PAWTUCKET – With no Republican candidate in the running, the race for House of Representatives District 59 will come down to the Sept. 13 primary between incumbent Democrat Jean Philippe Barros and challenger Jennifer Stewart.
Barros has served four terms and is facing a rare challenger in Stewart, a history and political science teacher supported by the Rhode Island Political Cooperative.
Barros said he is seeking re-election, in part, because he remains “inspired by the team of progressive folks who were elected during and after” he entered office in 2015.
“With the help and support of progressive organizations and an increase in progressive House membership, we were able to craft and pass (much) of our progressive legislation on climate change, on reproductive rights, on sensible gun legislation, on transportation, on affordable housing, on education and of course, on future economic development within our state,” he said.
Some Pawtucket voters, he said, have expressed strong feelings in support of, and against, the Tidewater development. Other issues of noted importance to the district included affordable housing and the rising cost of living. Asked about broader issues, he pointed out what legislators have done to help homeless individuals and families, and to provide money to help families with down payments, along with other measures addressing the housing crisis.
During this latest legislative season, Barros said he and others “accomplished an unprecedented number of progressive legislation addressing issues” that impact Pawtucket citizens, and residents statewide, including elimination of the car tax.
“Too many Rhode islanders are struggling to find homes they can afford, therefore we included $250 million for affordable housing, which includes $30 million for down payment assistance for homebuyers and $10 million for housing homeless individuals and families,” he said.
Speaking with The Breeze this week, Stewart said she is feeling confident that she has connected with voters in the district, which includes the Oak Hill and Woodlawn neighborhoods of Pawtucket. Stewart earned degrees from the University of Chicago in political science, and is a high school history and political science teacher at Moses Brown. She earned the Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching in 2018.
She said her experience as a political science teacher gives her the perspective to inspire “more engagement of the district with the work of the General Assembly” and “more knowledge about what is going on there that we have a stake in.”
Stewart is running on a platform focused on accessible health care, a sustainable environment, education, and affordable housing. She and her husband relocated to Pawtucket in 2006 for a more affordable home, and she said she sees the impact of rates increasing by “double-digit” percentages affecting her neighbors.
“One thing I talk a lot about at doors is the housing crisis that many are experiencing throughout the country and the state, but especially in our district,” she said. “... If elected, I would fight for a limit on annual rent increases to no more than 4 percent.”
With the drought and heat of the summer, she said concerns about climate change also frequently come into discussion with voters. While current legislators have made progress on this front, Stewart said she wants to be more aggressive in advocating for environmental justice and green policy. Such goals include achieving 100 percent clean electricity by 2028 and net-zero emissions by 2040 to be the first in the country, to expand public transportation, electrify all buses, make the buses free, and to build thousands of green, affordable homes for working families.
Stewart also said residents have raised questions of the Tidewater Stadium project. She said residents were excited about the initial proposal, which emphasized plans for housing and retail space, but said the focus now is more on the soccer stadium itself with the state moving its financing of the project up to phase one.
“I think we all agree we would like to see Pawtucket develop and become a place where people from around the state would like to spend an afternoon, a day, or maybe even move,” Stewart said. “There’s real worry about whether the stadium is the right vehicle for that kind of development and whether taxpayers will be able to recoup the investment that the state’s making on our behalf…”
Barros said legislators have passed other laws that addressed many of the barriers preventing the development of more affordable housing, and provided an immediate $250 per child credit for qualifying working families. In this year’s budget, they included $300 million for future school construction projects statewide, and doubled commitment to pre-kindergarten seats throughout the state. Barros said he has also advocated for sensible gun prevention measures, including limits on high-capacity magazines.
“Many of the concerns expressed by my constituents are quality of life issues,” he said. “Things like public safety, noises, streets and sidewalks, and helping the homeless to get them off the street. Others are concerned about what is happening nationally on the issue of reproductive rights, climate change, accessibility to guns and gun violence, jobs and of course housing and specifically affordable housing.”