PAWTUCKET – Progressive Democrat Cynthia Mendes is making a run for the Senate District 18 seat, challenging incumbent Democrat William “Billy” Conley, someone she says is part of the establishment, in the Sept. 8 primary. Conley is seeking a fifth term after first being elected in 2012.
The winner of the primary will secure the seat, as there are no challengers for the general election on Nov. 3. District 18 covers parts of East Providence and a sliver of Pawtucket in the southeast corner.
Mendes, 40, of 39 Bullocks Point Ave. in East Providence, is part of the Rhode Island Political Cooperative, a new progressive political group whose members share a policy agenda including supporting a $15 minimum wage, affordable housing for all and a Green New Deal. Every candidate also pledges to accept no donations from corporate PACs, corporate lobbyists or the fossil fuel industry, according to a press release.
“I’m really proud to be a part of (the cooperative),” Mendes told The Breeze. “Unfortunately in Rhode Island, unless you’re tapped on the shoulder by the establishment,” she said candidates lack support to go far in elections. “Navigating the political landscape as an outsider is really difficult.”
She said never in her wildest dreams did she expect to run for office but some friends asked her, saying they were “tired of a Statehouse that’s not listening to us.” Her father, who died during the COVID-19 crisis, also inspired her, she said, because he gave up law school to give his life in service as a minister.
Conley, 67, of 3 Bridgham Court in East Providence, told The Breeze that he’s running for re-election to continue following through on the work he’s done so far. “I’m not done yet,” he said.
Conley is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and a member of the Senate Committee on Environment and Agriculture.
As a single mother who works two jobs including in human resources for a nonprofit, Mendes said the top three issues in her platform are affordable health care, fair wages, and the environment. An advocate of Medicare for all, Mendes, who worked in the dental field for 15 years and watched the health care industry leave working families under-covered, said she’s been running into moms who have to choose between paying a medical deductible or their mortgage.
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As for fair wages, Mendes said, “Everyone knows you can’t live on minimum wage,” adding that the current projected increase is a joke.
If elected, she said she’d like to work toward creating a cap on the cost of utility bills. “Too many people are in survival mode,” she said, just trying to get by.
She said that environmental issues are something that affect both residents in Pawtucket and East Providence. One example, she said, is the Keep Metacomet Green movement in East Providence, where some residents are opposed to a proposed development at the Metacomet Golf Course by Pawtucket developer Marshall Properties, which is represented by Conley.
Conley said his client has a proposal to keep more than 50 percent of the development green as public open space.
Mendes said Conley has sponsored some environmental bills but sent them to study and “communicated that he doesn’t care about the environment.”
Conley disagreed that he doesn’t care about environmental issues, saying he was the lead sponsor in the Senate for the Resilient Rhode Island Act in 2014, which created the Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council (EC4) and set carbon emission goals, and he has sponsored or co-sponsored other pieces of environmental legislation over the years.
Mendes said addressing the affordable housing crisis is also important to her, adding that she hasn’t heard Conley talk much about the subject. “Part of our policy framework is having a robust plan for affordable housing,” she said.
Conley responded that he will be advocating for an affordable housing bond this week in the Senate in hearings about the state budget.
He told The Breeze that issues, including the affordable housing crisis, have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, adding that “we need immediate relief,” including a moratorium on eviction and mortgage foreclosure. “We can’t wait for the federal government to act.”
Since the pandemic started, he said, he’s seen more support in favor of more affordable housing among his Senate colleagues and people in the district.
Another issue, he said, is access to affordable, quality health care.
“We were there before the pandemic, and now the pandemic shows us how incredibly important that is,” he said. He said he’s working to get essential benefits of the Affordable Care Act enacted into legislation in the state.
More help needs to go to small businesses, he said. “Small businesses need to know there are programs out there they will have access to not only in the coming months but in the coming years.” In Pawtucket specifically, he said, he’s hearing from owners of craft breweries that being able to sell to-go drinks “is important to their survival through this crisis.”
He said it’s important not to forget other issues such as the environment and said maintaining educational funding and finding additional resources to assist schools is critical.
Mendes said that no candidate is entitled to a seat and that everyday people can run for office. Going into the election, she said, “I’m confident my community trusts me and the people I’ve had conversations with will vote for me.”
Mendes, who’s lived in Rhode Island for 20 years and East Providence for the majority of those years, has one daughter, Francesca, 16.
A lifelong resident of the district, Conley is a lawyer with a practice in Providence. He and his wife, Norma, who met attending East Providence High School, have three children: Dylan, a lawyer at his father’s practice who is challenging incumbent Jim Langevin for the state’s 2nd Congressional District in a Democratic primary Sept. 8; Colleen, a teacher in Providence; and Brady, a teacher in New York City.