By LAURA WEICK The race for the vacant Senate District 31 seat will be one of the most crowded during the Sept. 8 primary: It's one of the few in which both the Democratic and Republican tickets will hold primaries to determine who will compete in the
The race for the vacant Senate District 31 seat will be one of the most crowded during the Sept. 8 primary: It’s one of the few in which both the Democratic and Republican tickets will hold primaries to determine who will compete in the Nov. 3 general election for the seat.
Currently held by Democratic Sen. Erin Lynch Prata, who is not running for reelection in hopes of becoming a Rhode Island Supreme Court Justice, four Democrats and two Republicans are in the running for the seat that represents the majority of Warwick and a slice of Cranston.
Democrats address education, healthcare, economy in different ways
Warwick City Council President Steve Merolla is the endorsed Democratic candidate. He will face wealth and investment consultant Brian Dunckley, climate activist and teacher Kendra Anderson and real estate broker Michael Mita in the Sept. 8 Democratic primary. This is the first time all of the Democratic candidates besides Merolla have run for elective office.
Merolla said that he is the most qualified candidate because of his over 20 years of experience on the City Council. He said that he could easily transition his experience serving on the council to the state level.
“The similarities [between municipal government and state government] are that we deal with many of the same issues on the local level, but on the smaller scale,” Merolla said. “Warwick has a $333 million budget, the state has $8 billion. Some of the issues like environmental issues we dealt with here in Warwick, when we bought Westbay (Barton) Farm, that purchase was on the local level. Whereas when we purchased Rocky Point, that was a collaborative between the federal state and local. Here in Warwick I got a lot of good experience to be able to do that.”
Dunckley said his varied background makes him a standout. He was born and raised in Michigan, but moved to Rhode Island after college to work for a biotech startup to develop an artificial kidney. His background includes investments, science, startups, hiking and owning a small business, so he believes this gives him background on a variety of policy areas. Mita also addressed his business background as a reason for how he’d be unique from other candidates.
Anderson said her history of activism regarding the environment, education and labor make her a qualified candidate.
“I’ve been focused on the needs of our community for a long time in different aspects,” Anderson said. “Primarily addressing climate change, but besides that, I was not happy with our representation because I didn’t feel like there was a lot of connection to the community anymore. I want to be talking and listening to a resident on a regular basis, and not just during an election year.”
All of the Democratic candidates said the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic impact are the biggest issues to address if elected. Mita’s economic platform includes infrastructure improvements, internet access and training programs to create more jobs.
“Obviously COVID is a huge challenge and the economic recovery coming from it,” Mita said. “How we serve and save our citizens throughout, it’s going to be some time before that’s behind us.”
Dunckley said Rhode Island has the resources to participate in a global economy, particularly through the airport and harbors, which can help the economy recover. Dunckley also addressed how the pandemic created spending issues in the state's budget.
“The challenge with the pandemic is that we can’t raise taxes on struggling families,” Dunckley said. “We are going to have to be really creative for funding.”
Anderson said the state needs to invest in nontraditional industries. She used the cannabis and clean energy industries as examples of sectors that she believes current legislators have overlooked. She also supports raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
Merolla said that Warwick and Rhode Island can invest more in tourism Merolla also cited the MBTA train station at T.F. Green Airport, as well as remote working opportunities, as ways to improve the economy in the aftermath of COVID-19.
“That really opens up Southern New England to our workforce, and doesn’t just limit us to Rhode Island,” Merolla said. “It gives companies an opportunity to attract talent and have meetings where people can hop that train down, connecting those economies is one way to get back on track. And there are green technology jobs to create a workforce for tomorrow. Here in Warwick we’ve been working with the vo-tech center to train students in these technologies.”
Merolla explained that healthcare is an important part of responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as a way to address other inequalities in the state.
“Healthcare needs to be affordable for all Americans,” Merolla said. “One of the problems that we see are these costs that are getting passed down. One of the best ways to keep it down is by competition but also making it affordable, especially prescription medications, and not having monopolies on where you can get your drugs. You should be able to shop for your prescription wherever you want. As far as the cost goes, the state can help out by implementing legislation that is consumer friendly and creates competition. At one point in time, we really only had two suppliers in Rhode Island but we’re slowly starting to see other companies come into the fray.”
Anderson supports a universal healthcare system for the state.
“It would be great if at the state level we can work towards a single-payer solution so healthcare doesn’t become an extra with your job, but a right,” Anderson said.
Mita agreed that healthcare should be affordable, although he did not say if he supports a single-payer system.
“A government’s job is to take care of its citizens,” Mita said. “We are a small state, there’s no reason why anyone should be living in our state without adequate healthcare in one of the richest countries in the world’s wealthiest areas.”
Dunckley said that insurance should become more accessible, but that the quality of care is also an important factor to consider in the state.
“Insurance does not equal access, and I think that’s a bigger problem for many of us,” Dunckley said. “There’s a primary care doctor shortage, so good quality healthcare is important.”
Education quality and whether or not students should return to school in the fall were also important topics each candidate discussed.
“It’s such a difficult balance,” Mita said. “So many children need to be around adults that care about them, and many are not. We need to ensure safety. I have four children, would love to have them back in school, but you have to ensure the safety of everyone in the building.”
Anderson was also uncertain about the safety of returning to school, but understood the importance of in-person learning. She also said that if she is elected, she would like to invest more in education.
“I think we have to be really careful,” Anderson said. “When I’ve been talking to voters and residents, it's one of the biggest concerns. What are we going to do if kids can’t get back to school? So it’s time to rethink education; new school buildings, technology, is this worth investing in?”
Merolla feels Warwick did not receive enough funding from the state for education since it is considered affluent by the state, but he said its schools are under performing.
Dunckley said that by improving school departments in both Warwick and the state overall, the state could attract more skilled workers to bolster the economy.
Regarding the reopening of schools, Dunckley said younger students should be prioritized for in-person learning and older students can probably adjust to online learning, but safety comes first.
“Particularly younger students need to be in school,” Dunckley said. “Lost education has very long-term negative impacts on students, so we owe it to our students to get right. But the other side to this is that we have to do it safely. Students are people too.”
Republicans emphasize small businesses and balancing the budget
On the Republican side, Scott Zambarano, co-owner of A.E. Mazika Insurance Services and former Providence police officer, will face former state constable and private investigator John Silvaggio. Silvaggio previously lost bids for the Ward 2 seat on the Warwick City Council in 2016 and the Senate District 36 in 2018, while this is Zambarano’s first time running for elected office.
Zambarano was endorsed by the Rhode Island Republican Party, and said that he felt that leadership in the state has remained stagnant for years.
“I was looking for some change,” Zambarano said. “The state has been under Democratic control for over 70 years and it’s time for a little change in the state and put in the right direction.”
Silvaggio said he decided to run because he believes he is a well-rounded person. He cited his experience working as an investigator and constable, as well as a student in a trade school and the son of parents who ran a manufacturing business.
COVID-19 has influenced both candidates’ views on revitalizing the economy. Silvaggio said that although he wears a facemask in public, people should not be required to do so in order to enter certain facilities. He also stated that businesses should have remained open in order to keep the economy moving.
“They should let the small businesses open, it’s the customers’ decision on whether or not they can go in there,” Silvaggio said.
Zambarano said that the state was right to shut the economy down to some extent, but is also concerned with how it affected the economy at the time and well into the future.
“The virus is a real thing, I have friends that had it, so I can’t say we should have absolutely opened a lot faster,” Zambarano said. “But I will say that operating at a lower percentage is affecting our state and continuing to affect our state because we are not bringing in the business and sales tax. It’s a tough subject because we don’t know what to believe anymore. It’s a scary situation but at the same time people have to take their own precautions.”
As a graduate of the Rhode Island Training School, Silvaggio believes that investing in vocational skills can improve the economy. He also thinks that the state should lower restrictions on small businesses, as he has said people he knows who have tried to start a small business in the past have had difficulty getting past “the red tape.”
“With so many restrictions on business, it has a stronghold on the little guy who made us great,” Silvaggio “We used to be the biggest jewelry producer in the country, but after NAFTA, we lost that. Kids are going to have to learn to make the software that drives automation.”
Regarding education, Zambarano supports school choice. He also thinks that students should go back to in-person school “in some capacity,” citing the claim that children do not spread the virus as frequently as adults, as well as a need for students to learn in-person. Silvaggio, who served on the PTA of his daughter’s school in Cranston, would also like to see students return to in-person classes, at least to a certain degree.
“Remote learning I think is a tough thing on parents, especially those of younger kids,” Zambarano said. “Schools are important for kids to learn how to socialize with people, and with social media kids don’t interact how they used to.”
Silvaggio said the state should make cuts to the budget in order to prevent tax hikes. He also said that he wants to be clear with his constituents regarding his intentions if elected.
“I want to be someone people can call up and talk to, someone whom you can get direct answers,” Silvaggio said. “Lots of people [in politics] are lawyers with lots of big money investments and they are afraid to stand up because they can risk their assets. I don’t want to do that.”
Zambarano believes that state budgets should be more transparent so constituents can see specifically where their tax dollars are headed .Zambarano is also a proponent of curbing government spending, but there are certain areas he believes the state can invest more in.
“I’m definitely against defunding the police,” Zambarano said regarding recent calls to do so amid the Black Lives Matter Movement. “I would love to allocate more money for training, but due to budget constraints it’s hard to spend more money on extra training. But this way there’d be more training so these issues are addressed.”
Both candidates concluded that they would be able to work within their own party and across the aisle if elected to the state legislature, which is expected to remain dominated by Democrats.
“There needs to be working together between Democrats and Republicans, bipartisan agreement,” Zambarano said. “If you keep fighting nothing is going to happen. Even if Republicans are the minority in the state they shouldn’t just have all of their ideas shut down.”