PROVIDENCE – Candidates running in the September primary to represent Rhode Island’s 1st Congressional District got down to business Tuesday evening — literally.
In a packed room of potential constituents and local business leaders at Social Enterprise Greenhouse’s Providence coworking space, 10 of the 12 Democrats vying for the open seat discussed their visions at a forum on how they’d assist the state’s minority-owned small businesses. They also acknowledged what local establishments they support.
For Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos, it’s Geri’s Bluffing Boutique in Woonsocket, where she recently bought a hat.
“So Geri just took my money too,” responded fellow candidate, and technology professional, Stephanie Beauté.
The forum, which lasted roughly an hour and a half, was hosted by SEG, the R.I. Black Business Association , the R.I. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the Center for Southeast Asians, and Hope & Main.
“When everyone is thriving, it has a direct impact on the state’s economy,” said RIBBA President Lisa Ranglin, one of the two moderators for the forum. SEG CEO Julie Owens was the other moderator.
In addition to Matos and Beauté, participants included: Gabe Amo; Walter Berbrick; Woonsocket Rep. Stephen Casey; Pawtucket Sen. Sandra Cano; Donald Carlson; Providence City Councilor John Gonçalves; Providence Sen. Ana Quezada; and Aaron Regunberg.
Democratic candidates Allen Waters and Spencer Dickinson did not participate. Their campaigns did not respond to invitations, SEG Communications Manager Liz Connell said in an interview before the forum.
Candidates at Tuesday’s forum agreed that minority-owned businesses are in need of additional funding and support, though the 10 Democrats differed in solutions they would seek if elected to Washington.
Matos said she would help create an organization which would provide a line of credit that would only be accessible to minority businesses, so long as they have a plan showing they are prepared to grow.
Cano, who was assistant vice president of community development at Navigant Credit Union before becoming director of commerce fo the city of Pawtucket, said she would look to create programs that would allow local banks to invest in their communities — adding she has already worked on similar initiatives with Rhode Island’s 2nd Congressional District Rep. Seth Magaziner.
Regunberg also suggested the government explore alternative models of financing rather than going to a privately-owned bank. He cited a public bank in North Dakota whose charter requires capital and credit be given to farmers and other prioritized communities.
“And the bank offices there are democratically accountable for reaching those goals,” Regunberg said.
Beauté said the way to access capital is by making federal appropriations similar to those military contractors and tech businesses receive.
“I don’t see why that can’t be the same for Black and Brown businesses,” she said.
Other candidates said that rather than large appropriations, the government needs to improve education surrounding business.
Carlson said his approach would be for aspiring entrepreneurs to be taught how to “build an investable business.”
“You want to be ready to receive that capital and put it to really good use,” he said. “You can learn those skills and then you can go to the capital markets and stand on your own two feet without public banking or a grant from the government.”
Quezada said she’d like to provide business-owners education in their own languages.
“We cannot forget the people who don’t speak the language, who many times have problems to be able to apply for loans or grants,” she said.
Casey said education needs to begin even sooner through financial literacy classes.
“Rhode Island is one of the only states that does not have a requirement for students to have a financial literacy class before they graduate high school,” he said.
The primary election will be held Tuesday, Sept. 5. Early voting begins Aug. 16.
Christopher Shea is a staff writer for the Rhode Island Current.