PROVIDENCE – On May 27, five gubernatorial candidates gathered at the Alliance’s Dwares Jewish Community Center to discuss poverty and inequality in Rhode Island. The candidates offered their solutions to the housing crisis, food insecurity, systemic racism, education reform and rising utility bills.
Democrats Gov. Dan McKee, R.I. Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, former R.I. Secretary of State Matt Brown and Dr. Luis Daniel Munoz, and Republican Ashley Kalus participated in the forum, which was moderated by David Veliz, director of the Rhode Island Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty.
In her opening remarks, the Rev. Chontell Washington, of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches, told the audience, “the options for the poor have decreased tremendously.” She continued, “It’s not enough to just be sad anymore. People are still being killed, tortured and kept down by inequality, by complacency and by unjust systems.”
Governor McKee’s remarks focused on the state’s budget and the need for it to be approved by the General Assembly. “Our budgets reflect what matters to us,” he said several times.
When asked about his plans for combating high utility bills, he said he plans to use the state’s budget surplus for that.
Dr. Munoz described growing up poor and experiencing homelessness, and asked, “Why have things not changed?” His answers frequently focused on the need to support the work of already-existing community organizations.
“We’re not using local resources enough, we’re not supporting mutual-aid organizations that are conducting rent-relief clinics,” he said.
Dr. Munoz was adamant that, “The governor should be the state’s activist.”
Secretary of State Gorbea highlighted her decades of government experience and background in promoting diversity in governance.
“The best way to have policies that truly address the diversity of our state is by putting people in power … that reflect the diversity of our state,” she said.
Gorbea also promoted collaboration between government agencies and nonprofits. “We need to marry the support services to very low-income housing, for example,” she said.
Brown said that state government must “systematically and relentlessly” combat racial inequality in the state. He went on to propose shutting down polluters in low-income neighborhoods, additional taxes on the highest earners, getting private money out of health care, ensuring abortion access and ending cash bail.
“We are in a fight for our lives with the fossil-fuel industry,” he said.
When asked about promoting economic security and upward mobility in the state and making sure that people can access basic benefits through the R.I. Department of Human Services, Ashley Kalus responded that she wanted to create “a culture of customer service” and implement something like the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act. She differed from the other candidates by not endorsing income-based utility bills.
All the candidates said they support free meals for schoolchildren and a state constitutional amendment ensuring quality education.
The discussion between the candidates was interrupted numerous times by audience members, including Paul Rianna Jr., an independent candidate for governor, wearing a “Let’s Go Brandon” sweatshirt, who shouted out to Governor McKee, “You took jobs away!” He later added that the jobs were taken from people who refused COVID vaccines.
In his closing remarks, Rabbi Jeffery Goldwasser said, “There will be one winner in the gubernatorial election, but we need all of you to continue to work toward solutions to address the crisis that impoverishes nearly one in seven Rhode Islanders.”
SARAH GREENLEAF (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Digital Media Specialist for the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island and writes for Jewish Rhode Island.