Rudin: Help us get situated in Woonsocket's political scene. What's the dynamic on the current city council, and what's their vision been for the city of Woonsocket? 

Clem: So when I first started covering Woonsocket for the Valley Breeze in 2018, we really saw two groups of politicians who have been around city politics for a very long time, you know, whose families have been involved. And then all of a sudden last year, we had a special election for a council seat that had opened up. And that race was [won by] Alex Kithes, who really comes out of this statewide progressive group and is a Woonsocket resident. [He] threw his name in the hat for that and ended up winning, defeating Roger Jalette Sr., who’s been around in politics for a while. So that was kind of an interesting race to see one of these newer, more progressive candidates coming into play.

And I think it's fair to say that he shook things up a little bit, in that he sort of disrupted that dynamic we've seen for a few years of kind of one faction versus another faction. And he kind of introduced almost like a third side to this. Voters suddenly had an option that was maybe not from one of these longstanding sides, but someone who was bringing completely different things into the mix: a lot of these progressive concerns that we see on the state level, a lot of talk about the environment, a lot of talk about issues that maybe hadn't been mentioned quite as frequently in our local city politics before that. 

Rudin: And you think that might translate forward into the upcoming election? 

Clem: Well, I don't know. So that's kind of what I'm interested to see, how this plays out. And I think that the outcome of this is really going to indicate for us, is this shift towards a progressive candidate something that residents of this city are really interested in in the long term? Or was this just a single candidate who was very good at campaigning and managed to whip up a lot of interest around his campaign during a special election year when there wasn't a lot else to focus on? 

I don't know the answer to that. I don't know which of those two things it was -- like a one time victory or a more general shift in terms of what residents are looking for. But I think that the outcome in November is going to give us some indication of that. 

Rudin: There are no party primaries for the Woonsocket City Council. It's one open field and the seven candidates who win the most votes get a seat on the council. But you reported this summer that teams were forming in the run-up to this election. What are these teams and what's their pitch to voters? 

Clem: Yeah, the current teams that we have going at the moment, we have two that are really officially declared as teams. 

So we have a group calling themselves the Woonsocket Democrats. That's a group of four candidates (Alex Kithes, Vaughan Miller, Charmaine Webster and Marlene Guay) who have really identified with the progressive slate in state politics. You know, a lot of the same progressive issues that you see popping up in the General Assembly. Talking about climate. Talking about the working class. Talking about racial issues. 

A second group that we've seen campaigning together are calling themselves the POP Slate, or Progress Over Politics. And those are three (David Soucy, Garrett Mancieri and Margaux Morisseau) who are also focused on economic development. They've talked a lot about transparency in government. This more middle-of-the-road group has also pledged collaboration. We've seen a lot of debating and a lot of disagreement in Woonsocket politics, and they've kind of pledged to work with different groups and different candidates. 

Now, those are it for those that have declared together. But we do have sort of a bloc of counselors currently on the city council running for reelection that have traditionally voted together in the past. So those four councilors (John Ward, Daniel Gendron, James Cournoyer and Denise Sierra) and then a fifth who was previously on the council and is trying to get on now (Roger Jalette Sr.), in the past we've seen a lot of them really concerned about issues related to taxes and business development in the city, definitely advocating for low commercial taxes. Also raising some concerns about transparency in government. We've really seen these counselors butt heads in the past with the current mayor. So a lot of what we've seen from their campaigns has revolved around improving the way that city government is run and looking out for taxpayers and that sort of thing. 

Note: After taping Clem added that this third group of candidates say they are pooling resources for advertising, although they do not have a joint platform. 

She also added that two other candidates, Valerie Gonzalez and Michael Disney, are running independently of the three groups described above. 

Rudin: People of color make up about a third of Woonsocket’s population, and the council has come under fire in the last year for honoring a local radio host who described himself as a white nationalist and for significantly rewriting a resolution condemning white supremacy to condemn “all forms of human supremacy.” How might those dynamics shape the upcoming election? 

Clem: Yeah, we really saw these issues kind of coming to the forefront last year, and people being more outspoken about them in ways that maybe they hadn't been before. 

So fast forward to this year, I do think that those issues are still at play. I think probably more so now than ever, especially given all of the protests this year after the killing of George Floyd. We are definitely seeing a lot of talk around these sorts of issues, around racism, around white nationalism, around things like that. I think that the events of the spring have really brought those back into play on a local level again in Woonsocket, just like maybe some of those radio comments did last year. 

Rudin: What other issues are top-of-mind for Woonsocket voters in this upcoming council race?

Clem: There's a lot of different things. Development in general is a huge topic, Woonsocket being kind of an economically depressed city that's still really struggling to recover from a lot of the economic downturns of the past couple of decades, that's really struggling to fill a lot of its vacant mill spaces and commercial spaces. There's always been a lot of differing opinions on how to go about that. And then we do sometimes see some of those environmental issues coming into play with that, where people have different opinions on how the river should feature into economic development within Woonsocket, how big of a role solar should play. 

But I think that the November election is going to really tell us which of those issues are top-of-mind for voters. 

Rudin: Finally, the city's Racist Policies Review Board, which was created by the council this past summer, has recommended that the city replace the current at-large council with a ward based system. Could you talk about why the board is proposing this?

Clem: Yeah, so the board has been doing a lot of interesting work over the past few weeks. And that's one thing that almost the entire board is in favor of and has voted to add to the list of things that they plan to hand into the council. So basically what this advisory board came up with is they believe that shifting to a system where voters would be voting based on a district would serve to get better representation from individual neighborhoods.

Woonsocket is a very diverse city. It has well-off neighborhoods. It has not so well-off neighborhoods. And I think the main concern there was that some neighborhoods might not be represented as well in city government as others. And the idea was that establishing districts would ensure that you're getting representatives from all of the different neighborhoods of the city. 

Now, whether it would actually work out that way is a matter of debate. I know there were some concerns brought up during the meeting and in some of the comments I've seen since, just as far as would that really serve to represent neighborhoods? Would it just foster corruption? There's definitely a lot of debate over whether that would actually accomplish what they're hoping it will accomplish. But I think that that was kind of the idea behind it.