PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Three Democratic men vying for a seat on the Providence City Council tried to distinguish themselves from one another at two debates this week, less than two weeks before voters head to the polls.
Nick Cicchitelli, John Goncalves and Anthony Santurri are all running in the special election for Providence’s Ward 1, an influential seat that represents part of the East Side and downtown formerly represented by Seth Yurdin. The primary election is March 3.
The trio weighed in Thursday on issues relevant to the LGBTQ community at an event hosted by Rhode Island Pride. They all touted their personal experiences supporting the community; Santurri, a nightclub owner, was once on the board of R.I. Pride.
There was widespread agreement among the candidates on multiple issues, including that Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) that can prevent contraction of HIV should be widely accessible and covered by insurance, and that the Pete Buttigieg presidential campaign was wrong for canceling a fundraiser at a Providence gay club because of its dancer pole.
Goncalves, a 4th grade teacher, pointed to his work supporting diversity and inclusion in schools, including gender-neutral bathrooms. And Cicchitelli, who works in real estate, said he has worked with LGBTQ political candidates and is proud that Rhode Island is “ahead of the curve” on the way to equality.
Earlier in the week, the candidates debated a wide variety of topics at the Downtown Neighborhood Association including housing discrimination, taxes and education — eliciting some differences among the Democrats.
Asked by moderator Dan McGowan if they would support an elected school board instead of the current model of mayoral appointments, Goncalves and Santurri both answered yes — while Cicchitelli said no.
Cicchitelli elaborated on Thursday, expressing concern about outside influence in education.
“Elected officials … first and foremost need to get re-elected,” Cicchitelli said. “Other stakeholders have a means of swaying that election.”
Both Cicchitelli and Santurri said they support the expansion of Achievement First, a network of charter schools. Goncalves would not answer the question, calling it “complicated.”
On housing, all three candidates said they support an ordinance that would prohibit a landlord from refusing to rent to a tenant because of where the money is coming from — such as a Section 8 housing voucher.
They were less confident about rent control, a popular topic of discussion nationwide right now in cities where rents are skyrocketing and affordable housing is scant.
Cicchitelli said he wasn’t sure if Providence is “ready” for rent control, which he said can provide stability for long-term residents but could also have unintended consequences such as poorly maintained buildings. He said he thinks the city is approaching the “absolute peak of rent pressures,” and rent control could be up for discussion if rents increase even more.
Santurri said he thought “some part” of rent control could work, and wants to discuss the issue further. Goncalves said he supports affordable housing, but did not say whether he supports rent control.
Asked to name their favorite aspect about living in Providence, Santurri said he loves how walkable the city is, especially with the new pedestrian bridge. Goncalves said the people and the community are his favorite. And Cicchitelli said he appreciates the “diverse, multicultural, liberal foodie” atmosphere.
Santurri and Cicchitelli also touted that fact that they are self-employed, and would have the flexibility to be available to constituents at all hours. Goncalves repeatedly said during both debates that he has lived in the ward for 25 years, nearly his entire life. (He worked in Minnesota education and politics for a few years before returning to Providence.)
“Some candidates on this stage just recently moved to the ward,” Goncalves said at Tuesday’s debate.
“Nine years is not recent,” Cicchitelli replied.
Goncalves repeated the claim on Thursday at the Pride debate, but again did not elaborate or mention either candidate by name. Asked afterwards whether he had evidence that one of his fellow candidates recently moved to the ward, Goncalves acknowledged that he did not — but pointed to the fact that Santurri owns a home in Lincoln.
Santurri told WPRI 12 he owns a condo in Lincoln and rents it out, but has lived in Ward 1 for more than eight years, currently in the Regency Plaza downtown. His businesses — the Colosseum nightclub and Free Play Bar & Arcade — are also located in Ward 1.
Santurri has raised the most money for his campaign, nearly $34,000 plus a $20,000 personal loan. Cicchitelli has raised nearly $17,000 and loaned himself $5,000, while Goncalves has raised more than $12,000.