Politics & Elections

A big love for education: Democrat Sam Zurier is running for State Senate

“I have a big love for public education. In the ideal it could bring different parts of our community together. It could allow everybody to achieve the American dream. It would also advance democracy in our country if people were well-educated and that’s something I’ve been working on ever since I went to Classical High School. That’s really something I would want to work on.”
Photo for A big love for education: Democrat Sam Zurier is running for State Senate

Published on October 22, 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 Samuel Zurier is a former Ward 2 Providence City Councilmember. We conducted the interview by Zoom, and the conversation has been edited for clarity.

See also: A conservative Republican with freckles of libertarianism, Alex Cannon is running for State Senate

Links to all the interviews

Samuel Zurier Bret JacobGeena PhamRay RickmanHilary Levey Friedman

UpriseRI: What do you see as the major issues confronting both the East Side of Providence and the State of Rhode Island?

Samuel Zurier: The first issue is also confronting the country, which is the coronavirus. The state could be doing more to address it. In March the federal government awarded $1.1b to the state under the American Rescue Plan Act to address the coronavirus, and as of the end of August the state has not spent a penny of that money because the general assembly and the governor cannot agree. People need vaccinations, we’re wearing masks, we need ventilation in our schools – There are all these things need to be done. That, for me, is a key issue.

Then there’s the state takeover of Providence Schools. I don’t believe it’s going well, and I believe one of the major problems is a lack of accountability. The state is making mistakes. There was an administrator who hired a superintendent who hired an administrator who had some criminal matter involving children. He was hurting children. The superintendent knew about it and wanted to give the guy a second chance – nobody vetted that decision. There’s no school board, the Council of Elementary and Secondary Education doesn’t do it, and children got hurt. Then there’s the teacher’s contract. This was something that was not made public until it was finally decided. Under the old structure, it would be negotiated confidentially. The teacher’s union would approve it confidentially, and then it would be vetted publicly before final approval by the City of Providence.

Another big issue for me is the unfunded pension liability in the City of Providence. I believe that we will need help from the state in order to address that.

Those issues, number two and number three, were ones that I dealt with on the city council, and now they’re up at the State House.

Other big issues – Global warming. The state enacted Act on Climate, and it’s going to take some work to stick to that plan and meet the targets. Going back to the American Rescue Plan, that is a big source of funding for affordable housing. And I would like, if I got up to the State House, to work on that. For three months, I gave the Department of Administration advice on how to set up the American Rescue Plan. And one of the things I saw in there was that Congress was fairly prescriptive in terms of how they wanted to spend the money. The first thing they want it spent on is addressing the coronavirus. We haven’t done that.

But they went further and said for certain populations that have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus – populations living in what’s called qualified census tracks – the money can be used to reduce disparities that grew during the coronavirus. Congress, through its treasury regulation specifically, said that affordable housing is something you can spend this money on. My worry is that we’re going to see a lot of pet projects come out of the woodwork that have very little to do with what Congress intended. So this is an example of something that not only did Congress intend for us to do, but it’s the right thing to do.

UpriseRI: My take is that state leaders, and the general assembly in general, are reluctance to get into the use of the ARPA funds because they don’t want to use the money immediately to deal with things like the housing crisis. They want to save it for when lobbyists are jump in – before we even know what the actual debates could be. That worries me a lot.

But going back to the state takeover of Providence Schools, do you think, given what you said, that the takeover has been a failure and this was predictable because, let’s face it, we knew going in that no state takeover of municipal schools had ever been successful? We knew going in that this wasn’t going to work and we did it anyway. What is your take on that?

Zurier: Well I think the state was looking at one particular takeover, which went relatively well, which was in Lawrence, Massachusetts. And there’s a good article by Ellen Lieberman in this months Rhode Island Monthly where she covers a couple of things. What happened there was the Receiver – which is like the highest, most powerful authority under Massachusetts law- went to all the stakeholders and said, “I have these awesome powers, but I’m not going to exercise them yet. I’m going to bring all of you to the table. Let’s see what we can work out.” And it ended up that after a year or so of winning the support and confidence of the stakeholders, including the teacher’s union, the teacher’s agreed to a transformational. So it can work. This takeover is not working well.

I think the first problem was the John Hopkins report. To use a very rough metaphor, two years ago you could say that the glass was 80% empty but you would also say that it was 20% full because there were some teachers who were doing a good job. There were some principals that were doing good job and so forth. The Hopkins report was interpreted to say that the glass is 100% empty and that was demoralizing to the teachers, the parents, the students who were doing their best to make things work. And I don’t mean at all to diminish the gravity of the issues facing the district. But I think that approach was very bad. And at the time I was thinking – they’re doing this so that if they make a mistake, they’ll say, well, it couldn’t have been worse than when we started.

When the takeover occurred I represented three city council members, pro bono, who objected to the takeover, and each of them made a presentation to the Department of Education for more accountability. They pointed to the takeover rules in Massachusetts and showed all the benchmarks that had to be established, all the feedback that had to take place, all the engagement that hasn’t been place. And this takeover, they’ve done a little bit of that, but nowhere near what Massachusetts. So that, that was a warning sign to me. Then there were a couple of incidents which we discussed previously where they made mistakes and nobody was there to correct those mistakes.

The Rhode Island Senate held hearings in, I believe it was July, about the incident with the administrator popping the toes and it was not ideal. There was a certain amount of political theater going on, but at least it was something these folks had to come in and explain. So getting to the bottom line: If the state were committed to doing what’s right for the kids in Providence, and they wanted to achieve what they did in Lawrence, Massachusetts, that would be a good thing. But so far there is no indication that they’re either willing or able to do that.

And I’ll add one more thing about the funding formula. Certain districts need more resources, that’s part of the solution and instead, the message that they’re delivering is “We have all the money we need. It’s just a matter of governance.” And that’s just not correct in my view.

UpriseRI: I remember sitting through some of the hearings on the funding formula that were done in the State Senate, led by the finance committee chair. They were not impressive.I tdon’t think they got to the right conclusions.

Zurier: Do you want to hear my riff on the funding format? My theory of the funding formula is that it is reverse engineered to achieve certain political goals. One political goal was not to spend substantially more state money. Another political goal was to protect certain school districts represented by Senate leadership that arguably were receiving too much money. And the third political goal was to give every community a minimum share of money. We could go chapter and verse through the details of the funding formula, but in each of its various steps, there was something that was tweaked that was contrary to what a funding formula should be in order to achieve one of these political goals.

UpriseRI: One thing we’ve been kind of dancing around here is the Senate leadership and culture that allows for these kinds of things to happen, that allows for politically influential people to protect money coming into their school districts. Senator Goldin challenged leadership last year, running against the Senate President as an alternative candidate. She wasn’t successful, but it showed that she was standing up to leadership in a big way, and honestly, it doesn’t seem to have affected her legislative agenda all that much. How do you feel about the Senate culture and leadership? And do you think when you go in there that you would be able to fully support current leadership or do you think you’d be able to like push back against the worst of it in an effective way?

Zurier: So I don’t know enough about the culture in the Senate to be able to describe my strategy. I can talk about my experience on the city council, where at times I was part of leadership – in my first term. In my second term, I was proverbially in Siberia because the top two leaders at that time were people who ultimately had to resign their jobs because they admitted to committing felony crimes. There was no way that I was going to support those people. Not withstanding that, I was able to work with the leadership and the city council to accomplish some projects that were of value to the city as a whole. There was a report on bonds, there was a commission that studied equity and diversity for city employees, which developed a plan that the city maintained afterwards, and later on there was a report on the pension. So I worked with leadership as best I could, even though, in the case of that particular leadership team, I was opposing them vigorously.

Now, I don’t believe that the current Senate leadership team has the same kind of problems that the one did when I was in the city council. But my goal would be to oppose leadership issues that I oppose them on and if it got to the fundamental point where I oppose leadership entirely and I went to Siberia, I would hope to avoid that, but I would try to find projects that can still be useful.

UpriseRI: Let’s jump into policing and incarceration. Last year we saw record numbers of people out in the streets for Black lives, both in Providence and nationally. There was a big push to reign in and defund police, that is cut police budgets the way we defunded education in the eighties and nineties and today. What are your thoughts on policing in general? Both in Providence and at the state level, because as you know, we substantially increased police budgets after those protests, both in Providence and statewide

Zurier: I attended one rally in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. I felt it was necessary to be there. I think that incident opened a lot of people’s eyes, mine included, about how callously the police treat their citizens, particularly citizens of color. And it showed a fundamental flaw that could not be addressed exclusively by incremental reforms. But there was something more going on.

What happened after those protests in Minneapolis is that the protesters went to the city council and got them to take a pledge to literally defund the police – to cut the budget to zero. The mayor says, I can’t do that. I want to reduce the budget. I want more money to go into community workers, but I can’t cut the budget to zero. And they booed him off the stage.

Then a year later, the Minneapolis city council re-approved police. They said, “Well, you know, we were saying something at the time, but that’s not really something we can do to the city. The phrase “Defund the Police” was motivated by a legitimate concern that police are not being accountable. There are many things that police are doing that could be better done by other folks, but the phrase that they chose was unfortunate.

In terms of how this plays out in a community such as Providence – Providence has got a certain amount of bad people – They ride around in ATVs, they they shoot people – people get shot who were unknown to the shooters. So there there’s a need for law enforcement, but there’s also a need for many of the activities that law enforcement currently takes on to be done by other people who can deescalate, who can deal with people’s mental health issues. This would require, I believe, more money. And I have an idea for that. I wouldn’t call it a plan, but it’s an idea. Providence, as you know, has a lot of tax exempt property. The state has a program whereby they reimburse every single town for 27% of the revenue they would receive if those properties were on the tax rolls, which is good and certainly better than nothing, but over in neighboring Connecticut the state awards cities and towns 44% of the tax revenues would have received for a state owned property and 75% of what they would receive for the colleges and universities. So I really think it’s a matter of money. I do think that if Providence had more money, they would want to do the right thing. They would want to have what they consider an adequate police force, but also adequate social services to replace a lot of work that police do.

UpriseRI: Like diversion programs?

Zurier: Absolutely. Now you know, moving on a little bit is another component of police accountability is the Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights (LEOBoR). And I I believe that the committee that had been form was heading towards a solution. The two elements they were focused on were increasing the time of an initial suspension of a wayward police officer, and also changing the composition of the arbitration committee to decide how to handle the case. And if I were elected to the Rhode Island Senate I would I hope to bring that to the resolution where police accountability increases.

UpriseRI: You oppose the complete repeal of LEOBoR?

Zurier: That’s right. I would like to give police chiefs more tools within that framework to address these issues and see if it works. If it turns out that increasing the initial suspension to 14 days or 30 days and also putting a panel in that’s more sympathetic to victims and management doesn’t work, then maybe we do have to consider repeal.

UpriseRI: As an aside, Rhode Island is only one of 15 states with LEOBoR and we’re the only New England state with LEOBoR. Every other state seems to be doing fine without it. Why do we need it at all if most states don’t have it, and it’s not a thing here up in new England?

Zurier: Well, I happened to be inclined as a legislator to move incrementally and see how things work. I try not to break a lot of China in the hope that things can be reached by agreement. If there were legislation on slavery, I don’t think that there’s a compromise, but this seems to be something that could be dealt with in stages. If it turned out that that the framework is just rotten at the core, then we’d require a different approach. I’ll put one more thing on the table. There is one piece of China that I am ready to break. And that is the legal doctrine of qualified immunity. On that one, I am ready to take a bold step.

UpriseRI: There’s a bill that’s been put in every year for a few years to increase taxes on the 1%, the so called Tax the Rich bill.

Zurier: For a relatively high income bracket. I would like to have that enacted with a sunset provision after a period of years. We would try it out for a few years and see what happens. I’m thinking two or three years. And at that point we would know whether the dire predictions from some folks that it’s going to cause a flight of capitol from the state happens or not. If the tax increase proves to be beneficial, then we could enact new legislation to retain it. You can see kind of a theme in my thinking here – to proceed incrementally. The legislation would, by its own terms, disappear after a certain number of years.

UpriseRI: What metrics would we use to qualify that? Because what I hear from people who talk about the flight of the rich, I always get really nebulous, personal examples, but I never get actual data. In fact, looking at economic data from several economists shows that there is no flight, it’s a complete myth of the right. It’s a completely made up thing from the Providence Chamber of Commerce or whatever. The actual data is clear.

Zurier: We do not have data of how this would work if Rhode Island enacted this.

UpriseRI: Well true, but we have data from where this has happened everywhere else in the country.

Zurier: What I’m saying is we have the opportunity to create our own dataset. And after a period of years, we will know. I’m not an economist. I can’t tell you how to interpret the data, but to the extent that people say we’re sure this is going to fail, we could say we’re going to just to enact it temporarily and then we’ll see what happens and let the facts develop.

UpriseRI: Guns. What are your thoughts on guns?

Zurier: Well, I got a questionnaire from one of those groups and it was the easiest one for me to fill out. I’m in favor of every single prohibition. I forget the name of the group, but they said thank you for filling this out. We’re not going to endorse anybody, presumably because everybody, all the candidates, feel the same way. I live in Providence. Guns are a terrible thing.

UpriseRI: More than likely you’ll be dealing with the legalization of marijuana if you’re elected. There’s a push to have more protections for BIPOC communities who’ve been affected by the war on drugs all these years. We have a push to have more marijuana co-ops, more opportunities for Black and brown people to get involved in ownership of the businesses and maybe keep out giant corporations that will profit enormously from this while we still have people in jail for it. There’s also a push to automatically expunge the records of people who have been previously affected by the war on drugs. What are your thoughts overall on marijuana legislation?

Zurier: I haven’t really thought about that. I can offer some general principles. Number one I’m not an opponent of legalization provided that adequate resources are from the state’s licensing revenue go to two things. Number one is prevention and treatment for people who have have suffered harm as a result of legalized marijuana and number two trying to improve marijuana detection for such things as driving. We have something for blood alcohol levels, but we don’t have something to determine whether someone’s an unsafe driver. In terms of portioning marijuana dealerships to address social inequities, that sounds like an attractive principle, but I really haven’t had the time to think about it or how it would be implemented.

UpriseRI: I want to talk about LGBTQ rights. I know State Representative Edie Ajello just endorsed you and she’s been a staunch supporter of LGBTQ rights. What are your thoughts?

Zurier: As someone who is 62 years old, it’s really impressed me how the country has moved in this area in such a short period of time. And my kids do not have same kinds of inhibitions inexperience and uncomfortableness with this issue that a lot of people in my generation have had. And to tell you the truth, it took me a little time to figure out this issue myself based on my upbringing. So I think there’s just a wonderful trend of this going into the future. I think it could be reinforced in our schools and teaching our kids. In textbooks, we have stories of different types of families and those types of things – there’s a very bright future for this issue.

And then there’s a generation and it’s not strictly, but largely, of people who are just not ready for this. And for them it’s necessary to have civil rights laws that ensure that people have equal rights of citizenship without regard to their sexual orientation. And you know, those basic rights have to be protected in law and in the courts, but I don’t think it’s going to be possible to change the attitudes of people in that generation. It’s just a fact of life.

UpriseRI: Finally, let’s talk about climate change. I remember during the debates and battles over the garbage transfer station in south Providence that you were very much in the lead on that and did a lot of good legal work there that may have been the definitive end of that. So I think that your environmental bono fides are good, but do you want to talk about what you think about the climate in general and what we need to do? One of your opponents signed a New Green Deal pledge with Sunrise RI. Is that something you’d be interested in doing?

Zurier: My first job after clerking for some judges was in the environmental protection division of the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office. And I was a very new attorney, so they didn’t want to give me significant cases. I was working on wetlands, solid waste – the little cases, but the office was inspiring. This was in the late 1980s and the attorneys, they were from the original environmental movement in the 1970s. We had lousy offices. We didn’t have adequate ventilation. There was indoor air pollution. Our equipment was very old, but we all worked very hard because we were committed to the movement. When I came to Rhode Island to practice as a private attorney, the one area I did not want to work in this environment because I didn’t want to get paid by the polluters.

I had this opportunity which you mentioned, which was covered very well by UpriseRI to work with the South Providence Neighborhood Association that was largely an environmental justice issue. Because this particular neighborhood had too much pollution, they had asthma, they had blood lead level problems, all of that. And then they want to stick a transfer station on top of that to make everything worse. CLF came in and they were ready to fight it at the state level, but they would have had a tough case. And it happened that there was this little feature in the zoning code that no one had spotted which made the thing go away. And that was a very nice result. But it opened my eyes to how inadequate the state law was in dealing with issues like that. And if we didn’t have that little magic bullet, that transfer station might very well be operating, right?

So yes, I’m a big supporter of environmental justice. And I saw from that case how weak our state’s regulatory framework is, but to move to the bigger issue of global warming the general assembly has enacted two measures – the Act of Climate and the Transportation Climate Initiative. Both of them provide broad frameworks with goals that will that will make a difference if we stick to them. But sticking to them is going to be very difficult. After a year or two someone will ask, “Why are we doing this? This is too expensive. There is too much red tape,” and so on. So I think that our task is going to be to make sure that we implement it properly, and hopefully with the aid of experience improve on these bills so that we’re able to achieve more rather than less. I like both frameworks. I’m not familiar with whatever is called the Green New Deal. I’d be happy to look at it, but I do think that in terms of where the state is headed we have two good long-term plans and now we have to commit to implementing them.

UpriseRI: Is there anything else that I should have asked or should’ve covered more in detail that you’d like to talk about?

Zurier: I have a big love for public education. In the ideal it could bring different parts of our community together. It could allow everybody to achieve the American dream. It would also advance democracy in our country if people were well-educated and that’s something I’ve been working on ever since I went to Classical High School. That’s really something I would want to work on. My kid’s got a valuable public education, middle school and high school in Providence.

We as parents have resources to help fill in the gaps. There are thousands of kids in the system now whose parents don’t have those resources. And another thing that I would love to advocate for is for the general assembly to approve a resolution, to go to the voters, that there is a right to public education under the Rhode Island constitution. Because if the voters approve it, and I very I strongly believe they would if given the chance, then I believe that there’ll be an opportunity for the legislators to have the political cover, if you will, to do the right things for kids. Cause they’d say maybe we wouldn’t want to do this otherwise, but the constitution says we have to do it. And a court is going to supervise us.

UpriseRI: I think the hesitancy to do that at the general assembly is based in part on the loss of power you get when you open up a new right right and suddenly things that they’re used to doing will be harder to do because they open themselves up to lawsuits under this. So they’re hesitant.

Zurier: Yeah, but arguably that was the key to Massachusetts 1993 education bill.

UpriseRI: Good point. We’re constantly comparing ourselves Massachusetts and asking why can’t we do what Massachusetts did. This has been great, and I really appreciate your time.

Zurier: Thank you

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