learn. And it would be helpful for teachers to have those supports.

Also, think about the environments that students live in, that students are coming from. You’re going to show up to school a lot different if you’re coming in hungry versus if you are not, or if you’ve just experienced a trauma. So I think we need to think it was about that.

Homelessness is is a problem that we can solve. We don’t have homelessness at the scale that other places like Los Angeles do, where there are thousands of people. It’s a decision that the general assembly made to not invest the resources and make sure that everyone is housed. Everyone deserves to be housed and every Rhode Islander deserves to have affordable housing.

And we can do that. We have $1.1 billion in ARPA funding. I’m going off on a little bit of an aside here, but we also have a great proposal that has gone before the general assembly to increase the the tax rate on the wealthiest 1% of Rhode Islanders by 3%. There is an excellent opportunity to use some of that money for a permanent stream of funding to ensure that we continue to have good, affordable, supportive housing in the future. That’s an aside, but I think we can end homelessness and there’s no question we can do that right now with these ARPA funds. That’s second.

The third thing is that none of the priorities I’ve listed on my website or that folks have talked to me about or that I just mentioned right now are going to happen if we don’t address the climate crisis. The changes, the increased intensity of storms, the increase in temperatures- These are not things that are happening tomorrow. These are things that are happening right now. And the general assembly needs to act boldly and swiftly to make sure that not only are we reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, but we’re also investing in our frontline communities and helping them be more resilient – our Black and brown low-income communities that are already feeling the worst of the changes that are happening right now. And if we’re going to invest in climate resiliency it’s a great opportunity to incorporate these other things, right? So from an education standpoint, we can invest in workforce development that connects our young people with educational opportunities to train them, to be successful in the green economy, get good jobs, get good, strong union jobs in the green economy.

We can make investments in properly insulating and weatherizing houses and the homes of our frontline communities. By the way, while we’re building homes, to make sure that we’re ending homelessness, we can make sure that they are fully green, they’re fully weatherized, they’re fully resilient to changing temperatures. We can do that.

We need to rethink our food system. Food waste is one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions in this country. It’s also one of the largest things taking up space in the landfill. So we need to rethink how we manage food in this state, particularly investing in in resources that help communities. Again, frontline communities that are already experiencing these crises who also tend to have food insecurity. We need to invest in creating green spaces in our urban environments to increase urban agriculture, use the existing food waste to build compost and really give these communities autonomy over their food systems so we’re reducing food waste and addressing food security at the same time.

UpriseRI: I was going to ask about the Tax the Rich bill, because that’s one of the things that the Senate will more than likely be taking up. The bill is an attempt to deal with income inequality. What other things do you think about when it comes to income inequality and economics in general? What are your thoughts?

Jacob: Our tax code is upside down when working families are paying a higher percentage of their income towards taxes than people who are making $475,000 or more per year. And you know there’s a perception that if we move forward with the proposal like this, that we’re going to need to study the impacts. We don’t need to study the impacts. We know that at one point in this country, the 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, before the Reagan tax cuts, we had an incredibly high marginal tax rate. And what were the results of that? The results of that were low cost higher education. A quality, low cost health care system. We had good jobs all over this country. We had real access to opportunity, really strong public schools that actually prepared folks for the workforce and beyond. We know what’s possible with more tax revenue. So we don’t need to study this.

When you look at the flip side of that, we’ve had a steady decrease of taxing of corporations and the wealthiest people in this country and in the state, and the result has been exacerbated income inequality. We have an aging, failing infrastructure, lack of investment in our public schools, and an inability to be nimble and flexible with the crises that are in our hands. So we don’t need to study this anymore. We know what can be accomplished, and we know what challenges are in front of us.

Workforce development to close the gap of green economy investments in affordable housing are key. I also think that it’s an opportunity to make other systems of government more efficient and actually address folks’ needs. For example, in the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve seen an exponential increase in the number of folks who are experiencing behavioral health crises, whether it’s mental, mental health illnesses or opioid response. I think we have an opportunity to incentivize our municipalities to invest in public safety systems that respond to residents’ needs in a healthy and long-term way.

That’s the kind of work I’ve been doing in the city, particularly around the behavioral health crisis response program. My focus has been in partnership with our Healthy Communities office, making sure that folks experiencing a mental health crisis or an overdose get the care that they need from trained professionals. One of the challenges that we have is that the budgets are so tight in cities that it’s hard for them to invest in these kinds of programs in a meaningful way, that is able to address residents’ needs. But with these ARPA dollars and with the tax increase, we could provide the resources for municipalities to stand these systems up. And as we lower the burden of calls that police and fire and EMS simply aren’t equipped to handle, that lowers the cost of those programs. And we can eventually begin to move that funding over to permanently support these programs that the general assembly started up.

UpriseRI: You touched on policing. Last summer we had some of the last largest mass mobilizations against police violence the country’s ever seen. We had 10,000 people, maybe more, crowding the State House one night. There were calls for defunding or cutting police budgets or abolishing police. What happened instead is that the state and the City of Providence increased police budgets by millions. There are calls from some politicians to use some of the ARPA money for policing. What are your around policing in general? What are your thoughts around the concept of defund?

Jacob: I’m glad that you asked this because I think that every person in the state deserves to feel safe walking in their neighborhoods. And the reality is that the system of policing that has been designed does not make everyone feel safe – and beyond just not making people feel safe, the system of policing disproportionately and negatively impacts our Black communities, communities of color and low-income communities and gets them tangled into a system that does not actually address their most basic needs. It criminalizes people for being poor. That’s just a reality that we have to face in this state. How do we make investments in a system, an alternative system, that helps people feel safe and addresses their their most basic and long-term needs.

I also want to say that these conversations are not new conversations. Certainly the magnitude and the scale of what happened in 2020 was impressive. And it grabbed the attention of a lot of people that otherwise weren’t aware this was a challenge, but we’ve had folks in our community working on this for a long time, like PrYSM, AMOR, DARE and so many others. When we listen to what these communities are saying, what they’re talking about, how they want investments in our basic needs – They want investments in housing and food security and climate resiliency, and we have the funds to do it. We absolutely can do it. There’s no reason why we can’t put these ARPA funds into things that communities are calling for. I’m talking about communities that are on the receiving end of a system of a police force that was not designed to help them

UpriseRI: Towards that end, what is your take on the Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Right [LEOBoR]?

Jacob: It needs to be repealed, right? It needs to be fully repealed. It is a barrier to justice and accountability for survivors of police misconduct. And let’s think about what’s on the other side of that. On the other side of that is the feeling, at the very least, there’s one less barrier to folks who are survivors of police misconduct to getting the justice that they deserve. And this doesn’t mean that there’s going to be a sudden witch hunt against police. It’s not flipping a switch and suddenly all cops lose their jobs. This is just about accountability that people who are on the receiving end of state sanctioned violence deserve – for the perpetrators to be held accountable in a swift and meaningful way.

UpriseRI: If you were elected, you’re likely to be involved in the legalization of marijuana in Rhode Island. There’s a big push to make sure that we do it right. There’s an opportunity to make sure that Black and brown people, the communities most affected affected by the war on drugs, are given opportunities for business ownership. Also, there’s the expungement of records for all the people who have been unfairly targeted by the war on drugs since at least the eighties Automatic expungement is a hard sell to the attorney general and conservative lawmakers. What are your thoughts on marijuana legalization?

Jacob: The lens with which we need to view marijuana legalization is from a reparative lens. The criminalization of marijuana is the criminalization of Black people and a failed policy. It’s a failure because we have disproportionately incarcerated Black and brown bodies, low-Income folks. It’s a failure because we’ve invested state resources and local resources into the policing and imprisonment of people rather than housing them and feeding them and getting them a good education. It’s a moral failing – a moral failing of a policy. If we’re going to do this, we need to do it right. We need to make sure that we are addressing the fact that people who are being released from incarceration are not currently getting the supports that they need to find stable housing and find a job.

We need to address the fact that there’s this skills gap that comes from being in prison. We need to address the psychological harm that people endure going to prison. My mom was arrested when I was 11 [On a non-drug charge] and she was a completely different person when she came out of jail. I remenber hearing fights starting when I was on the phone with her. And when she got out, she was just a totally different person and she had no support. She was a single mom with no support trying to get her son back to back to Maryland because they wouldn’t let her leave the state. This is a failed, failed policy.

Any marijuana legislation needs automatic expungement of records. And I mean automatic. It’s the attorney general and the court systems that they are doing the work so that we are not burdening those who were unjustly imprisoned. We also need to invest in grants for people who are re-entering as a result of legalization, or have already been released, but are still struggling to make ends meet. We need to provide grants for stable housing. We need to provide workforce development, and beyond workforce development, we need to prioritize those folks who are the victims of this failed policy in getting licenses to distribute and sell. Those are the folks who should be first in line. And we need to set a very clear percentage of business licenses that are going to impacted communities.

UpriseRI: I hear there’s legislation out there for 50% of business licenses to go to people from affected communities, but what do you think is a good number? I ask, why not a hundred percent? Why not just have it all in state and keep all that wealth right here in the hands of Rhode Islanders?

Jacob: I don’t know what the number is. I’m happy with as many as possible and you bring up an excellent point about out of staters. I think there also needs to be some provisions that protect Rhode Island’s eventual investment in this industry. So that we can stay competitive with other states because obviously Massachusetts is already ahead of us. I know we talk about this as an economic driver and I think that’s really important. It needs to be an economic driver that is by and for those who have been impacted the most by this failed policy.

UpriseRI: What are your thoughts about reproductive rights?.

Jacob: I salute the community organizations and the legislators, including Senator Goldin, who championed the Reproductive Privacy Act that codified Roe v Wade. We know that we have more work to do. We have more work to do not just in increasing access to reproductive healthcare for those on Medicaid and Black and brown low income folks. And we need to make sure that’s available to state workers. We also have an obligation to make sure health care doesn’t just stop after folks are pregnant. We need to make sure that we extend parental leave. We need to make sure that we extend postpartum care for at least 12 months. At the very least I’m willing to follow the scientists and the doctors on this for what is healthiest for the child and for the parent. Healthcare needs to extend beyond just pregnancy. It’s needed for the early years of childhood development. There’s plenty of research that shows how critical that is for the long-term development of the child.

UpriseRI: I know you’re an advocate for LGBTQ rights. What are your thoughts there?

Jacob: As for queers rights we still see disparities in pretty much every way that we measure a society. Between the queer community and cisgender heterosexual counterparts – particularly those at the intersections of racism and transphobia – trans women of color are certainly the most disadvantaged here. One thing that I worked on when I was Mr Gay Rhode Island was a fundraiser to raise money for TGI Network’s Transgender Inclusion Leadership Academy. These kinds of programs that help employers adopt inclusive policies for the queer community, particularly for our transgender siblings, are really important. Everyone deserves to go to work feeling safe and feeling included. The other thing that I’ve heard quite a bit in the community is that LGBTQ youth make up approximately 40% of homeless youth in the state. And you know, that’s just, it just breaks my heart.

UpriseRI: Me too…

Jacob: Again, it’s a choice that we make about whether or not we’re going to have homelessness in Rhode Island. There are places in California -and I believe Philadelphia also has some – queer specific housing and medical services. That’s an awesome idea. We need to do that. And I also think about our LGBTQ elders. As an aside, I think we don’t prioritize the care of our elders enough a lot of families are squeezed between raising children and really expensive childcare and also caring for their aging parents. It’s just really expensive nursing homes or stay at home, in house care. But I think we there’s an opportunity to adopt standards of care into legislation for our nursing homes and older adult care facilities that codifies best practices related to LGBTQ elders.

UpriseRI: What are your thoughts on guns and gun rights?

Jacob: I’m happy that we passed legislation that bans guns on school grounds, unless it’s a police officer. But our families are some of the first people to recognize when something’s not okay with us, right? Particularly on mental health things. So we need to empower our families to be able to notify courts and law enforcement that something’s not right and we need to be able to seize guns from some folks. I think that gun owners have an obligation to ensure that the absolute strictest safety measures are implemented in their house – it needs to be codified into law. They have an obligation to ensure the utmost safety and care of their firearms. The other thing that we’re seeing is this flow of illegal guns into the state. We don’t have a good sense of what’s going on there. And the uptick in shootings that we’ve seen in Providence and across the country is deeply troubling. I mean, we have more guns in this country than we do people by far.

It needs to be a priority of the general assembly to invest in the resources needed to identify how to stop the flow of these illegal guns. And I’ll say that we’re not going to arrest our way out of this problem. Just like we’re not going to arrest our way out of ATVs or low-level drug offenses. We can begin to explore how we hold gun manufacturers accountable for for the flow of illegal guns.

UpriseRI: We know that the general assembly has a certain culture to it, right? And it’s not necessarily always the best culture. Senator Goldin challenged leadership last year. She didn’t unseat Senate President Ruggerio, but she made what I think of as a moral case for change in leadership. What are your thoughts about Senate leadership? Do you see yourself trying to fit in there or do you see yourself going against the grain? How do you see yourself working in the general assembly?

Jacob: Here’s the thing – I’m focused on winning this race. I also recognize that priority number one, if elected, is to build relationships with my fellow senators because they have institutional knowledge and subject matter expertise. Building relationships with people is critical to getting anything done. I’ve I seen that in my personal experience – starting up a food drive that fed 14,000 people across three states during the pandemic. I’ve seen that in my professional experience working with public safety and on reparations work – relationships are critical. That’s going to be priority number one.

We also see that there are an increasing number of progressives being elected to the State House. And the priorities that leadership doesn’t want to address – around gun safety and expanding reproductive healthcare access – are going to continue to come up and they’re going to continue to be priorities for this increasingly progressive legislature. I want to build relationships with my fellow senators and also, just like every other Senator, I want leadership to earn my vote. If they want to work with me to earn my vote by passing progressive legislation, I’m open to that.

UpriseRI: Is there anything I should have asked you that I didn’t? Any points you want to get across that you didn’t?

Jacob: The priorities that I outlined are things that are urgent and need swift action, and they need a leader that knows how to act swiftly and boldly and can work well with others. I think what’s key is that you need actual lived experience with the challenges that so many of us progressives care about around housing insecurity, food insecurity and the criminal justice system. I have that lived experience.

I think you also need somebody who has demonstrated practical experience. In my work in city policy – I’m kind of a nerd – so I enjoy navigating the complex financial, legal, and political systems, and as a result, the city has been able to work on reparations and really advance the process. I’ve been able to work on public safety reform and behavioral health care supports for our city. I want to elevate that skillset to the State House. And lastly, I think you really need community ties. I’ve been here for 10 years. I’m a proud transplant, and I think that’s really critical because we need folks that have demonstrated to the community that they know how to get to work. I think the food drive, among other things, was really helpful in that. But also, to get things done, we’re going to need a broad coalition of people, both inside of the chamber and outside. And that’s something that I bring. This combinations of lived experience, practical experience, successful experience and community ties makes me the ideal candidate.

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