Fighting for Progressive Politics in Rhode Island: An Interview with Rhode Island State Senator Sam Bell

Gun Rights

Samuel W. Bell is a Democrat representing District Five (Providence) in the Rhode Island Senate. District Five contains the neighborhoods of Mount Pleasant, Elmhurst, Federal Hill, Valley, and the northern portion of the West End. Bell grew his roots as an activist after the horrific shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, advocating for sensible gun legislation. Because of his investigation, the National Rifle Association (NRA) was forced to pay the second largest campaign fine in state history due to their illegal actions. Bell was elected to the Rhode Island Senate in 2018. In his other professional life, Bell is a geologist. He earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Astronomy and Geology from Amherst College; a Master’s Degree in Geosciences from Brown University; and a Ph.D. in Earth, Environmental, and Planetary Science from Brown University. He works as a geologist with the Planetary Science Institute.

Alexander Delaney: You were first elected to the Rhode Island State Senate for the Fifth District back in 2018, successfully primarying an incumbent legislator who had been in politics since 1985, four years before you were even born. Why do you think you were able to win out over such an entrenched establishment politician? And what did you take away from this election?

Senator Sam Bell: I think my first election had a lot to do with the political views of people in our community. Rhode Island has had a very strong, very conservative control of the Democratic Party, dating back to a series of legislative coups, parliamentary coups starting in the late ‘80s but also with some roots in the ‘70s and early ‘80s. And I think a lot of people felt that we needed people with real Democratic values, and a lot of what I ran on was respecting the core values of our party, and trying to govern in a way that cares about the struggles of poor people, that respects a lot of our fundamental positions on social issues that I really think the Democratic Party should care about, whether it was reproductive rights—that was a big part of that election—or other issues such as racial equity and things like that. Those were some of the issues in that election, but I think it fundamentally came down to my message about real Democratic values.

And I tried to emphasize the issues that I think most affect people in my community—the Medicaid cuts, the tax cuts for the rich. And largely in my legislative work, I’ve tried to address the problem that I ran on addressing, which is the fact that many Democrats in positions of power in Rhode Island don’t follow the core values of the party. And we’ve made significant progress on that. It wasn’t a comfortable conversation, but we have more progress that is needed. And in particular, where I feel like we have the most work to do is on the economic issues that most affect the daily lives of a lot of people in my community.

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I think the cost of living crisis is something that has been constantly moving toward the top of the field just because I think everyone, regardless of socioeconomic class, has been feeling the effects. We will feel national trends like that, but to me, what I’m focused on mostly is the things that the Rhode Island state government has done to most affect those kinds of things. So to me, one of the big things I really cared about was addressing the Medicaid crisis. I also talked a lot about the housing crisis when I first ran, and to me, a lot of it was about the state’s specific housing policies.

I worked with an intern who helped expose the volume of affordable housing funding that we’ve been rejecting from the federal government. And I was heartened by how many people read our report, listened to it, and the policy changes we’ve been able to see on that to help address those problems. But to me, that’s just part of a broader trend of grimly making choices on housing policy, just like choices on healthcare policy, that strip away the safety net we’re supposed to have. We can’t necessarily control national trends and the cost of living. But when it comes to things like housing, when it comes to things like healthcare, we have so much power at the state level where we can control what we choose to do as a state. That’s where I think we’ve really been failing, in particular by not following the values that the Democratic Party is supposed to be standing up for. And those are the challenges that I’m focused on trying to address, and that’s what I ran to do; I think I was pretty clear about it. I was really heartened that people in my community wanted to see that change happen.

AD: You ran again in 2020 for re-election for your seat and were primaried by the majority leader of the Providence City Council. You won by a large margin in this primary and also in the subsequent 2022 primary election against another challenger. Were there any differences within being an incumbent in these races, and were there any notable changes in the way that you interacted with your constituents? 

SB: The pandemic definitely changed our interactions. And being an incumbent definitely changes things. People know a lot more about you and have more defined opinions about you when you’re an incumbent. The other thing that has happened is that certain people and certain interests in Rhode Island don’t really want me to be in an elected office, and so my elections attract an awful lot of money. I have been outspent in every single race I’ve ever run in, but some of these elections have been some of the most expensive in Rhode Island state legislative history. In my last primary, my opponent spent $144,000 against me, which was the most that has ever been spent in a primary challenge against an incumbent state senator or state representative.

And so a consequence of that is because a lot of money gets spent, a lot of voters wind up knowing who I am because these elections are very heavily contested. It’s also the fact that you’re an incumbent that has had hotly contested elections before, and that very much drives up my name recognition. It’s very different campaigning when a lot of people know you versus when no one really knows who you are in your first campaign. That’s a big change.

AD: When you won back in 2018—I think this kind of speaks to what you were talking about earlier—you were the first member of the modern Democratic Socialists of America to be elected to the Rhode Island State legislature. Within your runs for office, you have been endorsed by progressive organizations such as Sunrise Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Working Families Party. How do you think your progressive ideals have distinguished you not only as a candidate running for office but also within your personal legislative process? 

SB: I really care about public policy, and I think that unfortunately there are many members of the legislature who do need to be brought along to the left, and we need to be a little bit more progressive. And I’m often one of the people up there who pushes for important progressive principles that some people in the Democratic Party have forgotten, including some pretty key things that are fundamental to our party’s progressive values.

AD: Within your work as a senator, you have been unafraid to call out state leadership, particularly from the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA). In renewing the Rhode Island Department of Transportation Chief’s reappointments to the cabinet, you were the sole “no” vote against this nomination, and you have voiced your own concerns about RIPTA projects being handed over to private contractors. Can you explain your position regarding your opposition to these changes? And why do you think that speaking out against state leadership is so important for Rhode Islanders? 

SB: Senate President [Dominick] Ruggerio has very, very right-wing policy views, and he’s moved on some of this stuff under pressure. When I was first elected, he was adamantly A-rated by the NRA and adamantly pro-life, and on both of those issues, we’ve seen some real movement, which I give him real credit for. But he did recently vote against things like marriage equality. And I said that I can’t vote for someone in a leadership position who votes against marriage equality if they’re unwilling to apologize for that vote. Those are strong social positions, but he’s still very conservative on a lot of economic issues. Even recently, he was making fun of Massachusetts for raising some taxes on their wealthier residents and suggesting that he wanted rich people from Massachusetts to move to Rhode Island to help us. I personally don’t think having wealthier people move into neighborhoods is often helpful for the people who live there, who often wind up getting priced down.

He had some very conservative views on some of those things, and while there’s been some progress in social issues and some economic issues, some of those policy positions are just out of step with the mainstream of the Democratic Party. There are also some very serious ethics concerns over a long and checkered history, and when it comes to those kinds of things, I’m accepting of people who grow and change, but I just haven’t seen the growth and change. So when it comes to that, just on some of those fundamental policy things, a disturbing ethics record, and the way that that continues into the managing of the Senate today, I thought it was necessary to speak up about that, and I still do. We have seen improvement overall in the leadership. I’m not gonna say that we haven’t seen growth. We absolutely have. And I very much appreciate that, including in culture as well as in policy and things like that. But more growth is still needed.

In terms of Peter Alviti, the Director of the Department of Transportation, I think that a core part of the core principles of the Democratic Party is addressing the climate crisis. When it comes to Rhode Island, one of the places where we can most affect the climate crisis is our transportation policies. And Alviti has been very harmful to transportation choices that reduce carbon pollution. He takes a very 1950s Robert Moses-type view of a lot of policy around transportation. In particular, he helped run the reconstruction of a large urban highway that split my district when there was a lot of opposition to that decision within my community. That’s something I disagreed with, but there have also been more substantive issues that go beyond just policy there.

In particular, he oversaw the 6/10 construction, the poisoning of my community, as well as of areas now represented by Senator [Frank] Ciccone after the redistricting. And so during that process, they hired a contractor that exposed large parts of Federal Hill neighborhoods to the chemical polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon that had been linked to a particular type of scrotal cancer, common among chimney sweepers in 19th-century London. And they just had that out there in big piles. The contractor took the fall, and there were substantial charges, both civil and I believe criminal for this. But Alviti is ultimately responsible for how this is run.

One of the things that I found very frustrating was that when Representative [John] Lombardi and I wanted to get the pile of toxic fill moved so that our constituents were no longer being exposed, he refused to meet with us, citing the ongoing investigation. And I want to give Attorney General [Peter] Neronha credit because he responded to those concerns and sent a letter indicating that Alviti did need to meet with us to address those concerns. And then we finally did see the pile of toxic fill moved. So I really want to thank the Attorney General for his work on that and his help, but it really bothered me that we just were not able to get the challenges we have addressed.

There’s also been a longer series of policy disagreements. I had a very clear written commitment specifically about the way the negotiations were run—specifically clarifying the funding for the Federal Hill Expansion Project—within the state tip that was broken despite it being in writing. I do hope that that project continues to move forward, as they seem to indicate it will. But it’s been very frustrating, and I think we need the kind of leadership that’s transparent, honest, isn’t gonna poison poor communities, and is going to support the changes that we need to make in order to address the climate crisis, which is a core value of the Democratic Party.

AD: Earlier this week, the state governments of Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Massachusetts announced a memorandum of understanding to help invest in future wind power projects. What are your thoughts on this new initiative? And do you think it is enough to meet the issues of the climate crisis? 

SB: To be honest, I think that the corporate welfare approach to renewable energy generation is not the right approach. And in general, the state should not be applying all of the bad practices that we’ve used for private development and fossil fuel development to renewable energy development.

When it comes to renewable energy development, we should not throw away our economic principles. I am not here to oppose those subsidies if that’s the only investment we can get. But I think there’s an unfair playing field in general where we will be very aggressive about subsidizing the big renewable energy companies, but we won’t provide adequate support for homeowners and smaller providers. I think by and large, we do need utility-scale generation, but we should have a fair, level playing field. So let me get specific. Within Rhode Island, we don’t have one of the most basic policies to support renewable energy—something called full net metering. Net metering is basically where you get paid for the amount of energy you generate from solar power if you have solar on your roof. However, in Rhode Island, it gets capped at 25 percent above your power usage. So if you are a real contributor to the grid, you don’t get paid for your full contributions, which isn’t really a question of subsidy, it’s a question of just basic fairness. At the same time, if you are a utility-scale solar provider, your tax assessments are frozen at the original value of the land you invested in with no inflation adjustment whatsoever. So you could buy a parcel of land, and build solar on it, utility-scale solar, not homeowner solar.

You would have that parcel of land, let’s say you bought it for $500,000 and then you invested $3 million of solar equipment on it. Over time, the normal value would’ve floated up through real estate inflation, say to $2 million, and you would still get assessed on an assessed value of $500,000. And so that’s a massive ongoing subsidy. Homeowners have to pay the property tax cost of solar investment. We don’t get our properties frozen when you put solar on our properties, and we aren’t even able to get paid for solar investments. And I should be honest with you, my wife and I are considering putting solar panels on our roof, but we haven’t done so yet. But I hear from constituents so often that they aren’t treated fairly, and yet we’re going to be very aggressive about subsidizing the big players. I think we need to be very cautious when it comes to renewable energy about two things.

One, we shouldn’t let purism stop us from supporting important renewable energy growth. We need more, and we need more everywhere at the utility scale as well as at the homeowner scale. But at the same time, we do need to be sensitive to the fact that we should not be overly subsidizing big corporations when we’re not providing the same level of generous subsidy to smaller participants in the market. I think that our renewable energy universe will be much more robust if it’s not controlled by large corporations. If instead, a lot of renewable energy comes from individual production that happens in individuals’ rooms, and a lot of Rhode Island homeowners own the means of producing solar power and renewable energy power, I think it will be a much fairer and more distributed market than if the state steps in and uses corporate welfare powers to encourage it as just a couple of larger providers.

AD: Going to legislation that you’ve implemented or attempted to implement back in January of this year, you cosponsored Senate Bill 61, the Energy Facility Siting Act. In your own words, what would this bill help accomplish if passed? 

SB: There’s this board called the Energy Facility Siting Board, which was basically designed to put polluting power plants in people’s communities without adequate local set. The idea was sometimes people would get upset about power plants, and so you had to run them through. Now, there is a real concern about NIMBYism, but here’s the thing: At this point, we shouldn’t be fossil fuel development. And so we need to reform the Energy Facility Siting Board. And realistically speaking, just to give a practical example, we saw that this process was used to potentially build this power plant in Burrillville, and the people of Burrillville would’ve never approved. We came very close to having the will of the people overridden in a way that just wasn’t fair. And also bear in mind that we need to make this transition within our energy economy because the climate crisis is actually really bad. We’re starting to see more and more of these effects, and we’re just only getting to the tip of the iceberg here. It’s gonna be, so to speak, really bad if we don’t take serious action. Rhode Island has to do its part. This is a global problem. It’s a global challenge for humanity, but we have to do our part.

AD: You have been no stranger to connecting with your constituents, and you have been ranked as one of the top Rhode Island legislators for community outreach. What issues do you think are most pressing to your constituents today? And finally, what message do you have for them? 

SB: So I think the issues that are most concerning right now are healthcare and housing. The collapse of the Rhode Island healthcare universe causes massive issues, as well as our failure to invest in our housing safety net. When it comes to housing, I think we also have to talk about Rhode Island’s very restricted policies around housing supply, which I also think have harmed our housing market, as well as created some urban planning challenges that provide a bunch of structural problems across the state. And so there are a lot of specific solutions, I have too many of those things. I was thrilled to see the beginning of the implementation of the Medicaid shift for the hospitals, something I’ve advocated for as part of my Medicare for All legislation. I really want to credit the hospital advocates for all their fantastic work on what they got over the line this year. I think we need to take that more broadly and utilize these mechanisms that allow us to take advantage of federal funds at minimal cost to state taxpayers to make bold investments in rolling back the Medicaid cuts that have so devastated our healthcare system, as well as caused a lot of housing problems because a lot of the housing crisis in Rhode Island does come from the collapse of the assisted living environment of our nursing homes, particularly the Medicaid-funded ones that provide a safety net.

Oftentimes, also through our failure to take the federal funds to build substance use disorder recovery beds, quite a lot of people suffering from homelessness and subsequent substance use disorder need recovery beds and not just a shelter. So we have failed. Our failures on healthcare have definitely affected the housing crisis. I really am a believer in taking the federal funding that’s out there because we do have limited revenue. I want us to repeal the tax cuts for the rich so that we get more revenue. But we have to be good stewards of the taxpayer’s funds and make sure that we take advantage of federal funding opportunities wherever we can so that we can actually make the numbers work. When it comes to housing, I’m a big believer in a lot of those other things. I have supported a lot of the supply initiatives, and I’ve got some complicated legislation around our zoning abandonment and that kind of stuff. But I think in terms of the social safety net on housing, that’s where we need to make a lot of progress. People want affordable housing. They need affordable housing, but people also need low-income housing.

I’m really pleased with the work we did to expose our failure to take the vast majority of federal affordable housing funds. Already, we’re seeing affordable housing production increase dramatically. Possibly, I think it might have been that the amount of money we’re spending doubled, and I expect by the time it’s done, we might get to four times what we have been previously spending or more. But we have to make sure that that’s done right. There are a lot of complex details. I’m really pleased with the increased investment we’re making, but we’re gonna have to implement it properly. Taking those federal funds is huge.

With low-income housing, we are continuing to turn away federal funds at an absurd rate. I believe that there may be an exciting announcement coming soon from Providence Housing. But in general across the board, whether it’s the 731 units of straight-up low-income housing, public or privatized public housing, we’ve been authorized to build at the federal level that we just haven’t constructed. Which we have, by the way, because that’s the number we’ve demolished since it was frozen at the federal level in 1999 with the Quality Housing Work Responsibility Act 98. We have all the vouchers to help people aging out of the foster care system to get low-income housing that we just aren’t taking, though we could get them if we just apply. And providing minimal social work to make sure that we can qualify. Providence has a lot of what we call “ghost Faircloth capacity.” Because the federal limits are only unit-based limits, they’re not bedroom limits. Providence, in our public housing environment, has prioritized elderly housing because we used it as an end run around antiracial segregation rules. And we’re basically able to use elderly housing to build what was, in practice, segregated, white-only housing many decades later than it was at all acceptable to do.

But in any case, as a result of that rather horrible history of Providence’s public housing world, we’ve wound up with a lot of studios and one-bedrooms. And so we have a lot of ability to expand within there. That qualifies us for additional federal funding under the capital and operating support formula. There are a lot of different opportunities where I want us to see growth and progress in taking federal funding that’s out there, that’s available, that other states are taking advantage of to build out our social safety net when it comes to healthcare and housing. Those are probably the two issues that I hear about the most. Obviously, there are so many issues that matter to people, and I’m someone who believes that everything matters, and I try to do my best to focus on every issue. But if I had to pick the top two, right now it’s been healthcare and housing. And that’s been pretty consistent. I have heard a lot of concern, obviously, around reproductive rights. That was a big issue, and it continues to be. But right now, I really think healthcare and housing are very high on what I hear. 

I also hear a lot of concern from people in the LGBTQ+ community about a rise in bigotry. And so that’s certainly something that I also hear an awful lot about. I think it’s critical that we work within Rhode Island to address many of our huge failings on that front. I think a lot of that has to do with our Supreme Court and the Rhode Island constitution, where we need protections that we have in statute protected at the constitutional level. And I also think Rhode Island needs to do a better job particularly when it comes to trans rights, with many of our policies around LGBTQ+ issues.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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