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Guided by grassroots advocacy, David Morales MPA’19 will now enter R.I. State House

State Representative-Elect Morales to push for affordable health care, housing, Green New Deal legislation as youngest Latino state legislator nationwide

Just under one year ago, David Morales MPA’19 was in the midst of organizing a protest for climate justice with Sunrise Rhode Island. Now, he’s the District 7 state representative-elect, and he has no plans to stop advocating for progressive causes. 

Within the first several weeks of arriving in Rhode Island for his Master of Public Affairs at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Morales was already a presence in the Rhode Island State House. He worked with local advocacy groups to lobby representatives to enact a Percentage of Income Payment Plan and testified on behalf of the Reproductive Health Act.

Morales is the youngest graduate of the University’s MPA program at 20 years old. Now, at the age of 22, he will become the youngest Latino legislator in any state legislature in the country, he said. 

“I realized that there's a lot of potential to create systemic change here, given the scale and (Rhode Island’s) size,” Morales said. “If you believe very strongly about a particular issue, you can have an advocacy group of just five people … and really make a lot of noise at the State House.”

Inspired by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT)

Morales grew up living in public housing in Soledad, California. He was raised by a single mother who immigrated from Mexico, worked 2–3 minimum wage jobs and worried that her son would become a victim of the school-to-prison pipeline and end up incarcerated. 

Morales, while in high school, took college courses at night and over the summers and joined extracurriculars like speech and debate. Near the end of his time in high school, Morales said he was inspired by Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) 2016 presidential bid. 

“I realized what I wanted to do, and that was some form of political advocacy,” he said. “I wanted to be involved at the table where the decisions are being made on whether or not we increase the minimum wage, whether or not we decide to invest in affordable housing.”

Morales would go on to receive his bachelor’s degree in urban studies by the time he was 19 at the University of California at Irvine, before arriving at the University to pursue his MPA. 

Advocacy and the push to run for office

While at Brown, Morales worked with various local advocacy groups, such as the Providence Democratic Socialists of America, Sunrise RI and immigrant rights organization Never Again Action Rhode Island. After graduation, he continued to work with those groups, which eventually encouraged him to run for the State House. 

Together, Morales and other activists saw running for office as a way to address what they viewed as “complacency” among current State House leadership. 

During his time living in Mount Pleasant — a neighborhood located within District 7 — Morales said he felt a lack of engagement from Deputy Majority Leader and Rep. Daniel McKiernan, the incumbent for District 7 whom Morales would unseat in the Sept. 8 primary election. 

While campaigning, Morales said he “was often told by people who lived in the neighborhood for over 10 years that I was the first candidate to ever come to their door.”

“I realized that if I … had a grassroots message centered around a $15 minimum wage, universal health care, public school investments and affordable housing, that I could be successful (and) that our campaign would be able to change the culture of local politics in our neighborhood,” Morales said. 

The campaign trail

To get an early start on fundraising, Morales started his campaign against McKiernan in December 2019, 10 months before the statewide Democratic primary. According to Morales, over the course of the campaign, he raised $23,000 — none of which came from any corporate political action committees or special interest groups. 

Morales spent time canvassing in the district’s neighborhoods, which consist of Mount Pleasant, Valley and Elmhurst, from February until the pandemic hit in March. As Rhode Island went into a state of emergency in response to COVID-19, he and his team pivoted to phone banking and working to connect neighbors with resources for free food delivery. Morales also wrote letters to neighbors he had visited before the pandemic and distributed homemade face masks. 

In June, Morales and his team went back to canvassing in person with public health guidelines in mind. The primary would ultimately be a three-way race between Morales, McKiernan and Angel Subervi, director of small business development for the City of Providence. 

On Sept. 8, despite not receiving the local Democratic committee’s endorsement, which went to Subervi, Morales won the primary with 49.4 percent of the vote, effectively securing the seat with no Republican contenders in the Nov. 3 general election.

Issues and policy ideas

In his first year in office, Morales wants to get a lot done.

“We have a lot more people here at the State House now than ever in any time in history, I would argue, that recognize the importance of policies such as the Green New Deal and investment in affordable housing,” Morales added. 

His first priority, he said, will be to address the state’s finances. “We will not allow for a state budget that cuts social services while using COVID as an excuse for the reduction of spending,” Morales said. 

Throughout his first year, Morales plans to focus on the state’s health care, affordable housing, minimum wage, hazard pay and utilities costs. 

To tackle the Ocean State’s recurring fiscal woes, Morales wants to address what he calls the state’s “unfair” tax code and pass legislation that would allow cities and towns to tax wealthy nonprofit institutions like the University, Rhode Island School of Design and Johnson and Wales University.

As a nonprofit institution, the University is largely exempt from paying property taxes to Providence, but has an agreement to make voluntary payments in lieu of taxes, or PILOT payments. For fiscal year 2020, the University has paid $6.2 million in PILOT payments, up from $4.38 million in fiscal year 2018. According to an estimate from 2012, the University would owe the city about $38 million per year if it paid commercial real estate taxes on its properties.

Taxation of wealthy nonprofits like the University “would open us up to pursue a lot of these different policy ideas … such as affordable housing, quality public education, making investments toward renewable energy and other initiatives that are part of a Green New Deal,” Morales said. 

While campaigning and canvassing, Morales said that access to affordable health care was an issue for every constituent he met. He plans to “start raising the conversation about what a universal health care system would look like here in Rhode Island.” 

According to Clinical Assistant Professor of Family Medicine Dannie Ritchie MPH’03, a rise in health care costs, along with reductions on spending for services like Medicaid, has limited access to affordable care in the Ocean State. 

In 2018, the Rhode Island Department of Health found that 32.5 percent of the state’s adults were either uninsured, did not have a doctor or could not afford insurance. 

With Morales and other progressives in office, Ritchie said that she is “more hopeful that we will have legislative changes that actually change the conditions for the better, for those that are marginalized or pushed out and pushed down.”

Morales also intends to work with housing advocacy groups, such as Brown student group Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere, which Morales volunteered with during his time at the University. One of his first orders of business will be to add a housing line item on the state’s budget.

HOPE plans to also work with Morales on legislation to ban source-of-income discrimination in housing, in addition to a program that would grant those facing eviction the right to free legal assistance, HOPE Co-Director Dhruv Gaur ’21 said. 

Former HOPE Co-Director Nathaniel Pettit ’20, who had Morales as a teaching assistant for URBN 1260: “Housing in America,” said that Morales “sets a pretty great example for Brown affiliates in the potential of what you can do to … commit yourself to understanding and advocating for the issues that are most important to folks throughout Providence, throughout Rhode Island.” 

“I believe systemic change will only happen through grassroots advocacy. It won't simply happen through the push of a button at the State House,” Morales added. Instead, “it's going to happen if we mobilize working people in our communities of color to advocate for laws and policies that will improve their standard of living.” 


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