Senate District 3 candidate Hilary Levey Friedman“Everything that I do in my life, every single day, is infused by anti-discrimination and pro-equity inequality work. So while I can silo some of the issues, and we have to for the sake of getting things done, I really see everything as connected and systemic.”
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 Hilary Levey Friedman served as President of the Rhode Island chapter of the National Organization for Women (RI NOW) and is a mother, professor, author, and advocate. We conducted the interview by Zoom, and the conversation has been edited for clarity.
Links to all the interviews
UpriseRI: Just to start, I love your lawn sign. I’m pretty sure that semi-transparent figure is the original design for the statue that was supposed to be placed on the top of the State House, which was discarded in favor of the Independent Man.
Hilary Levey Friedman: Her name was Hope and she was rejected by the men of the early 20th century. I am an independent woman and I respect history, so I just liked the continuity and through line of it.
UpriseRI: Okay, let’s do this. What are your top reasons for running? What are your top policy ideas?
Levey Friedman: As you know, for the past three and a half years, I’ve been president of the Rhode Island chapter of the National Organization for Women. I’m a sociologist by training. I teach in the education department at Brown University and I’m a parent. Everything that I do in my life, every single day, is infused by anti-discrimination and pro-equity inequality work. So while I can silo some of the issues, and we have to for the sake of getting things done, I really see everything as connected and systemic. We can’t take housing away from education away from public safety. All of these things are actually tied together for me. As I’ve been talking to District 3 residents, which I’ve been doing for the past several months, I’ve heard at the doors what their top three issues are.
So they are my top issues as well and include education, climate and public safety. No surprise to probably anyone who’s spent time in District 3. As for me, I’ve been really involved with gun violence prevention and can tie that to public safety as well. Housing has been something I’ve been involved with for a while as well. I was on the affordable housing commission in East Greenwich before I was here and on the United Way public policy committee, one of the state leaders when it comes to housing initiatives. Additionally – “caregiving” is how I’m talking about it – I’ve been involved for some time with childcare issues and I’m very much in the sandwich generation.
I’m the only one in this race, really, with young kids where I’m like, “Oh goodness, are you going into quarantine this week?” because we already have a case at school and I’m worried about them. I’m also dealing with aging parents. I saw my mom for the first time a few weeks ago. We hadn’t seen her since December 2019 because of the pandemic and her own health issues. I think the state and the federal government should be doing more, but I think the state can be doing a lot more to make working families’ lives easier when it comes to issues around caregiving. To bring that perspective and move some legislation on that is important to me.
UpriseRI: Drilling into that a bit – We have these ARPA funds, $1.1 billion, coming to Rhode Island. We’re just starting the conversation about how to spend it. The governor put out a statement today, the House is dealing with it right now inside the State House. You will be right in the middle of that were you to be elected. What are your thoughts on how that money should be spent?
Levey Friedman: I’m glad you brought that up because I think it’s one of the things I know that I can step in on day one, both because of the work that I’ve already done, because of policy experience, and my experience building out some relationships to really make an impact on how this federal COVID money is distributed.
Housing is a huge one. And again, we have to think how everything is connected. One example that I think is really important to point out, which shows you how I tie things together, is that almost half the kids who are in state care right now have not been reunified with their families because of housing issues. I believe this is a once in a generation infusion of cash. Rhode Island has the oldest housing stock in the country. We have a housing shortage of all types, but especially low, moderate and affordable income housing. We need to be building bigger units that are close to transportation lines and employment. Again, thinking of those things all together. Housing is something that we must, must, must address We need to make sure not only that it’s affordable, but also that it’s high quality and accessible to all sorts of people.
And then on childcare, I’ve been beating this drum for a while, but the pandemic really laid bare how vital childcare services are, the ways in which childcare just powers everyone’s, but in particular women’s, educational and career goals and aspirations. We have not, in this state, been setting childcare reimbursement rates where they should be according to federal levels. It went up during the pandemic but we’ve not codified that. We’re just not doing the basic things, forget about the other things we could be doing. And after school activities you could tie in and that sort of thing as well.
UpriseRI: I think after school activities ties into the whole idea of policing as well. You’ve mentioned public safety. We have an uptick in violence, which seems to be national, so it’s not like Providence is alone here. But in 2019 we saw an unprecedented number of people out there protesting in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, and out of that came discussions about policing, defunding, getting rid of the Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights… What are your thoughts on policing?
Levey Friedman: When it comes to LEOBoR doing nothing is not an option. If George Floyd had been murdered in Rhode Island, that police officer would have gotten like two days unpaid leave and then been able to continue his job until a trial – and that’s not acceptable. I testified in the House hearing on the LEOBoR bills this year. We cannot do nothing on LEOBoR, it’s not an option. I think all options are on the table up to and including repeal. Only a handful of other states even have a Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights.
It’s not an area where I personally have as much expertise, so for me it’s really important to listen and learn. People who I respect in this space do not agree on what the outcome should be. You know, we do not have a bill right now in the House that has a companion in the Senate or vice versa. So time is of the essence. We have to do something. I find it very disappointing. We did nothing in 2021. So in 2022 this is just not an option.
UpriseRI: Also, despite all the talk about cutting police budgets or defunding (whatever you interpret that phrase to mean) we increased police budgets in both the City of Providence and at the state level pretty substantially. Is that what we should have done? What are your thoughts on that?
Levey Friedman: I think that we ask a lot of police officers. We know that there are many situations in which mental health is a factor and police are not trained in that. Not everything is an emergency when you call 911. So we want to make sure that the people responding to a situation are the right people to respond. I also don’t think our police should be militarized, but do we need police for when your house is broken into or your car is stolen and that sort of thing.
You’ve been to the same same hearings that I have in Providence. The number of active duty officers is lower than what it should be for the Providence Police Department to running efficiently. That’s something we have to consider, but there’s a better way to do it in terms of building community. To be clear, no police officers should be able to do anything and think there are no consequences, and everyone in our community needs to feel safe. We have to find a way for both of those things to come together.
UpriseRI: Let’s talk a little bit about climate change. We have all that federal money coming in, so climate change is certainly be something we could begin to address. What are your ideas around climate change? What are the important issues or important policies we could be doing on climate change?
Levey Friedman: It was great in 2021 that we passed Act on Climate, but that was really just a first step. There’s all the regulatory issues that go along with that that we have to be engaged on and pay attention to. It’s by 2050 that we’re supposed to be carbon neutral with renewable energy. And it would obviously be great to get there sooner. Hopefully we can use some of the funds to do that – wind and solar. We need to make sure that we’re making it easier for people, both at a micro level, in their own homes and in their own lives or businesses, and at the a macro level as in how we make sure that the power we’re generating from the wind, gets plugged into our grids and all of that sort of thing.
There’s other things we have to consider, like how did we not pass the PFAS bill yet?That’s wild to me. We know that there are these toxic chemicals that they get into our water supply. We’re saying that’s okay?
UpriseRI: It’s inside us all.
Levey Friedman: When I think about my kids, who are seven and nine, it’s like, that’s terrible for all kids. And we still haven’t codified a statewide plastic bag ban, a plastic straw ban. It had been an executive order from the previous administration. These are all things that we can and must take action on.
UpriseRI: Let’s talk about education. We know the Providence schools were taken over by the state. What are your thoughts on the state takeover and what did we do wrong? What did we do right?
Levey Friedman: There have unquestionably been missteps in the state takeover. The situation with the superintendent, all of that. And I think that there have been some ways in which there has been progress made. I’m most focused on students and how this impacts students. One good thing that I think has happened is when it comes to the curriculum. It used to be that if kids changed schools they might not be jumping into the same curriculum. Some schools use different stuff. I think things like that are a positive. The state takeover is supposed to last until 2024. I don’t believe it should be indefinite. I think that starting in 2023, which is two years away, we’ll be having serious conversations about where it’s going. Making big, transformational, systemic change takes longer than a year or two. Again, there have been missteps and I’m very concerned about that, but this takeover is not meant to be forever and we have to give it time to see how it will play out.
UpriseRI: Should we be working on the funding formula in the meantime?
Levey Friedman: A hundred percent. That will come up. It’s still wild to me that it wasn’t until 2010 that there even was a formula, which was implemented in 2012. The way the funding formula is done is something the general assembly, and I as a Senator, can have an impact on. This will impact not just Providence students, but all students. We are currently not putting enough weight on English language learners, and we have so many of them in Providence – which is amazing – but we need additional resources to make sure that they are getting what they need to be successful students. That’s just one example. I see the funding formula as absolutely key and I feel fortunate to know some people who’ve worked on it in the past and who I assume will be continuing to work on it and draw from their expertise and keep fighting to make sure that every student is able to get what they need to have access to an excellent education.
UpriseRI: I know that you’re a staunch reproductive rights activist. Where do you see reproductive rights going in this world – what with Texas and the Supreme Court? Rhode Island is somewhat protected from the worst effects, but what comes next? How do we both protect and expand reproductive rights in Rhode Island?
Levey Friedman: For the past few weeks, it’s been like, remember when everyone said we didn’t have to do this, that there was no chance that Roe would be overturned? And now today it’s not just the Texas law, the Supreme Court just scheduled arguments for December 1st for the Mississippi law. So thank goodness we fought as hard as we did. I know I saw you there almost every day, fighting in 2019. It was unbelievable. That work is not done.We fought for the right and now we need to make sure people have access. The Equality in Abortion Act focuses on two things. One is Medicaid coverage. And the other is for state employees who are on state health insurance being able to use those funds to access abortion, because abortion is healthcare. That’s something that we have to continue working on.
I also loved seeing this past year, menstrual products in schools being passed, that those items are available for all students. That’s a huge part of reproductive healthcare as well. We also need to keep fighting for zero copays when it comes to birth control. The work is far from over, but it is so good that we had that major victory in 2019.
UpriseRI: Moving on, there’s a couple of bills that seek to reverse some of the tax cuts for the one percent, the so-called Tax the Rich bills. What are your thoughts on that? The state certainly use the money, but is this something we should do?
Levey Friedman: We seriously should consider the Revenue for Rhode Island bill. I would vote for it. I believe in a progressive tax structure, I think the widening gap of inequality that’s happening, not just in Rhode Island but nationally, is probably the biggest issue in the country. It impacts so many of the things that we’ve already been talking about. It makes sense that those who are doing well bear a disproportionate share of the tax burden.
UpriseRI: I want to talk a little bit about marijuana because that is certainly going to be an issue for the next session. The main issues I’m hearing from BIPOC communities is that they want ownership opportunities for the people who have been most affected by the war on drugs. They want a guarantee of a certain number of business opportunities for those communities. They also want automatic expungement of records related to marijuana. What are your thoughts on marijuana legalization?
Levey Friedman: I believe we should legalize recreational cannabis a hundred percent, and we cannot allow people or the state to profit off of that when the lives of so many – but disproportionately Black and brown people and specifically Black and brown men – have been impacted by criminalization. We can’t legalize it without taking care of the people who’ve been negatively impacted. The mark of a criminal record can impact people for rest of their lives. It’s not just employment, it’s also housing, education and many other things.
UpriseRI: As you know, Senator Goldin challenged the Senate President for leadership of the Senate. I don’t think she was planning to win, she was planning to make a bigger point. What are your thoughts about Senate culture? The top-down structure of it all?
Levey Friedman: In 2018 I went way out there against House Speaker Mattiello. I have no problem standing up to leadership at all. I got really involved with rules reform and all of that, and made a lot of positive changes. I know what my core values are and I’m not afraid to fight for them. Coming in during a special election, there’s not expected to be a leadership vote. So if I am fortunate enough to win this election and then be reelected, and if the current Senate President wins his election and runs to be Senate President again, that’s like a serious thing for me to think about, because we don’t agree on all the issues.
The important thing is that we’re passing good legislation. There are certain things that I feel very strongly about. Like the high capacity magazine ban. We’ve got the votes, it should move out of committee and onto a floor vote. That’s something that concerns me. Why is that bill not moving?
UpriseRI: You mentioned the high capacity magazine bill. Also the assault weapons ban didn’t pass. There was a time, five or six months ago, that somebody had told me it was looking so good for the gun bills that they didn’t even know if there was anything more they needed to do. If they could just pass their raft of bills, they would be more or less done with guns. I don’t know if there’s anything more you need to say, but I did want to give you an opportunity to speak on gun legislation
Levey Friedman: In gun violence prevention, there’s two parts, right? There’s preventing a mass shooting and then there’s everyday gun violence. We should not think about one and not the other. We need to continue funding the work of the Nonviolence Institute. We need to do things like safe storage of guns so when people are in crisis or kids are in a house we know that they’re not going to get hurt for a preventable reason. So this fight is far from over. To me it’s common sense gun legislation.
UpriseRI: Any thoughts on LGBTQ rights? Where do go from here?
Levey Friedman: I know people can say this solemnization of marriage bill that passed this year was about making government more efficient, but we also know it was actually about not allowing discrimination. I was so happy that passed and I give you lots of credit because you really kept the light on that issue and have educated a lot of people, myself included. We made some progress this year on discrimination and housing bills. We need to make sure we are thinking about when a crime is committed, what the compounding factors are – homophobia or people hating someone because of their gender identity or expression or sexuality. We need to think deeply about.
UpriseRI: Thank you so much for your time.
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