Local Candidates to Participate in Forums
From bridge realignment projects to short-term housing regulations to the possibility of school regionalization, local issues are paramount ahead of the Nov. 8 election.
Candidates vying for local office in Newport and Middletown will have a chance to clarify where they stand on issues at forums to be held on Sept. 29 (Newport School Committee); Oct. 6 (Newport City Council at-large seats) and Oct. 13 (Middletown Town Council). The Middletown School Committee forum was set for Sept. 22, but because of candidate scheduling conflicts, the forum needs to be rescheduled for a later date.
The public forums will take place at Innovate Newport, beginning at 6:30 p.m., and livestreamed on social media. Recordings of each forum will be available online.
The forums are the result of a partnership between Involve Newport, the League of Women Voters of Newport County, the Greater Newport Chamber of Commerce Government Affairs Committee and Newport This Week.
“We have what we call in the business community a civic responsibility for quality of life,” said Government Affairs Committee member Joe Pratt, who is executive director and CEO of the Boys & Girls Club of Newport County. “The committee is . . . charged with government relations. That involves making sure voters and businesses know and understand the issues that are so important to us, whether we live or work here, and where the candidates stand.”
All candidates tossing their hats in the ring for local office have been invited to participate. Each participant will provide statements and answer questions prepared by the hosting organizations, as well as questions from the public.
“The in-person audience will be able to submit their questions in writing to the moderators, and those viewing the forums via livestream will be able to use the feature in the virtual meeting app to ask a question,” said Meg Morgan, a member of Involve Newport’s leadership team.
The organization, which recently rebranded from Alliance for a Livable Newport, considers “connecting neighbors, amplifying their voices and helping to make city government more accessible” as part of its mission.
“Partnering with other civic organizations to host these forums and distribute the candidates’ response broadly is one way to contribute to an informed electorate,” said Morgan.
The virtual forums emerged with the 2020 election when the need for social distancing was required. The format was patterned after the former Alliance for Livable Newport forums, where candidates answered questions from the League of Women Voters, keeping responses limited to specified times.
“A different community leader was invited to moderate each forum, which indirectly helped broaden the reach of the candidates’ messages,” said Newport This Week publisher Lynne Tungett. “The recorded forums worked well for the nearly dozen hosted in 2020 and we could see that many voters visited our website to view the forums before the election.”
Other sponsors include the chamber’s Government Affairs Committee, which seeks to promote a “positive, proactive economic environment with social progress and enhanced quality of life.”
“Active participation by voters is vital to a healthy democracy,” said Bill DeWitt, committee chairman. “Voters have the opportunity to make our elected leaders aware of their preferences, and it is an opportunity lost if they don’t take advantage of it. The chamber is primarily focused on issues related to the business community, but broadly speaking, those issues also involve education and training, affordable housing and economic development.”
The candidates for Middletown School Committee are Liana Fenton, Wendy Heaney, Gregory Huet and Theresa Spengler.
The candidates for Newport School Committee are James Dring, Kendra Wilson Muenter, Louisa Boatwright, Rebecca Bolan, Robert Power, Robert Leary, Sandra Flowers and Stephanie Winslow.
The at-large candidates for Newport
City Council are Eames Hamilton Yates, Jr., Jeanne-Marie Napolitano, Lynn Underwood Ceglie, Mark Aramli, Stephanie Smyth, Tyler Romero, Xaykham Rexford Khamsyvoravong and Katherine Jessup.
The candidates for Middletown Town Council are Peter Daniel Connerton Sr., Lawrence Frank, Christopher Logan, Paul Rodrigues, Theresa Santos, Emily Tessier, Dennis Turano, Antone Viveiros, Barbara VonVillas and Thomas Welch.
There is no election for the three ward seats on the Newport City Council, as every candidate is running unopposed.
Meanwhile, the League of Women Voters of Newport County has been working to register voters and provide election information. The organization has been hosting voter registration pop-ups where voter turnout has been historically low, and providing the electorate with critical information, such as new deadlines and methods stemming from the recently passed Let RI Vote Act.
“When we started down that path, we asked ourselves, ‘Who doesn’t vote in Newport County?’” said League of Women Voters member Christine Ball. “We called the state, and the state helped us figure that out. As you can imagine, it was many of the places where there is a large concentration of the elderly, the disenfranchised or that kind of grouping.”
The League of Women Voters has hosted pop-ups at Donovan Manor and the surrounding neighborhood and the Edward King House, and has plans for a future event at the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Center.
Ball described an instance at Donovan Manor in which a woman who was registered to vote said she was not planning to cast a ballot this year because she felt her vote would not matter in the long run.
“How can we get more people involved and how do we reach someone with that mentality?” Ball said. “We try to explain that everyone’s vote matters. We do need you, no matter what your political perspective.”
Pratt agreed. “We all should encourage our community, our staff and others to vote and participate,” he said. “It really is the way our democracy works. I think that in the times there are people or groups that feel left out, the more education we can provide to them around what the issues are, the better. That’s why these forums are critical.”
Unfortunately, Morgan said, midterm elections typically draw fewer voters than presidential elections.
“All politics are indeed local,” she said. “On the local slates, school committee and council candidates, these are the individuals who will be deciding on how our communities evolve over the next few years. From the North End development in Newport, affordable housing regulations in Middletown, shortterm rental ordinances in both communities, and various business regulations, the ramifications will last generations.”
While the League of Women Voters has hosted similar events in the past, Ball said the collaboration with other community partners who share similar goals is fitting.
“It has to start at the grassroots, community level,” she said. “It starts with the schools or the city councils addressing tax policy, whatever the issue may be. That’s why we were happy to help sponsor the forums.”
Voter registration and additional information will be available at each forum. Each forum will not exceed two hours.