Former Senator Looks Back on Three Decades in District 6

Harold M. Metts looks back on his years of public service as senator

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RI Senate District 6 is a textbook example of gerrymandering. The District’s footprint is odd: It covers an area from the Providence/Cranston line including South Providence, part of the West End to Cranston Street, most of Downtown, a sliver of Canal Street connecting to North Main Street, Moshassuck Square, University Heights, parts of Mt. Hope, and then runs almost to the Pawtucket line.

While to most of us, gerrymandering has become synonymous with political chicanery, the district that crisscrosses Providence is actually a win for the good guys. To understand why, we need a brief history.

Back in 2002, the RI Senate leadership decided to consolidate their power by reducing the number of Senate Seats from 50 to 38. Among consequences of their redistricting plan was to create a Senate District that would force Charles D. Walton, the State’s first and only African-American state Senator and a thorn in their side, to run in a largely Hispanic section of the City where he was defeated.

But immediately it also created a lawsuit. Advocates argued the 2002 redistricting plan created an unfair disadvantage for Black voters on Providence’s South Side and illegally diluted their voting power. Over the next several years, after spending over $2 million, the State gave up trying to defend their power grab when Superior Court judges sided with the plaintiffs over the lack of minority representation in the legislature. A new Senate District was created, this time ensuring the City’s African-American community would have at least one seat in the Senate.

Enter Harold Metts, a well-respected six-term member of the House who had just retired and was approached about running for the weirdly drawn new seat. After what he terms as “hard negotiations with his wife Dayus,” he won her approval to run and was elected as the first Senator for the newly created District 6.

Metts was a true product of Providence: After graduating from Central High School where he played basketball, he went on to Roger Williams University to earn a BS in Business Administration, Bryant College to get a Social Business Teacher Certification, and Rhode Island College where he received a Masters of

Education-Secondary Administration. He taught business at Central for years and became the assistant principal and a basketball coach, and proudly serves as a Deacon at the Congdon Street Baptist Church where he also volunteers at the food pantry. In the world of politics, Metts proudly labeled himself as both a “Religious Conservative and a Social Liberal” and has always been well regarded for his thoughtfulness, willingness to reach out for constituents, and ability to quote scripture, which he frequently does. As the only Black member of the Senate, he recently organized the task force that will be studying the extent to which the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights blocks the dismissal and discipline of bad cops.

“Having a seat at the table allowed me to increase awareness of many situations that my colleagues didn’t encounter,” Metts reflects. ”Like when the Providence Health Center went bankrupt... The key issue was reimbursement, which we were able to address. And, as a result, they continue to bring quality healthcare to many people who lack other options.”

But despite his success on policy issues, Metts also has never shied away from making his strong religious views public, which ultimately brought an end to his over 30 years in the legislature when he unexpectedly lost in September’s Democratic primary to Tiara Mack, a 26-year-old youth organizer who defeated him by 495 votes out of 2,517 cast.

Mack grew up in the South but graduated from Brown in 2016, when she fell in love with Providence and decided to stay.  She now works as a youth organizer for Planned Parenthood, is a board member on both the Women’s Health and Education Fund and East Side/ Mt. Hope YMCA, and empowers young people to engage in local and national social issues. Mack’s campaign was built around the premise that Metts had failed to keep pace with the demographic and ideological shifts in the district. A major focus of her campaign was that she was running against an anti-LGBTQ, anti-choice incumbent. During a public abortion rights debate, when Metts asked “Who favors abortion more? God or Satan?”, Mack jumped on the question and was able to speak to and target younger, more progressive voters on this key issue.

So, after 30 years of representing a district largely underserved, one of its most consistent and respected voices for social advocacy will be passing the baton and moving on.

Metts’ accomplishments during is time in office are lengthy, including legislation to take guns away from domestic abusers; the Police Community Relations Act; the Madeline Walker Act, which helps to prevent foreclosures linked to liens created by unpaid tax, water, and sewer bills; right to vote for felons after they have served their time; addressing the infant mortality rate; Meals on Wheels funding; free bus passes; and the creation of the RI State ID, which helped those who didn’t have a driver’s license cash checks.

Most recently, Metts voiced, “What the pandemic has highlighted is how the disparities affect the most vulnerable; when the economy gets a cold, the Black and Brown community gets pneumonia.” For years, he fought to put the word “equity” in the state constitution to ensure the equal funding of education. “Massachusetts has this in its constitution, and its educational system is a very successful model,” he says. He annually has been a voice fighting to refine the State’s funding formula: “The bottom line is that a good education should not be based on a student’s ZIP code.”

As he reflects on his time in legislature, Metts cites his biggest disappointments are the lack of enforcement of the “10 percent set aside for minority contractors.” He says, “Minority contractors are regularly shut out of state contracts and they have little recourse as the enforcement office has 1.5 staffers. The rule was lifted by the Governor for the massive COVID contracts, again hurting the minority contractors.” He also led strict controls on payday lending and hopes that “Plantations” will finally be removed from the state’s formal name.

Metts is taking his departure from the Senate in stride, quoting various proverbs as always and looking forward to spending more time with his family. He’s proud of his impressive legacy of achievements that he hopes will be useful to his successor. But his biggest regret about leaving the legislature? “My inability to get free legal advice on every corridor in the State House,” he jokes.

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