East Side ‘undebate’ hosts candidates from contested primaries for listening session

The first of two “Candidate Primary Forums” was held by the Mount Hope Neighborhood Association, Summit Neighborhood Association, and Observatory Neighborhood Association, in collaboration with the Providence Cultural Equity Initiative in Providence Thursday evening. All candidates for elected office who face a primary on September 12. This included the Providence mayoral race, the House seat in District 4, the Senate seat in District 6 and the Democratic Committeeman for House District 4.

All the candidates are Democrats.

This first forum followed the “Un-Debate” format, “wherein,” write organizers, “candidates provide brief introductions and the focus of the event is for members of the community to voice their concerns and questions while the candidates listen carefully. This is a chance for the candidates to learn more about the needs of the community they seek to represent. Candidates are encouraged to take notes and consider their stances over the following two weeks in advance of the second event.”

The next event, to be held on August 9, will be a more traditional debate format emceed by WPRI/Channel 12 reporter Dan McGowan.

Below is all the video from the Un-Debate, starting with introductions and ground rules. The event was emceed by Mike Ritz, executive director of Leadership Rhode Island.

Each candidate was given two minutes to introduce themselves to those in attendance. First up is the incumbent Mayor of Providence Jorge Elorza:

Kobi Dennis is a candidate for Mayor of Providence:

Robert DeRobbio is a candidate for Mayor of Providence:

Rebecca Kislak is running for an open seat in House District 4.

Mark Tracy is running for an open seat in House District 4.

Jonathan Hernandez is running for State Senate in District 6. The incumbent, Harold Metts, who has occupied the seat since 2005, declined to attend. Another candidate, Carlos Cedeno, could not be contacted.

James Barfoot is running for State Committeeman in District 4. The incumbent, Wallace Gernt Jr, is traveling and could not attend.

Emcee Mike Ritz occasionally read questions to prompt questions and discussion and twice read aloud comments from audience members off index cards.

Noting that all the candidates on stage are Democrats, Ritz asked, “If you’re a Democratic Primary voter, what do you look for in a candidate, and how do you pick one candidate over another?”

There being over 60 videos in this piece, I am going to try to quickly characterize the comments. I would welcome corrections.

“I think there are a lot of Democrats who are not really Democrats…”

“Have you been in the community? Do I know you?”

Laura Perez is running for the House District 11 seat. She wanted clarification for Mayor Elorza about his out of state travel, and how he paid for it. She is a supporter of Robert DeRobbio.

“What are you going to do for the students who are in Rhode Island or who want to work in Rhode island after graduation?”

James Kuo took Robert DeRobbio to task for Opera Providence‘s staging of Gilbert and Sullivan‘s The Mikado at the the Columbus Theater four years ago. DeRobbio was the president of Opera Providence. In answer to accusations that the opera perpetuated racist stereotypes, and in reaction to protesters outside the Columbus Theater during showings, Kuo and DeRobbio exchanged some volatile emails, which can be read here.

Kuo accused DeRobbio of “gleeful disregard for Asian people.”

A question concerning after school programs for kids.

“One of my great concerns is the economic development policies n the State of Rhode Island… We seem to concentrate on… real estate development and the medical industrial complex…”

“There is a dearth of funding for substitute teachers…”

The water supply, and the attempts to sell or monetize Providence Water, is a “key issue” for Mark Binder.

Binder was also concerned with the way power is lined up in the General Assembly, encouraging the candidates for state representative to not give away “all their power to the Speaker of the House.”

“I challenge you to come up with another alternative, so that if and when you are elected, you stand up and put a stop to this farce,” said Binder. “The idea that Joe Shekarchi is the next in line to be the head of our state if Mattiello doesn’t get in, is insane.”

“I’m very interested in candidates who pay more than lip service to the idea of redistribution. I think that needs to be on the table. I think that is the future…”

“Do you come in line with what we normally assume to be the Democratic values in this state?”

Also, what non-traditional views do you have that are not considered to be Democrat or Republican?

“In order for government to be effective, it must ensure transparency and accountability at all levels,” said Mike Ritz, asking his next question. “What is working well and what can be improved to make City Hall or the General Assembly more transparent?”

A statement in support of the line item veto.

Because of the power of the Commerce Corporation, this man dropped his support of the line item veto, until the Commerce Corporation is reformed.

Mark Binder recommended reading Providence City Councilmember Sam Zurier‘s (Ward 2) emails for information about goings on at Providence City hall. Zurier is not seeking re-election.

A statement about the length of an elected official’s term in office.

Another vote for Sam Zurier’s weekly newsletter and an appeal for similar missives from other elected officials.

Minutes kept by commissions and boards need to be more detailed.

“What do you like about Providence?” asked emcee Mike Ritz.

“I really like the Parks Department and the work they do.”

She worries about the next generation in Providence.

“Is it the candidates… responsibility to create jobs, at the city of state level? And if you think it is, how can the government better work with entrepreneurs, artists, musicians [and] small business owners and create new jobs?” asked emcee Mike Ritz.

“Jobs come to educated workers,” said Mikaila Arthur. Arthur loves the diversity in Providence, and looks for candidates that are “committed to racial justice, gender justice and economic justice that will support that diversity to thrive, and who have done the work of showing that commitment, not just saying it.”

“I love our busses and I love our bus system,” but, “Our busses don’t go where the jobs are.” Also, the policy of cutting funds from programs that are not working well, like the foster care system and RIPTA, leads to programs that work even worse, not better.

“No. I don’t think it is the job of government to create jobs.” We need to reconsider our policy of giving tax breaks to large corporations.

It’s not all about jobs that require higher education. “We need to create adequate jobs for young people.” We need to make sure that high school graduates have the skills needed to bee hired.

“We need to create opportunities and incentives for people to work at every level.”

Though we have many people and groups working to educate our young people, “we have the school department, where many brilliant people struggle against this mess of bureaucracy.” There’s a lack of leadership. Leadership in our schools “churns constantly.” The Rhode Island Department of Education are just “feckless meddlers.”

“After my many, many years of struggling in Providence Public Schools, I really don’t know that those can be reformed.” The school system is “just stuck and it needs major restructuring.”

A statement about what can be done to encourage music and the arts. There’s “a huge bureaucratic mess for simple things, just to host events.”

More on education.

“We have an identity crisis. Instead of looking at what we already have here, we consistently look at other places and try to do what they’re doing,” said ray Watson. “What we’ve created for ourselves is the narrative and the reality of trying to be the next. Who wants to come to a place that’s trying to be the next? The wnt to be at the place that is the.”

The state of the sidewalks and no policy of enforcing snow removal makes walking around Providence very difficult.

Echoing Ray Watson above, “I don’t think people who live here understand how great Providence is.”

“We’re bringing in all these technology jobs and things and guess what? The people who live here can’t get those jobs because we’re not prepared because the school system never prepared us for that.”

“Who’s a person that you think is doing great work in Providence, maybe this very community, that should be known, and for what?” asked emcee Mike Ritz.

Principal Lori Barkett-Farhat at Asa Messer Elementary School is noted for her work. Also, our metrics for understanding success at our schools is not adequate.

More on education.

More on education. Families who have the resources to send their children to private elementary schools push public school kids out of slots in their neighborhood schools when the bring their children back. Also, instead of incentivizing large corporations through tax breaks, why not incentivize many small businesses?

The small shops on Hope Street, many of them women owned, are admired in the community.

Education is important, but there is also the power of community.

Robert DeRobbio has distributed school supplies to students for years, said a supporter.

“I am a mother of a child who was murdered in 2011,” emcee Mike Ritz read from an index card. “I was promised her killers would be brought to justice, and I don’t want a promise. I want an arrest. What will be done about unsolved murders for all, and not just a child who is a certain age and ethnicity?”

Mike Ritz is noted for hiss contributions to Providence.

Providence City Councilmember Nirva LaFortune (Ward 3) noted the volunteers who do important work in the community, not just executive directors, but the “unsung heroes.”

Kobi Dennis was very influential in this young man’s life.

“I think there should be a day when all the legislators and all the executive branch leaders get on the busses, not as a photo op… Ride the busses, talk to the people who are on the bus, stand at the bus stops. I hope it will be raining and pouring… Because that’s what people have to do if they don’t have cars.”

“Is it possible to have inspectors enforcing sidewalk clearing standards during winter?”

Climate change. “That is the existential crisis off our time.”

Corruption leads to people becoming disenchanted with the system, which is seen as rigged.

Closing statement from James Barfoot, who is running for State Committeeman in District 4.

Closing statement from Jonathan Hernandez, who is running for State Senate in District 6

Closing statement from Mark Tracy, who is running for an open seat in House District 4

Closing statement from Rebecca Kislak, who is running for an open seat in House District 4

Closing statement from Robert DeRobbio, candidate for Mayor of Providence.

Closing statement from Kobi Dennis, candidate for Mayor of Providence.

Closing statement from incumbent Mayor of Providence Jorge Elorza, seeking a second term.

Closing from Mike Ritz.

The next debate is schedule for August 9 at Dr Martin Luther King Jr Elementary School in Providence at 6pm.


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About Steve Ahlquist 657 Articles
Steve Ahlquist is a frontline reporter in Rhode Island. He has covered human rights, social justice, progressive politics and environmental news for half a decade. Uprise RI is his new project, and he's doing all he can to make it essential reading. atomicsteve@gmail.com

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