PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The five candidates vying for the vacant City Council seat in Providence’s Ward 10 made their cases to a sometimes feisty crowd at the Washington Park Community Center Tuesday night.
The four Democrats — Orlando Correa, Pedro Espinal, Monica Huertas and Natalia Rosa Sosa — and independent Jeffrey Lemire focused on issues like affordable housing, nightclub violence, gentrification and infrastructure.
But the candidates also got personal, some sharing their own struggles in their youth and later achievements, and answered questions from residents who said they were eager for new representation following the resignation of Luis Aponte, the disgraced former council president.
The special primary election for the four Democrats is on Oct. 10. The Democratic nominee will face Lemire in the general election on Nov. 5, as long as he submits the required signatures and is certified. No Republicans filed to run.
The first question, on nightclub violence, came one day after the chairman of the Board of Licenses pitched an idea for a “nightclub district” in Ward 10 which would allow for 24-hour liquor licenses and other relaxed rules for clubs inside the district. There has also been a string of violence this summer outside nightclubs at closing time, and Ward 10 is home to a number of clubs.
“It seems like the Board of Licenses makes certain decisions but that gets overridden by the Department of Business Regulation,” lamented Espinal, who said he would want to focus on that process. (Target 12 previously reported that the state Department of Business Regulation rules against Providence in the majority of liquor license appeals.)
Correa said he was most worried about people leaving the clubs and speeding through his neighborhood of Lower South Providence.
“Lower South Providence is a community, we have people raising their families,” said Correa, who is the only candidate from that section of the ward. (The rest live in Washington Park.)
“It’s fine for people to have a good time, but we do not condone violence in our neighborhood,” said Rosa Sosa. She said she supports a study to look into how best to use the land proposed for nightclubs.
Lemire said he believed the Board of Licenses is corrupt, calling it a “cash cow” for extortion and bribery.
Huertas said she wants the city’s existing ordinances to be more strongly enforced, and for nightclub owners to be required to pay for private security.
Huertas, a social worker, has the support of some in the more progressive wing of the Democratic Party including 2018 gubernatorial candidate Matt Brown, who attended Tuesday’s debate.
She pitched herself as an advocate for the marginalized, drawing on her own experiences as a teenage mother who was once homeless. She said she graduated college despite being a young mother, and now owns a home with her husband.
“I will bring that feistiness, that tenacity,” she told voters. “Ward 10 will not be the dumping ground of Providence anymore.”
Correa also described a difficult youth, acknowledging he was a kid who “got in trouble,” starting with a marijuana possession charge when he was 18.
He credited the program Building Futures with turning his life around and helping him get a union apprenticeship as an ironworker. He is now a foreman.
He also cited his lack of experience in politics or campaigns as a positive attribute.
“I’m not a polished politician, I’m just a regular South Side kid,” Correa said. “Experience is nothing. I got skin in the game.”
Correa refused to attend the first Ward 10 debate on Monday night because it was held at the Lippitt House on the East Side, as part of a continuing series of “City Wide Neighborhood Association” meetings.
Rosa Sosa also did not attend Monday’s debate, telling WPRI 12 she decided to spend the time talking to voters in her ward instead. At Tuesday night’s debate, she said she was concerned about a lack of affordable housing and an influx of developers buying up houses and renting them to college students.
“It’s not that we don’t want Johnson & Wales students, they’re part of our community,” Rosa Sosa said. “But they need to respect our ordinances.”
She also lamented what she said is a lack of attention to improving the streets and sidewalks in the ward, asking the audience: “How many of you had your street sweeped this year?” Several people shouted: “None!”
Lemire spend the majority of his speaking opportunities, regardless of the question, decrying corruption and voter fraud. He also alleged without evidence that all the city’s elected leaders are involved in corruption and bribery.
“Fraud, payoffs, extortion, this is what the city’s about,” Lemire said.
Apparently fed up with his diatribes, community activist Lisa Scorpio challenged Lemire: “Tell me three good things happening in this ward or in this city.”
“First, myself,” Lemire said, eliciting groans from the audience. He went on to name the other candidates as positive attributes of the ward.
Espinal, who lost last year’s Democratic primary to Aponte by a slim margin, touted his experience as a landlord who rents to lower income residents, and said he’s lived in the ward for 41 years — longer than any of the other candidates.
“I deeply care about my community,” Espinal said. He said he wants to require landlords to accept Section 8 vouchers, which are federal dollars given to low income families to help pay rent.
The subject of Aponte came up several times, including by residents who said they felt neglected by the councilman who represented the ward for two decades.
“We had a councilman that was absent,” said Jenny Rosario.
Aponte resigned his seat in July after pleading to felony embezzlement for spending his campaign donations on personal expenses.
In an effort to contrast himself with Aponte, Lemire promised that he wouldn’t take a single campaign contribution after being elected.
The nearly two-hour debate was frequently interrupted by a glitchy microphone, which the candidates themselves attempted to fix when it repeatedly stopped working.
“I will get a better microphone for Washington Park Community Center,” Huertas quipped to the crowd.