State Sen. Jake Bissaillon on General Assembly hot topics, R.I. economy, and reducing RI’s ‘brain drain’

Gun Rights

Jake Bissaillon won a special election last year to fill the vacancy created by the death of Senate Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin. Bissaillon cut his political teeth as a student organizer for Barack Obama at Providence College in 2008, and he later worked as chief of staff for the Providence City Council and for state Senate President Dominick Ruggerio.

So why did Bissaillon want to make the transition from political staffer to political candidate? How does the 36-year-old Providence Democrat think Rhode Island can keep more young people from leaving the state? And what does he think can be done to improve Rhode Island’s economy? I’m Ian Donnis and this week I’m going in depth with state Senator Jake Bissaillon.

Ian Donnis: Welcome to The Public’s Radio. 

Jake Bissaillon: Thank you for having me, Ian. 

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Ian Donnis: You’ve been a political staffer practically since you graduated from Providence College in 2009. Why did you want to make the transition to become an elected official? 

Jake Bissaillon: I think that’s a great question. and I got it a lot this summer while I was out campaigning. So for the better part of a decade, a little more than a decade, I’ve been a senior staffer in government. First, with the Providence City Council, then with the Rhode Island House of Representatives and then with the Rhode Island Senate for the last seven years. And as you go through the campaign process, you begin to boil down your answers more and more and probably get to the heart of the matter, which is, at the end of the day, no one’s a political science major at Providence College and says, Hey, I’d like to be the chief of staff to the Providence City Council one day or the Rhode Island Senate.

Really, I think, What I had always gravitated towards was some sort of idea of public service, and so that’s why I chose political science as my major. That’s why I started volunteering on campaigns while I was at PC for, you know, President Obama and local campaigns. And that’s what led to my first jobs in the industry, so to speak, and, and in government.

Ian Donnis: Let me stop you there, because we’ve got a lot of ground to cover. Now that you are a state senator from Providence, what are your top priorities for the 2024 legislative session?

Jake Bissaillon: Yeah, and I think that dovetails just into what I was going to say. Really, my top priorities reflect the same priorities of the person whose seat I’ll be filling the unexpired term of, and that’s the late Mary Ellen Goodwin.

She represented Smith Hill for more than 30 years in the state senate. And losing her is a unique void in the senate. She was an outspoken advocate for a lot of folks at the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder, who I want to fight for, who also happen to live in the district. She was an outspoken advocate on common sense gun reform, specifically as you talk about being in the upper echelons in the state house, power circuit, if you will.

And, a few other things that I think have just risen to now crisis level in our state, and I heard about a lot this summer, was the state’s housing crisis. And that’s almost become a buzz term in and of itself, but, those are certainly big issues. And then the first issue that I ever worked on when I got to the state Senate, was criminal justice reform.

Back then it was entitled a package of bills called justice reinvestment. It was a package of bills that have been stalled out in the state senate. And I’m hoping to kind of carry forward, I don’t want to say we’ve dropped the ball on that, over the last year or two, but I’ll just say this, and I know that, lawyers sometimes get a bad rap, but ten years ago there were ten lawyers in the state senate out of thirty eight. And that number dwindled, if you will, or through attrition down to four. And with that probably comes a lot of lost experience, in our justice system day in and day out. We are a citizen legislature. And so I hope to bring some informed experience with me to the Senate judiciary as not just a lawyer myself, but also someone who has a new day job, dealing with a clientele that, goes in and out of our district court system. 

Ian Donnis: Sure, and we’ll talk more about that. Rhode Island faces a tougher budget climate due to how federal COVID aid has run out. We see how despite low employment, Rhode Island lacks engines of new job growth. What should the state do differently to improve its economy?

Jake Bissaillon: I think at the end of the day, when we talk about economic development, I think that, as we return to, and there is going to be a lot of natural attrition in the budget, as you said, just because of federal funds expiring, a lot of times the idea, the natural inclination can be to cut our way down, to running even, but I actually believe in kind of a bottom up approach to economic development. And I think that, I want to make sure that the focus, or at least there’s some attention there. Because I, I have been at the heart of budget negotiations, I can imagine the sort of things that are on the table.

I do want to give the Speaker and the Senate President a tremendous amount of credit. Over the last couple of years, they’ve used that one time money to make one time investments in our state. So I know that the, I’ve seen the Speaker’s comments, I’ve seen the Senate President’s comments. I think they’ve prepared us well for this moment.

I think now we just have to kind of look at it as a holistic document, and not just maybe, okay, how do we roll back the one or two things we’ve done over the last one or two years to get back to zero? I think it’s an opportunity for us to look at it holistically and, I want to make sure that if we’re talking about something like cutting taxes or maybe raising taxes, that we’re doing it in a way that’s truly going to build our economy from the ground up.

Ian Donnis: You are 36 years old and kind of a counter example to what is known as the brain drain in which young people leave Rhode Island. You’re a native of Massachusetts who is settled here in the Ocean State. From your perspective as a young person involved in politics, what do you think the state should do differently to encourage more young people to stay in Rhode Island rather than leaving?

Jake Bissaillon: I think you have to make pipelines to stay here affordable and attractive, right? So for me, it was really just that I had applied for a few internships, and then those led to a few jobs, and that kept me here. I remember when I made the decision to become Chief of Staff, or take the job as Chief of Staff to the City Council in Providence. I was 24. I chose between that or being a fiscal analyst for the State Senate in Massachusetts, their Ways and Means Committee. And there were a few reasons for that. At the time, it was because Providence was a more affordable proposition, than Boston. Living in Boston, the salaries were about comparable.

Right now, we have a workforce that is in crisis, that we need to fill jobs, particularly our care economy: nurses. CNAs, teachers. I think if we can build out pipelines, not only that train those folks up through school, affordable education that’s accessible, but also make it more affordable on the back end once they start working in our public schools, at our hospitals, that that can be an attractive model for them.

And I think as you talk about Rhode Island College and maybe an institution that’s probably trying to regain its footing in some sense. and it’s in the higher ed space. I think that’s a real potential for growth and purpose for that institution. 

Ian Donnis: Speaking of affordability, it was opposition from a few senators last year that killed a bill to make it easier to convert accessible dwelling units, also known as granny flats. Do you think it’s any more likely this year that the Senate will pass that bill?

Jake Bissaillon: Yeah, I think it will get a new look, a fresh look. I’ll just say that it wasn’t about conversion. It was about addition, building those ADUs. I think there were some concerns about whether our municipalities at the time could digest all of the changes, in a responsible manner that had been occurring as it related to our land use laws.

I got to give the speaker a lot of credit. He’s an expert when it comes to that and he used the bully pulpit of the speakership to really, I mean, we, we call it affordable housing, but that has a very specific meaning. I’ll call it housing affordability in that crisis in our state at the forefront of, of really all the discussions as it relates to legislation in the upcoming session.

So I think the ADU bill, I know that advocates that, were supporters have met with senators over the summer and in the fall and tried to redress those concerns. I was, at a meeting with the housing network, this morning, on something else and they had mentioned that they had spoken with some members of the Senate Housing Committee and that they believe that they were fruitful discussions Certainly, we’ll have to go through the hearing process.

Ian Donnis: the president of your chamber Dominick Ruggerio, your former boss, says the issue of possibly outlawing semi automatic military style rifles should be handled federally and not by the states. Do you agree or disagree?

Jake Bissaillon: So I disagree with the Senate President’s position on that issue, a position that he has maintained, for a while. And I would just say this because I, it came up again, over the summer. The Senate President deserves a tremendous amount of credit for being a steward of the Rhode Island Senate. Not necessarily a dictator or a tyrant. That is the true model that he embraces. He encourages divergent positions. And at the end of the day, at least in my experience, he’s never let his single view override the will of an informed and conscientious majority as it relates to certain issues. You know, and we could stick to the issue of guns. A lot has happened in the sense of common sense gun control over the past couple of years since he’s become Senate President, red flag laws, which have become in vogue since the Maine  tragedy, but certainly something that I worked on has been on the books for about four years now, disarming domestic abusers, high capacity magazines, which was a fight in and of itself to get to the floor, wouldn’t have gotten to the floor without the Senate president’s support.

And I think you’ve seen his reputation that may have preceded him in terms of policy change. Certainly his views as it relates to, to that. His grades from the NRA and certainly his views on abortion.

Ian Donnis: Time is limited, so I’m going to stop you there. As a Democrat, how worried are you that Donald Trump will be elected as the next president in November?

Jake Bissaillon: I’m exceedingly worried. I think that we need a functioning democracy. I think what we saw, during his four years, the vitriol, the demonization of certain marginalized communities did nothing to embrace a vibrant democracy where everyone feels like their voice is at least counted or listened to and they have a seat at the table.

I’m afraid of that. And you know, what I really found distressing too, as 2020 drew to a close in the wake of that election, was really calling into question certain rights that we hold dear in this democracy, voting, that sort of thing and in the Senate here, at least in the state, took under, tremendous direction and, and, and, and a lot of work, the Let RI Vote Act to embrace voting as a concept and make it, make it easier.

Ian Donnis: Do you think Joe Biden is the right choice to lead Democrats into the presidential election? And if so, why has he failed to generate more enthusiasm among democratic voters? 

Jake Bissaillon: voters? I think maybe, so first of all I think he’s the right choice, just like in 2016 [sic] I thought he was the perfect choice to defeat then President Donald Trump.

I think what you see as a result of maybe some, we’ll call it voter fatigue, is really just the rematch, right? I think at the end of the day it’s probably inescapable, Donald Trump versus Joe Biden yet again. I think. John Q Public, Jane Q Public, a lot of times they see that and they say, well, you know, it’s just the status quo again. It’s the same two people, but what choice do I really have? And so that’s why the vitriol, the demonization, if you will, that President Trump did such substantial damage because people felt like their role in the process really didn’t matter. And so when you do that, you lose diversity of choice. And so I think sometimes you see voter fatigues because of lack of diversity of choice.

Ian Donnis: All right we’ve got to leave it there. Thank you for joining us. State Senator Jake Bissaillon of Providence. 

Jake Bissaillon: Thank you very much, Ian.

Rhode Island is returning to a familiar budget climate characterized by demands outstripping available cash. That’s why House Speaker Joe Shekarchi is trying to dampen expectations about the state’s ability to fund new initiatives. In recent years, a gusher of federal COVID enabled Rhode Island to have consecutive budget surpluses. That followed decades of annual deficits. Now, more red ink looms on the horizon, as elected officials return to the challenge of trying to build a more robust economy. 

You can read more about that in my Friday TGIF column posting around 4 this afternoon on what used to be known as Twitter @IanDon and the publics radio dot org.

That’s our show for this week. Our producer is James Baumgartner.

I’m Ian Donnis and I’ll see you on the radio.

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