Metro, News

Rhode Island state representatives discuss East Side, College Hill

Ajello, Goldin champion social justice, progressive causes over two decades of representation

By
Senior Staff Writer
Friday, February 15, 2019

State Representative Edith Ajello (D-Providence) and State Senator Gayle Goldin (D-Providence) have both called the East Side home for at least 20 years.

The two state legislators — College Hill’s representatives — were re-elected to their respective positions November 2018. Ajello has represented the University community in the R.I. House of Representatives since 1992, and Goldin has done the same in the state Senate since 2012. They have been deeply involved in progressive issues confronting Rhode Island, advocating for social justice reforms and working toward implementation. As the first full year of their new terms begins, The Herald had the opportunity to interview Ajello and Goldin about their legislative histories, goals and inspirations.

State Representative Edith Ajello

Ajello started her career as a social case worker in New York City after she graduated from Bucknell University with a degree in psychology. After moving to Providence, she became involved with the public school system through Lippitt Hill Tutorial, now known as Inspiring Minds, as a board member. There she met Robert Walsh, then a board member at Lippitt Hill, who encouraged Ajello to run for state representative in then-District 3. Though initially hesitant, Ajello won her first election with over 73 percent of the vote. Since then, Ajello has won 13 re-elections, each time with no less than 65 percent of the vote.

In her legislative initiatives, Ajello has always focused on social justice. When she first ran for office in 1992, she was approached by a same-sex couple who hoped to see Rhode Island repeal its sodomy law. “The challenge to me was whether I would work to repeal that … It was very far from my awareness at that time,” she said. She decided to advocate for the law’s repeal, and thus began her work with the American Civil Liberties Union in Rhode Island. “I had heard Bush Sr. talk about, with scorn, card-carrying ACLU members and decided I needed to be one,” she quipped.

Today, her work on social justice issues has brought her to introduce the Reproductive Healthcare Act for the third year in a row, as The Herald previously reported.

She also spent some time on the House Judiciary Committee, serving as its chair during the 2011-2012 and 2013-2014 legislative sessions. “For a couple of really wonderful years I was actually chair of that committee … It was kind of special for me because I was both the first female chair of the House Judiciary and the first non-lawyer,” she said.

Ajello also recently joined the House Reform Caucus out of concern about its leadership and procedures.

“The House leadership came up with a really bad compromise to the pay equity legislation that our state Senator, Gayle Goldin, had sponsored on the Senate side. The House leadership modified … the bill so extremely that, in essence, protections for women and minorities in the workplace would have … had it become law, been less than they are now,” she said. She was also opposed to House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello’s (D-Cranston) work to pass “Kristen’s Law” last June, which changed the way drug dealers were sentenced if one of their users died from a drug overdose,. “Those two things were just so egregious that I could no longer support Mattiello for speaker,” Ajello said.

While her commitment to progressive issues has not wavered in her 25 years of service to East Side residents and the Brown community, Ajello has noticed significant changes to the makeup of her constituency. “The district became more homogeneous and more white with the exception of the academic center and the Brown student body and the RISD student body,” Ajello told The Herald. She has noticed the dwindling number of middle class families in her district, as families move “to places where … public education might be better for their kids.”

The activism of college students in the area has been consistent, according to Ajello. Students from both Brown and the Rhode Island School of Design reach out to support Ajello, and student groups have invited her to speak at various events on and around campus. Though Ajello has interacted with Brown students, they often are not a part of her constituency. Throughout her time in office, “significant numbers of Brown students continue to be politically interested in their home states,” she said. But she does not blame students who wish to keep their votes in their home states, citing native Ohioans who voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. “In part that’s me thinking tactically about the bigger picture, but it’s also recognizing that these folks have made decisions about what’s most important to them and I can’t argue with that,” she concluded.

Brown sits in the heart of her district, and “there’s very little friction between the interests of Brown students and the rest of the district,” she said. There is some “resentment” about what is “perceived to be the privileged East side,” but Ajello acknowledged the various ways Brown contributes to the state. Yet “the city … is the possible loser rather than the state, because the state gets the income and sales taxes. It’s the city that’s not getting the property taxes and it’s the city that’s providing some police and fire protection,” she said.

Ajello has previously said it would be “reasonable” for nonprofit organizations to contribute more to state revenue given the share of public services they use, as The Herald previously reported. “But when you look at that issue, Brown is paying the city more in an agreed payment-in-lieu-of-taxes than any other entity. I’m recognizing it as a problem in the city’s finances, but I think Brown is probably the best actor there is in working on dealing with this problem.”

State Senator Gayle Goldin

Goldin received her degree in English from McGill University and a masters in public policy from Tufts University. She quickly fell in love with Providence after moving to the city upon finishing her graduate studies. “I love living in a college town and living in a neighborhood that has college students in it. It’s both the lovely mix of having the students themselves and the faculty that live throughout College Hill, who shape a lot of the tone of the overall community and bring so many interesting things to the forefront,” Goldin said.

Goldin was impressed from the start with the progressive community on College Hill. “That community of the East Side had a lot of … conversations about social justice in a much broader sense,” she said, adding that she has noticed an uptick in activism since President Trump’s election in 2016. “Some of the really interesting ideas we get in the State House are either being driven by students coming up here to advocate for different policy change … or faculty who approach me with an idea,” she said.

Much like Ajello, Goldin has been a champion for social justice, specifically pay equity and paid family leave. After suffering an injury and needing personal care, Goldin “realized that we needed to change the way that we had laws in this country on the way people can take paid time off,” she said. Her experience inspired her “to run for an office that could really push for that change.” Since 2012, Goldin has run unopposed in every general election.

Through her work in the Senate, Goldin helped pass the Temporary Caregiver Insurance program, which has helped “constituents in every single person’s district … and I think that has made people much more connected to the idea and feel comfortable (with it).” She hopes to further develop the current system by improving wage replacements and increasing the number of weeks of paid leave provided. “We need to improve the system. Massachusetts has leapfrogged over us. They have taken what we did here and created a stronger system,” she said.

As a senator, Goldin has served on the Health and Human Services committee since her first election. There she “helps other Senators who have bills in the committee … hear where we are … and help them understand where there might be opportunities for compromise.”

As vice chairperson of the committee, Goldin can focus on one of her other major legislative goals: improving healthcare in the state. “I certainly believe in a single-payer healthcare system.” she said. Goldin hopes to streamline healthcare for her constituents and ensure total access that is based on need. Goldin admitted that “it might be awhile before we get there.”

Goldin also prioritizes the political objective of pay equity in the workforce. Early last year, Goldin introduced a “fair pay” bill in the Senate, which was based off of a similar law in Massachusetts. Among other things, the bill would have banned the practice of determining new salaries based on old ones, which has been used against women in the workforce. Though the bill was easily passed in the Senate, “the House bill and my Senate bill were so far apart that it was not appropriate to even consider how to amend that bill and send it back to the House,” Goldin said. Goldin stressed that current pay equity laws need improvement. “Your job should pay you what your job is worth, not what you were paid in the previous job,” she said.

Both Ajello and Goldin have been active not just in the East Side community, but also in the University community. “We have great relationships with both legislators,” said Zoe Mermelstein ’21, speaker and events coordinator for the Brown College Democrats. Ajello and Goldin have participated in various events for the College Democrats, including a meet-and-greet during last year’s election.

“Edie Ajello has been super consistent about coming to different events, and she can always be counted on to come and speak and tell us what’s going on,” Mermelstein said. Mermelstein added that while Goldin is a more recent contact for the College Democrats, “we’ve really been building our relationship with her.” Goldin provided the College Democrats with information “about opportunities to get involved with protests” after last year’s confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

Gabe Mernoff ’22, raised in Providence, has known both of the legislators for close to a decade. “They’re very popular. They’re around a lot and extremely visible. Even if you’re not the most political person you’ll still probably end up running into them just because of that. It’s why they almost always run unopposed,” he said. He applauded their progressive views and praised Ajello for becoming a “vocal member of that Reform Caucus, it’s been really cool.”