Congressional candidates debate signatures, climate change, education

TEN DEMOCRATIC CONGRESSIONAL CANDIDATES gather Thursday for a debate at Roger Williams University. / SCREENSHOT VIA YOUTUBE.COM
TEN DEMOCRATIC CONGRESSIONAL CANDIDATES gather Thursday for a debate at Roger Williams University. / SCREENSHOT VIA YOUTUBE.COM

BRISTOL – Climate change, education and student loans, and the recent signature controversy involving one prominent candidate were among the topics 10 Democratic candidates vying for the 1st Congressional District seat in the U.S. House, discussed, agreed and differed on Thursday night in a debate at Roger Williams University.

Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos; Sen Ana B. Quezada, D-Providence; Providence City Councilor John Goncalves; Sen. Sandra Cano, D-Pawtucket; Yale Law School Joseph C. Tsai Leadership Program Senior Executive Director Don Carlson; former State Rep. Aaron Regunberg; former White House staffer Gabe Amo; former secretary of state candidate Stephanie Beaute; Rep. Stephen M. Casey, D-Woonsocket; and Walter Berbrick spent approximately 90 minutes taking on various issues affecting the Ocean State and the country. Former South Kingstown State Rep. Spencer Dickenson and former Republican turned Democrat Allan R. Waters did not participate in Thursday’s debate.

Matos for the last several weeks has been mired in controversy after local communities reported that several signatures on her nomination papers had discrepancies, including signatures that were allegedly forged or signed by people who are deceased. The R.I. Board of Elections on Aug. 15 after a review determined that Matos’ congressional campaign has more than enough valid signatures to be eligible for the ballot. However, the board also voted to continue its investigation into the campaign. R.I. Attorney General Peter F. Neronha’s office is conducting a separate statewide investigation into the matter.

When asked if she took responsibility for the signatures submitted on her behalf, Matos said she did. She also reiterated that she had “more than enough signatures” to qualify for the ballot and that she “didn’t need this” controversy.

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“The person [who submitted the fraudulent signatures] who I trusted lied to us, and I took responsibility for that,” Matos said. “But I am the candidate here on this stage with the most experience to run for office.”

Carlson, who submitted a formal challenge to the R.I. secretary of state’s office, said it’s one thing to sign the wrong form or not be registered. It’s another thing, he said, to “have dead people sign the forms.” Carlson also said he wasn’t questioning Matos’ integrity, but rather finding proper ways to put a campaign together.

Matos, though, responded that Carlson can’t say “two things at the same time.”

“You can’t say I’m misleading voters, but then say ‘no that’s not what I meant,’ ” she said. Goncalves, who worked closely with Matos when they were on the Providence City Council, said: “let’s move on from these damn signatures.”

LT. GOV. SABINA MATOS, center, shares a point Thursday during the congressional debate at Roger Williams University. Sitting alongside Matos is Providence city councilor John Goncalves, left, and Sen. Ana B. Quezada, D-Providence. / SCREENWHOT VIA YOUTUBE.COM
LT. GOV. SABINA MATOS, center, shares a point Thursday during the congressional debate at Roger Williams University. Sitting alongside Matos is Providence city councilor John Goncalves, left, and Sen. Ana B. Quezada, D-Providence. / SCREENWHOT VIA YOUTUBE.COM

On education, Beaute said she would forgive student loans “in its entirety,” saying President Joe Biden has “the authority” to forgive loans issued out and “he does need to do so.” Quezada agreed, but forgive the loans up to $10,000, saying if the country forgives Paycheck Protection Plan loans for large companies “why cannot we do that for students.”

Along with supporting up to $20,000 in student loan forgiveness, Matos said there needs to be other reforms. She said including student loan debt in bankruptcy claims “could make a huge difference” because of how such debt damages credit scores.

“Another this is I talked with seniors who cannot afford to retire because they have to pay back student loan debt,” Matos said. “This is affecting more than just the younger population.”

However, Casey said he would not favor forgiving debt but rather a refinancing method to help pay off the debt. He said forgiving debt is “not the right thing to do.

“[Being financially responsible] is part of growing up; it’s part of maturity,” Casey said. “[Forgiving debt] is unfair to the parents who paid off their children’s student loans. It’s not fair for the people who had to work two jobs … to get through what they needed to get through to pay their loans.”

Berbrick said he would cap the cost of higher education to about 70% of what a person’s total income is. He said the cost for college has “gotten out of control,” doubling over the last 30 years. Carlson said he would much rather target “progressive” student loan forgiveness for those entering certain professions where workforce is needed, such as nursing, teaching, child care and “folks that have been underpaid for too long.”

Gonsalves, a teacher by trade, supports the Pay Teachers Act, which would ensure teachers be paid at least a $60,000 annual salary.

Regarding climate change, candidates were on the same page in addressing the crisis, but had different focuses. Carlson said he would “turn the private sector loose” on addressing climate change. He said the Inflation Reduction Act provides incentives and “a whole lot of money” for new businesses to be built to remediate and mitigate climate change.

Matos said she would work with the Biden administration to restore the powers of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to address climate change. Regunberg feels the country needs to take on the fossil fuel industry and end public federal subsidies for oil and gas. Beaute said providing residents with tax credits and incentives to transition vehicles and homes to become more environmentally friendly.

Amo said he would unlock the capacity for local governments to act on climate change, which he feels could “make a dent” in the crisis. Goncalves, along with supporting the Green New Deal, supports all measures to reduce greenhouse gases by 2030 and create “millions of jobs” in the process. “Climate change is the greatest existential crisis in Rhode Island, and we need to act now,” Goncalves said.

Candidates also differed on if they had disagreement with David N. Cicilline – now CEO and president of the Rhode Island Foundation – as a congressman. While most candidates had no issue with Cicilline, Berbrick, a former U.S. Navy officer, differs the former congressman’s view on defense spending, saying such spending needs to be done “smarter, not bigger.” He also said he would’ve voted against the National Defense Authorization Act because Berbrick feels the biggest threat is Russia invading Ukraine.

Casey said he disagreed with Cicilline on gun control, noting he would have voted against banning assault rifles. He said banning all weapons “is not the answer,” but said illegal guns need to be removed from the streets.

Nine candidates on Thursday also said they would support the federal Protect Reporters from Exploitive State Spying act, which would be a statute giving journalists protection from having to reveal sources when questioned by authorities. Beaute opposed.

As far as the Republicans go, there will be no debate between Gerry W. Leonard Jr. and former Middletown town councilor Terri Flynn. Rhode Island Republican Party Executive Director Jesus Solorio told Providence Business News the party is not planning on hosting any primary debates since the party has endorsed Leonard for Congress.

James Bessette is the PBN special projects editor, and also covers the nonprofit and education sectors. You may reach him at Bessette@PBN.com. You may also follow him on Twitter at @James_Bessette.

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