Senate District 3 candidate Geena Pham“As someone who wasn’t always politically inclined, the idea of a lobbyist never made sense to me. Why can we have people come in and sort of – I don’t want to say bribe – but it seems like it’s a bribe. It seems like it’s a bribe in order to get people to do things for you.”
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.
Candidate Geena Pham is a public school teacher. We conducted the interview by Zoom, and the conversation has been edited for clarity.
Links to all the interviews
UpriseRI: What are your most important policy ideas and what are the most important issues you plan to deal with as state senator, were you to be elected?
Pham: So the biggest issues I want to deal with are climate change and education. With climate change I have pledged to work on the Green New Deal in Rhode Island. I want to shut down corporate polluters affecting frontline communities like the Port of Providence; expand public transportation by electrifying all buses, making them free, safe and reliable, and build 10,000 green affordable homes for working families.
With education, I think that all parents should be able to send their child to a high quality education system. And in order to do that we need smaller class sizes. We need to improve our school buildings. But really, we need better education in Rhode Island and Providence.
UpriseRI: Let’s drill into education a bit. Right now the state is in charge of the schools here in Providence. How do you think the state takeover has gone?
Pham: It doesn’t solve the fundamental problem with our schools, which is the fact that they’re underfunded. I think we all understood why the state wanted to take over, but the schools are underfunded and the state and the city somehow need to make it work and to fund the schools.
UpriseRI: I sat through some of the funding formula hearings at the Senate this last session. And I kept thinking that it was a committee fashioned to support the funding formula that we already have with minor tweaks – a predetermined outcome. Where do we get the money to do this if we can’t fundamentally change the funding formula?
Pham: I think the best thing you can do – the most obvious thing we could do – is tax the rich. Every member of the top 1% in Rhode Island make half a million dollars a year or more, yet they pay a lower proportion of their income in state and local taxes than every other Rhode Islander. By raising their taxes, we would generate millions of dollars.
UpriseRI: Can you talk a little bit more about the importance of that raising the taxes? There was a lot of pushback at the State House about doing that. And we know pushback is there because very rich people donate a lot of money to politicians who will do their bidding.
Pham: People should pay their fair share. And by not doing that those that are systematically disadvantaged – those that are systematically oppressed – stay disadvantaged and stay oppressed. If you’re making this much money, you need to be taxed. Not only the top 1% of just of people in Rhode Island but organizations that aren’t paying their fair share, like Brown University. Their endowment is billions of dollars and they built their money on a slave trade, on the systematicly oppressed. When these people – these organizations – don’t pay their fair share we’re preventing people from meeting the needs that every human deserves or every human has a right to, which is affordable housing, clean air, clean water, and quality education.
UpriseRI: To that point, the Green New Deal pledge is to support three bills that were introduced last year that got short shrift in the Senate and House when they were discussed.
Pham: I support those bills and I have been talking a lot about public transportation on my platform because I think that’s a no brainer – Give people options that don’t involve driving cars, make public transportation better, make safer pedestrian walkways and more bike lanes. Those are some of the simplest things that we can do in order to help decarbonize our state and to make our air and water cleaner.
UpriseRI: There’s a plan right now to basically shut down or severely curtail bus service at the Kennedy Plaza bus hub with the support of Governor McKee and the Department of Transportation, over the objections of every single person I know who rides the bus, and every transportation advocacy group. There are no people in decision-making capacities in Rhode Island who use public transportation regularly. There’s nobody on the board of RIPTA, not one person, who uses the bus.
Pham: When you don’t have people that have lived experiences making laws and passing bills for those that are using these resources, you have problems. That’s why the RIPTA board should have real people on it. We need people in the State House who haven’t been trying to be a politician their entire lives, who aren’t just lawyers. We need real people to represent other real people.
UpriseRI: You don’t need to be a lawyer to be a legislator because we actually have lawyers and experts in crafting policy and legislation that the state pays to work with legislators and help them turn their ideas into legislation.
Moving on. In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, we had over 10,000 people swarming the State House, demanding things like better policing, defunding the police, and getting rid of the Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights [LEOBoR]. Instead of defunding, legislators responded by increasing police budgets, both in Providence and at the state level, by many millions of dollars. What are your thoughts?
Pham: For one, we need to repeal LEOBoR. In this race I have led that discussion. I’ve brought that to the forefront. I was the first person in this race to say that this is what needs to be done. When I first heard about LEOBoR, I thought it was unbelievable that something like that even existed. It blocks police accountability. I’m a teacher. Teachers are scrutinized. We are put under a microscope. If I do something wrong, I’m fired right there.
Pham: Police need to be held accountable and LEOBoR blocks that accountability, which directly harms people of color. And in terms of defunding the police, we need to be investing in things like mental health services, drug overdose prevention, community organizations, quality education, and afterschool programs. Those are the things that our funding needs to go to.
UpriseRI: And what are your thoughts on police officers in schools, school resource officers?
Pham: Schools need social workers, guidance counselors, and school psychologists. They need adults that will be there to listen to students and to create safe spaces for them. They don’t need people that will scare them and punish them.
UpriseRI: And you say that as a public school teacher.
Pham: I got a little angry for a second because I’m in a school every single day. And it’s been shown that kids need social-emotional learning. They need adults that will listen and care and talk to them and be trauma-informed. When you have police officers or security guards instead of the social workers and guidance counselors the students are not able to grow. They have no one to talk to. It’s just the school to prison pipeline. We need to stop cutting guidance counselors and social workers. We need more school psychologists. That’s who we need in schools.
UpriseRI: Okay. Couple of easy ones: What are your thoughts on reproductive rights?
Pham: We need to be worried about Senate leadership that is anti-choice. We should be worried because if you support leadership that is anti-choice then you’re risking all the work that we’ve done to get these rights in our state. We’ve seen what happened in Texas. We’ve seen them lose everything. If we don’t get people out of office that have those ideals, then people are going to lose their rights.
UpriseRI: Related to something you just said about Senate leadership. We know that there’s a culture at the general assembly, which is very top down. The Senate President decides, the senators follows. There’s very little autonomy. Senator Goldin last year challenged Senate leadership, put herself out there as an alternative candidate and scored a few votes, but not enough to sway the majority. What are your thoughts about Senate culture?
Pham: We’re talking about a lot of Democrats here. And it doesn’t make sense in my mind to vote for someone that goes against your values as a progressive Democrat. I had a whole discussion with someone about this today. You’re not doing anything to actually help people when you’re voting for this type of leadership. To get into office you make all these promises. You say you’re going to provide better healthcare, better education, work on climate change. But when you vote for someone who has shown that they will not do any of those things, it doesn’t make sense in my mind. And it doesn’t make sense why you would want to vote for someone who says that they won’t stand up to leadership. Who says that they’d rather collaborate. I don’t think we should collaborate with people that don’t want to help other people.
I may have over simplified that…
UpriseRI: We can come back to that. You talked about taxing the rich. Another source of funding is coming – $1.1 billion in ARPA funds. What are the state’s immediate concerns and what should we use that money for?
Pham: One of the biggest things we can do is build affordable homes. We can build 10,000 green affordable homes with that money. In Providence we’ve seen rent and mortgage costs go sky high, and people can’t afford to live in the city. It’s becoming very unaffordable. We need to be building affordable homes for families.
UpriseRI: Are you afraid the ARPA money might be scooped up by state house insiders with their own agendas?
Pham: As someone who wasn’t always politically inclined, the idea of a lobbyist never made sense to me. Why can we have people come in and sort of – I don’t want to say bribe – but it seems like it’s a bribe. It seems like it’s a bribe in order to get people to do things for you. It’s hard for me to wrap my head around because it seems so unfair and unjust. It stops any sort of progress from happening. It stops any sort of good legislation from being passed. I learned recently what a whip was and what their role was. I just – I don’t even know what to say.
In comparison to the other candidates, I think a lot of people see me as inexperienced. I don’t know how to write policy or things like that, but like you said, there are lawyers and people hired to help with that. I bring a different, outside perspective that we need in the State House.
UpriseRI: I tend to agree that we have too many professional politicians. We have too many business people and lawyers and we lack people with different experiences. This is a representational democracy. And that means elected officials should be representing many, many different takes, ideas, age brackets, and levels of experience.
Moving on – one of the issues that will come up is marijuana legalization. There are competing bills. Some are pushing for automatic expungement to be part of the legislation. Many also want the community members most affected by the war on drugs to get a chunk of the money via opportunities to own marijuana-related businesses. What are your thoughts on marijuana legalization and what would you like to see in the bill to make it racially and socially justi?
Pham: We absolutely do need to legalize cannabis and marijuana. We’re losing so much tax revenue, with Massachusetts being right next door, having legalized marijuana for several years now. We need to make sure the tax revenue is being invested into BIPOC communities, those communities decimated by the war on drugs. The war on drugs was completely racist and cruel. The argument that automatic expungement of records is too much work is a poor excuse and it’s lazy. It’s as simple as that. We need to expunge those records and end mass incarceration. And it goes even further than that. We need to ban for-profit prisons as well.
UpriseRI: We have a for-profit prison in Rhode Island. It’s the Wyatt in Central Falls. They claim to not be for profit, but by every measure they are a private prison.
Moving on, your thoughts on guns?
Pham: We need to make sure that we have stricter gun laws. I would definitely champion an automatic weapons ban and a ban on high capacity magazines.
UpriseRI: Covid, masks and vaccines?
Pham: I do think there should be a vaccine requirement to enter public spaces like restaurants and bars. I think that we should implement a statewide mask mandate in public spaces and paid sick leave. In terms of healthcare, I believe in that we should implement Medicare for All style universal healthcare. Rhode Islanders should have mental, dental, hearing, vision, all of it. Personally I’ve struggled with getting some of those needs met because some things just aren’t covered. And prescription drugs should be affordable.
UpriseRI: Any final thoughts?
Pham: You know, I’m entirely in favor of building bridges with people who share basic values like reproductive freedom, environmental justice, high quality public education, but the fact is we have leadership that shares none of those values and the only way we’ll get any progressive legislation passed is by electing a more progressive Senate President. If you oppose electing a more progressive Senate President, it means you’re not serious about doing progressive things. I’m a teacher, I’m all for collaboration. I’m all for people working together. However, you need to be able to vote people in that will actually pass progressive legislation. I want Senate leadership that earns my vote.
UpriseRI: That’s democracy, right? The way things work at at the State House. Thank you for this interview!
Pham: Thank you for taking the time to interview me, I appreciate it.
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