Linda L. Ujifusa said she’s the most qualified candidate for the R.I. District 11 Senate seat because of her experience, while Matt A. Chappell said his “different perspective” is …
Linda L. Ujifusa said she’s the most qualified candidate for the R.I. District 11 Senate seat because of her experience, while Matt A. Chappell said his “different perspective” is the reason why voters should back him.
The two Democrats, both of whom are attorneys, will face off in the statewide primary on Sept. 13. They aired their views during a virtual candidates forum Tuesday that was sponsored by The League of Women Voters of R.I. and East Bay Media Group. The District 11 seat, which is being vacated by Sen. James Seveney, who is retiring, covers Portsmouth and parts of Bristol.
The primary winner gets his or her place on the ballot for the general election in November. Others running for District 11 are Republican Kenneth J. Mendonca, and Andrew V. Kelly and Mario J. Teixeira, who are both running as independents.
Tuesday’s forum, which also featured candidates in other races, was streamed live on Zoom from Barrington Public Library and can be viewed anytime before Sept. 13 via a link posted on the League’s website at www.lwvri.org. Each candidate gave opening and closing statements, and answered a series of eight questions posed by Scott Pickering, East Bay Media Group’s general manager.
In her opening and closing statements, Ujifusa touted her experience on the Town Council — she’s a three-term member, two as vice president — as well as the head of a non-profit that advocates for single-payer health plans (“Medicare for All”) and past board chair of the Aquidneck Land Trust, as reasons why she should be the preferred candidate.
“I believe I have the experience, skills and work ethic needed to best represent (District 11’s) concerns at the State House. My background makes me the only candidate to hit the ground running,” she said.
Chappell, a 2009 graduate of Portsmouth High School, said the “state needs the perspective of a different generation” and that he is more qualified to understand the concerns of younger constituents.
“Young families can’t afford to live in our community today,” he said, adding that he will be the voice for youths who are “struggling with mental health issues and substance abuse issues” and that he will fight for LGBT rights. “The way our Supreme Court is going, their rights are next on the chopping block,” Chappell said.
Here are how the two candidates responded to the eight questions posed Tuesday:
What do you see as the most pressing upcoming issues for your district?
Ujifusa said the major issues focus on climate change and economic stressors such as high-rising housing and health care costs. She said her work for a nonprofit advocating for single-payer plans give her the needed experience to deal with the latter issue.
“We have passed a Rhode Senate resolution in support of single-payer at the federal level,” Ujifusa said, noting that three of four members of the Rhode Island Congressional delegation are on board.
“One of the main issues is affordable housing and housing affordability, which are two mutually exclusive issues,” said Chappell, adding that climate change is another issue that particularly impacts the Ocean State.
Another big problem is mental health, particularly among local youths, he said. Chappell said nine of his high school classmates are deceased either due to suicide, mental health or substance abuse issues, so he has a unique perspective on those issues.
Later in the forum, Ujifusa pointed out she’s already worked on mental health issues, advocating with the state attorney general on parity laws which grants the same access to mental health services as for physical health.
Do you believe there should be any changes to current Rhode Island gun laws?
Chappell said he was 8 years old during the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado in 1999, and that he does support changes to the gun laws.
“I am proud and honored to be endorsed by Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence,” he said, adding that if elected he would fight to make sure the state continues to address common-sense gun laws.
Ujifusa, who also supports changes to gun laws, said she is designated by Moms Demand Action as a “gun sense candidate” (Chappell is as well).
It’s important to have someone to bridge the gap between those who are “conservative, and not so conservative,” and that she believes that kind of “coalition-building” is something she can do.
What could the General Assembly do to bring more jobs to Rhode Island?
Ujifusa said the state’s approach to economic development has to stop focusing on “corporate welfare,” and that tax breaks to corporations shouldn’t be granted unless it’s clear the state will benefit.
In addition, the Assembly needs to rewrite the school funding formula so that public education is adequately funded. That would go far in ensuring that Rhode Island has an educated and qualified workforce, which in turn would influence more businesses to locate here, she said.
Chappell said the workforce throughout the COVID-19 pandemic took a huge hit and small businesses suffered.
“We need to incentivize people to come back to work. There are jobs available. That being said, we need to provide more jobs in our state,” he said, adding that increasing the state’s housing stock would help get that done.
What would you do help stem the tide of climate change?
Chappell said while the R.I. Act on Climate signed into law last year took big steps toward longterm solutions by setting 100-percent renewable energy goals, the state must put in place policies needed to meet those goals. Renewable energy should be more accessible so residents can cut down their carbon footprints, and lawmakers need to enact policies to make that possible, he said.
Ujifusa also said the Act on Climate was an important first step, but that it can be improved upon. Specifically, the state should be aggressive in enforcing consequences for anyone who fails to meet the goals set forth by the law. Lawmakers also need to push laws that protect communities from emergencies, and invest in resiliency projects, she said.
Do you support women’s reproductive rights and their right to choose abortion?
Both candidates said they were “100-percent pro-choice,” despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.
The R.I. House of Representatives has unanimously voted in favor of a bill to clarify the public’s right to the shoreline, but the Senate adjourned without considering it. Are you familiar with the bill?
Both candidates said they were aware of the bill, and would advocate for its passage in the Senate if elected.
How do you envision your role in the Senate — representing your district, your political party, all of Rhode Islanders — and how do you balance those interests?
Ujifusa said all of those different interests overlap. “It’s my constituents that I have to represent first,” she said, noting as a council member she has set up annual meetings with local legislators to discuss certain issues. “I do think there’s an overlap and they’re not in conflict necessarily.”
“We’re not being elected by the State of Rhode Island,” said Chappell, noting he would advocate for District 11 voters first. After that, a legislator needs to work with local leaders before coming up with “pragmatic solutions” with state officials, he said.
Do you believe charter schools have a positive or negative impact on public education in Rhode Island?
Both candidates, who said they attended public schools, supported Rhode Island taxpayers funding only public schools.
It’s important that public school school students get a “high-value education” and that their buildings are safe and comfortable,” said Chappell, adding he is not necessarily in favor of the expansion of charter schools. “I think it’s important we aim our funding at public schools,” he said.
“I am not in favor of funding charter schools because frankly it’s drawing money away from our public schools. When I went to school, the rich kids and the poor kids went to the same school,” said Ujifusa, adding it doesn’t make sense to have “different pools of money.”