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RI Senate District 1 debate: identity politics and policy agreements

Updated: Nov 1, 2023

Shawnna Forget

News Editor

Despite what their political party affiliations may insinuate, there is little policy disagreement between Jake Bissaillion and Niyoka Powell.

Their recent debate, hosted by Rhode Island College senior Raymond Baccari and North Kingston High School senior Ryan Lukowicz, came about two weeks prior to the Nov. 7 special election. The Providence Smith Hill district was previously represented by Sen. Mary Ellen Goodwin, who passed away in April.

Photo by Samantha Gervais

The Democratic and Republican candidates in the upcoming special election for RI Senate District 1 shared similar beliefs on pressing Senate House issues, including local control of Providence schools, the importance of the new Hope Scholarship Program and strengthening state public record laws.

Powell, however, contradicted her support of increasing access to state public records when she declined to give the name of a previous state senator who sent her an email. The email was disclosed to The Anchor with a signature block so the sender was anonymous. As Powell spoke about the email, she explained that the previous Senator expressed a confusion for Powell's political identity based on her ethnicity.

The opponents proceeded to clash more over political identity. Powell, an immigrant and nurse, sought to cast Bissaillion as part of the RI insider political network.

She accused Bissaillion, who currently works as the Chief of Staff for Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, of name-dropping to enhance his current political campaign. Powell also reiterated previous criticism of Bissaillon and Ruggerio of already announcing staff changes if he were to win the Senate seat.

“I jumped into this race because I know the community needs someone who is going to look out for them and not necessarily look out for name recognition,” Powell said. Bissaillion quickly dismissed the allegations as ‘outrageous’ and said nothing “is preordained” while simultaneously stating his history in city and state politics to defend his advantage in knowing what the city needs.

Some additional issues the rivals agree on are capping the interest on payday loans as well as extending the free and reduced breakfast and lunch program in all public schools, regardless of income.

Their opinions, however, diverged in regard to money. Powell stands by traditional Republican viewpoints, repeating that we must reduce taxes and state spending. She suggests that we cut funding for higher education and return one time deferral funds ‘to the people’ instead of creating new programs. Bissaillon on the other hand, praised the historic education and housing budget increase in fiscal year 2024.

The rivals also disagreed on voting reform, with Powell hoping that voting can be a federal holiday to give people adequate time to vote and Bissaillon encouraging the various ways to vote

in order to accommodate everyone.

See the full debate on RIC’s Anchor TV or on Lukowicz’s podcast Behind the Candidates.



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