Six Democrats Take Center Stage in Senate District 3 Primary

From the state takeover of the school system to safety and pension system liability, the upcoming election will be more important than ever

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The East Side State Senate Seats (there used to be two) have long been recognized as seats of power with representatives focusing on issues that affected the City while artfully addressing and often introducing the General Assembly to social issues. It produced political icons like Lila Sapinsley on the Republican side and Richard Licht and David Cicilline on the Democratic side, who were heavily engaged in City issues and used their successes to attain major statewide offices as well as leadership in their respective political parties. Subsequent Senators focused more on social issues but neglected other problems.

Senate District 3 covers the entire East Side except for Mt. Hope, which was gerrymandered to ensure the City’s
African-American community would have at least one seat in the Senate. 

Rhoda Perry held the seat for 20 years, and while indicating that she would seek reelection, Perry held her declaration papers until the eleventh hour, allowing Gayle Goldin to step in with no opposition. Goldin’s decision to take a job in Washington has created a straight-out sprint to the October 5 Democratic primary, which, in all likelihood, is the election.

Six candidates almost immediately stepped forward, making up a diverse group in terms of ethnicity, age, background, and practical legislative experience. The word “progressive” is referenced by all six,  though with qualifying adjectives: pragmatic, practical, traditional, old fashioned, far left, and new age. What does remain however are their differing levels of experiences, energy, and interpersonal skills, which undoubtedly will affect their ability to implement their (and our) goals.

While readers are urged to take the time to try and meet as many of the candidates as possible or attend one of the neighborhood debates that are being scheduled as we go to press, we’ve interviewed each of the candidates to offer a rundown of each before voting in the primary.

Shirley Francis-Fraser

Shirley Francis-Fraser is perhaps the most unexpected participant and assuming she has her required signatures (by the time this issue hits the stands), a most interesting wild card. Though perhaps not as well-known as some of the other candidates, she is in fact a third-generation East Sider. 

She was one of the first African-American girls allowed to attend the newly opened Summit Avenue school in the 1950s and later Classical and then Hope High, where she is now a member of the school’s advisory council. After attending college at Lincoln University, the country’s oldest historically Black university (where Thurgood Marshall graduated), she went on to earn a master’s degree in human relations and climbed the corporate ladder with NBC in New York and as director of human relations for First Data in Colorado. There she ran to be a commissioner in Douglas County, winning the Democratic primary but losing in the general election.

Francis-Fraser ultimately returned to her roots here in Providence in 2012 to help look after her aging parents in Mount Hope while running a human relations consulting firm from her home.

Her father William Francis was among the first African-Americans allowed to join the Providence Police Department in the 1950s where he became a sergeant and worked 35 years before retiring. He passed away at the age of 91 five years ago as one of the most decorated officers on the force.

Noting that she has had the pleasure of working with Gayle Goldin in the past few years, she feels her experience in human relations, educational background, and knowledge of our community would all serve her well in today’s confrontational environment.

Proud to call herself a woman of faith, Shirley Francis-Fraser, 62, attends the Baptist Church on Olney Street. She lives on Dexterdale Road with her husband Allen.

 

Hilary Levey Friedman

Hilary Levey Friedman recently turned 40 and after some reflection decided to see if there was an opportunity for her to use her impressive background and skills to better impact her community.

To her credit, she publicly announced that she was exploring a run for the General Assembly in April but said that she would not challenge Senator Gayle Goldin or Rep. Edith Ajello. At the time Goldin was talking about running for Secretary of State and legislative redistricting was on the table. The opening in Senate 3 came at the right time.

Levey Friedman calls herself a Progressive Democrat but one who understands how to get things accomplished. “I can hit the ground running,” she promises, “focusing on the issues that are important to the district and the state – properly allocating the Federal COVID Relief financial bonanza, education, public safety, the climate, housing, gun violence, and child and elder care issues.”

While she has not run for public office before, she knows the legislative process, having served as president of the Rhode Island chapter of National Organization for Women from 2018-2021. She has testified at the State House hundreds of times, working in coalitions and pushing for legislation such as the Reproductive Privacy Act and the Uniform Parentage Act. She is well-regarded for her ability to build bridges and her leadership in equity and equality.

A professor in the Department of Education at Brown, Levey Friedman is a sociologist, author, and expert on afterschool activities, beauty pageants, childhood socialization, and popular culture. She holds degrees from Harvard, Princeton, the University of Cambridge, and is currently pursuing a JD at the Roger Williams University School of Law. 

Hilary Levey Friedman, 40, and her husband John have two sons and live on Stimson Avenue.

 

Bret Jacob

Though relatively unknown on the East Side, Jacob is no stranger to politics. He currently works for Mayor Jorge Elorza as the liaison for the LGBTQ+ community and is also the director of research for the City. He was named Mr. Gay RI in 2019, and he jokes since no one was selected during 2020 because of COVID, “I still may be.” He has been active in fundraising in that role for projects aimed at supporting the gay community.

Jacob considers himself very much an advocate for the full progressive agenda but has a special interest in improving education: “I’m the poster child for the importance of affordable education.” Born in Baltimore, he recalls attending over a dozen different public schools and how fortunate he was to be able to tap into the opportunities available to him by dint of hard work and perseverance. A graduate of Johnson & Wales, Jacob recently delivered a heartfelt speech to the legislature defending the importance of providing affordable college education to students like himself. Even with all the scholarships and financial help, he still graduated with over $40,000 in debt like many of his peers. Something, he insists, needs to be done. 

Just two days after the initial sign-up period, the Democratic District 3 committee, controlled by Goldin and consisting of Rep. Edith Ajello, Rachel Colaice, a non-profit official, former state Rep. Linda Kushner and former state Senator Myrth York, bypassed more well-known candidates and endorsed Jacob in the election. However, since the endorsement was made a full week before any of the candidates had gathered their signatures and been officially certified by the Board of Canvasses, needless to say eyebrows have been raised among several of the other candidates. 

 

Geena Pham

While the other candidates have local roots of varying degrees, Pham is a new transplant to Rhode Island, having arrived in 2019 just before the COVID upsurge. A high school teacher in Dartmouth, MA, she is disappointed in what she’s seen of the education process here in Rhode Island and is hopeful some of what she’s taken from Massachusetts may help her improve things here. She looks forward to learning more about the differences between teaching in the two states.

Pham is totally committed to progressive causes and in particular climate change: “I can see it first hand when I look at the faces of my students when I explain the impact it is having on our environment.” Pham has plugged herself into many ecological projects in her adopted state, particularly the Cozy Rhody Litter Clean-up, an organization that brings people together to keep parks and neighborhoods free of litter. She will steadfastly fight for the Green New Deal.

Pham was recruited to run as a member of the Rhode Island Political Cooperative after giving an emotional speech during the 1,000 Paper Cranes rally at the State House to protest discrimination against Asian Americans. She spoke to the crowd about her experiences in this country, saying, “I was raised in public housing by my mom, a refugee from Vietnam. She taught me inclusivity, integrity, and hard work. These are values which I know my neighbors share and which our government needs.”   

Geena Pham is 27 and lives in the Wayland Square area.

 

Ray Rickman

Ray Rickman has involved himself in so many areas of the Rhode Island scene that the question to ask isn’t  “what has he done,” but rather “what hasn’t he done.” He’s been a State Rep, Secretary of State, community activist, preservationist, head of the popular Stages of Freedom program for the past five years, raised monies for doctors abroad programs, initiated a project locally to teach African-American children to swim, has been part of Shape Up RI, ran a bookstore and hosted a TV show.

Recently honored by the Humanities Council, Rickman has also been named an Outstanding Philanthropic Citizen by the Association of Fundraising Professionals. “I’m good at giving away money…not mine by the way,” he laughs. “From the organizations I’m involved in.” 

So why is he running? “This time I’m committed to being narrow focused. Whoever wins will only have half a term, one year, to make a difference. My focus will be 100 percent on education. I think I know how to fix it or at least try. I’ve been there, done that so I don’t need training wheels in terms of working in the legislature. I know how it works. I also know many of the legislators on a personal level which means I can be effective from day one and I think I’ve got some concrete suggestions to make it work.”

As one example, he laments the violence that exists in some of the Providence schools: “It doesn’t go on in our private schools. It doesn’t go on in our charter schools. It should not be tolerated in our public schools either. Act up in school? You get kicked out!” 

Born in Detroit, Ray Rickman, 73, has lived on Barnes Street for 43 years with his partner writer and actor Robb Dimmick.          

                           

Sam Zurier

Sam Zurier is running for Senate 3 “because the most serious questions concerning the City, its families, and their children are pending before the General Assembly right now,” and he’s ready to continue the battle. Among the many key issues that he fought to solve as a councilman include schools, the City’s massive financial deficit, and funding for better public safety. But instead of just providing lip service, he brings a high level of proven technical expertise and knowledge to these and other social issues…a “pragmatic progressive approach” he calls it.

In a glowing endorsement, Councilwoman Helen Anthony praised Zurier as a “tireless advocate with a proven track record of support for our public schools, sound fiscal policies, and promoting transparent ethical government. Sam is my ‘go to’ on many issues affecting our city.”   

“The State has sold out our kids,” Zurier explains. “They signed a contract without public review that doesn’t address the key issues identified in the Johns Hopkins study that led to the takeover.”

After leaving the Council, Zurier assisted the South Providence Neighborhood Association in successfully preventing a solid waste transfer station that would have been an environmental and health risk to the neighborhood, demonstrating to him the need for greater leadership in advancing environmental justice.

A practicing attorney, Zurier grew up in Providence, graduated from Classical, Yale, Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, and Yale Law School.  He clerked for two federal judges, including now-Supreme Court Stephen Breyer. Zurier raised his family in Providence (using the public schools for his kids), served on the Providence School Board for two years and the City
Council for eight.

Sam Zurier, 63, lives on Grotto Avenue, and he and his wife Lauren have three children.

Comments

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Jeff Levy

A couple of significant inaccuracies in this article. First and foremost, Gayle Goldin did have an opponent in her first election in 2012 - to say that she “stepped in” to the seat “with no opposition” is wrong and unfair to Maryellen Butke who also ran in 2012. Second, with respect to the endorsement process this year, the deadline for endorsement was set by the Secretary of State’s office - the timing of the endorsement shouldn’t have raised anyone’s eyebrows because the endorsing committee had no flexibility as to timing.

Wednesday, September 29