Newport The Week | August 13, 2020 By James Merolla
The first in a series of one-hour virtual forums went off without a hitch on Aug. 6 for six local state general assembly candidates facing a primary election on Sept. 8.
The forum was a collaboration among The Alliance for a Livable Newport, East Bay TV, the Greater Newport Chamber of Commerce, the League of Women Voters Newport County, Newport Buzz, Newport This Week and WADK radio.
Watch the video here:
The candidates are incumbent Deborah Ruggiero, (D-74 Jamestown, Middletown), and her challenger, Henry “Rick” Lombardi; incumbent Terri Cortvriend, (D-72 Portsmouth, Middletown), and her challenger, Christopher Semonelli; and Michelle McGaw and John Edwards V for the D-71 open seat (Portsmouth, Little Compton, Tiverton). All six are Democrats.
Lynne Tungett, NTW owner and editor, served as host. The moderator was Joseph Pratt, executive director and CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Newport County and chair of the Chamber’s Government Affairs Committee (GAC).
Questions were prepared by the League of Women Voters and GAC.
All the candidates favor expanded access to early voting. Edwards said that after the pandemic the state should reexamine the voter ID registration requirements.
Environmentally, all the candidates support renewable energy from alternative sources, and said that the state needs to do more as beaches erode and sea levels rise. Edwards and Semonelli raised the issue of cleaning up the former Naval Lodge site along Burma Road.
All support Gov. Gina Raimondo having line item veto power. McGaw, Edwards and Cortvriend said marijuana should be legalized, while on another yes/no question, Lombardi, Ruggiero, Cortvriend and Edwards said the state should eliminate the automobile tax.
Semonelli, Cortvriend, Edwards and McGaw said they would support legislation making “cocktails to go” a permanent law. Semonelli was the only candidate favoring the regionalization of school districts.
Cortvriend said she came into office in 2019 seeking more government transparency. “My priority has been being accessible to my constituents. It’s very important to be a liaison,” she said.
Semonelli said he will be fighting for funding for those “in need” and “educational excellence.
“I follow fiscal responsibility. I will not support cuts in education,” he said.
Lombardi said the state needs to find ways to create affordable housing for seniors and young families. “It is imperative to get new small businesses established in our state,” he said, while establishing “sustainable” funding for education.
Ruggiero said that COVID-19 has turned lives “upside down.
“Know [that] when the virus hits again, I will be there for everyone,” she said. “Experience matters.”
She said she has focused on the four “E’s” over past 10 years: economy, elderly, environment and education.
Edwards, detailing his business experience, said his top priority is the state’s nearly $1 billion deficit. He said he wants to “protect your hard-earned money [so] that we don’t spend what we don’t have.”
McGaw, a 30-year Portsmouth resident and pharmacist, with an expertise in healthcare, said she wants to help local families. “Our district needs a representative who really works for the people of our district,” she said.
Pratt’s first question was about deep budget cuts and additional tax revenue streams. Both Semonelli and Cortvriend said they would not touch programs that help the elderly and others in need.
Lombardi said, “[a] $200 million [state] deficit before COVID … someone has to explain why that continues to happen, year after year.”
He wondered how the state moves money from successful budget agencies. “DCYF in the red? We’ve got children dying in the care of DCYF,” he said.
“From a fiscal standpoint, I believe the state needs to be really strategic,” said Ruggiero. “COVID has shown us we have to invest in the internet, because we have to work remotely, distance learn and telehealth.”
Edwards said the state needs to concentrate on the successful financial things it has done and revisit them. He mentioned many organizations and businesses that have brought revenue to the state.
McGaw said there are certain things that cannot be cut. “People who need assistance with food … people who need assistance with housing.”
We must create a “more equitable tax structure,” she said.
Citing the tremendous loss to the local hospitality industry, an estimated 45 to 50 percent that will not come back, the candidates were asked what kind of renewal or resiliency plan they would implement.
Cortvriend said a key will be “to diversify and expand” the kinds of businesses that come to Aquidneck Island. Lombardi agreed, lamenting the closure of the Newport Visitor Center. Ruggiero, citing the $6.5 billion brought in annually to the state through tourism, including $900,000 to Aquidneck Island, wants the state to further promote tourism.
Semonelli, citing how small businesses are not happy with the speed with which the economy reopened, said, “We need to listen to them more to meet their needs.”
Five of the six candidates said they would not support expanding paid leave for companies with fewer than 17 employees or state and municipal employees. Only McGaw, citing restaurants who were hardest hit in the pandemic, said she would support it.
Susan Wells of the League of Women Voters, one of the forum sponsors, said the forum offered “a good civil exchange of views on a variety of important issues,” and provided “a valuable source of information for voters.”
There will be upcoming forums with the candidates for the Newport At Large and Ward 3 City Council seats on Aug. 19 and Aug. 20, respectively. The forums will be available for viewing on Aug. 21.