For years, Republicans have been on the outside, looking in, when it comes to political power in Rhode Island. The GOP holds just 15 seats in the 113-seat General Assembly. And Rhode Islanders have not elected a Republican governor in 16 years, since when Don Carcieri won his second term back in 2006. Now, GOP businesswoman Ashley Kalus hopes to return Republican control to the governor’s office. She’s taking on Democratic Governor Dan McKee and says she can do a better job running the state. Does Kalus have the right stuff? And can she make a convincing case after registering to vote in Rhode Island earlier this year? I’ll talk with one of the leading legislative supporters of ranked choice voting. And later in the show, we’ll go to Westerly in our One Square Mile series for more on political diversity in that community.

First up, Ashley Kalus.

Ian Donnis: We saw in the Democratic primary how nearly seven in 10 Democratic voters voted against Governor Dan McKee. But he's been under the microscope here in Rhode Island for a long time. Whereas you're a newer face. Yes, we know your husband did part of his medical training at Brown University. And you say that the plan for the two of you was to move back to Rhode Island at some point. But you only registered to vote in Rhode Island earlier this year, what do you say to voters who think they might just not know you well enough to vote for you for governor?

Ashley Kalus: Well, I'd like voters to get to know me better. That is part of what we need to do and listen to my ideas and my policy proposals. My priority was health care, and working in the COVID response. I am an outsider, I never intended to run for political office. And so I think that that is the exact sort of leader that we need at this point in time, someone that isn't beholden to anyone else, especially not special interests, or insiders. And we need somebody that can make the transformative change that is required to reform our education system and make sure we have a broad based economy. And I have a record of success in private industry. I built a business from two employees to a multimillion dollar business. I have an academic interest in public policy, I have two master's degrees, one from Columbia University in security policy, specifically bioterrorism and another degree from the London School of Economics in economic policy. I got involved--

Donnis: Let me stop you there because we've got a lot of ground to cover. Speaking of education, you held a news conference in Providence on Wednesday talking about your goal of becoming Rhode Island's education Governor, but you declined to directly answer some questions from reporters like me, including whether you believe teaching about race and racism should be restricted or whether certain books should be banned. How can Rhode Islanders truly get to know you if you don't directly answer questions like that?

Kalus: So what we had in the promise of President Biden was a president that was going to bring us together, that was the hope. And instead, we have a country that is further apart. And my focus in education reform is in reading, writing and math. And when we look at the challenges of the schools, if we look at the scores in terms of math and reading in the state, those are our challenges right now. And I want to focus on that and not move from the fact that we've been failing children for a generation by not doing the hard steps that are required for education reform.

Donnis: I hear you but we live in very polarized times where there is a lot of debate about how race and racism get taught in public schools. Isn't it important for you to answer that question whether you would seek to restrict that in any way?

Kalus: I mean, to answer a question about whether I would be more polarizing? My focus is on the things that we can agree on, which is our children need to have a path towards not being stuck in failing schools, and educational reform, which is math, and reading, and writing. That is something that everybody can agree on is important. It is valuable. And it is something that should bring people together towards a collective effort to make change. And as a state, that is what we need. We need all sides to get together and not polarize each other and focus on things that we can agree matter. We are trapping children in failing schools. We have not gotten education reform done. We know what the steps that are required to get that done are we know what that is? The path was blazed by Massachusetts, that happened in the 1990s. And it happened under a Republican governor with a Democratic legislature. That was the-- those were the ingredients that made education reform happen in Massachusetts. And we should be focusing on trying to make that happen again, here in Rhode Island.

Donnis: One effort, one proposal from your campaign: As you say, you want to make Rhode Island a more affordable place to live and work. How would you do that?

Kalus: Multiple different ways. So first, we have to have a better business environment, which means that we cannot continue bribing businesses to come here. But we need to create the environment in which they want to be here. So I am not in favor of corporate welfare, which is bribing businesses to come here. That doesn't work well. We know that doesn't work well. So a better business environment means one with lower taxes and lower regulation, where we are competitive regionally. The other thing when we talk about affordability is we need to get a hold of the housing crisis. And we have $250 million allocated to build affordable housing units, and we need somebody who can deliver results. We did not get here overnight. So when I hear the other side now promising to deliver results on affordable housing and stuff like that. This is a decade's old issue. We did not build housing stock. So we need somebody who will push a plan forward. So with the money that is allocated, we will ensure that there is a pool of money that developers can use to develop units. Also for me, I will also provide standards and benchmarks so that you can judge my success as governor, objective criteria so that when I'm governor and running for reelection, you know if I have been successful or I failed. So I've said 10,000 units, every year 80,000 units. That is an achievable goal.

Donnis: You've said you're running in part because you want Rhode Island to have a more prosperous economy so your three sons, when they grew up would be able to find jobs here and lead productive lives. Back in 1994. Republican gubernatorial candidate Lincoln Almond decried the same problem that there are not enough good jobs to keep Rhode Islanders here. He went on to become governor for eight years, Republican Don Carcieri succeeded him for two terms, eight more years, 16 years of uninterrupted Republican rule. Under Governor Carcieri, there was a tax cut for the richest Rhode Islanders that was aimed at the point you made about the business climate. But yet we're still dealing with this fundamental issue of there not being enough good jobs in Rhode Island, to keep Rhode Island children here. If two Republican governors failed to address that over 16 consecutive years, why would it be different under you,

Kalus: It has been a generation of politicians that have failed the state. So I would say that, that we have not had leadership that helps us do the things that are required in order to turn Rhode Island around. So I would say it's not a party thing. It's that we haven't had a leader that's able to get things done. I am different. I've never been in political office before. I'm a business person. I'm an economist by training. I like the policy part as well. But I also have experience in implementation. So it's the vision plus the ability to get things done. That is what I've done in my career. And that is what I will do now. And I also know that I will have to work with others in order to get things done, I will have to work with a Democratic legislature and I intend to do so. And on the first day, I will ensure that we sit down together and try to get a deal done about education reform, it is critically important to the future of our state. It is a civil rights issue. But it is also an economic issue. And if we do not tackle that we will never be able to make the changes that we want to make in terms of affordability in the business climate, because it all starts with education.

Donnis: You started a business with your husband that operated COVID related services in Rhode Island, and then got into a dispute with the State Department of Health. That's now the subject of closed door mediation. Was that a factor at all in your decision to run for governor?

Kalus: You know, I think the-- so, no. And in a certain way, the way that the government interacts with its citizens, the respect that is paid to the people of Rhode Island is a factor for me. Meaning I believe that there is a certain role for government and there is a place where government shouldn't be. I also believe deeply in integrity in government, meaning that having public corruption is not bad, just because it is bad. It is bad because it interferes with the provision of services. So everything costs more when there is public corruption. And we often fail to make that connection. We do sort of, in international studies when we say you can look at public corruption in terms of how poorly the road-- how poor the roads are, right? And so it's the same thing in Rhode Island. It's why the schools aren't performing. It's why taxes are higher than they should be. We're not getting a value delivered. And what we see with Dan McKee is we see a governor that is under FBI investigation for giving out federal money, contracts to insiders and his friends. And he had the, he did it over state email, over public email he asked how many millions, and that is something that should be deeply offensive to Rhode Islanders because public corruption actually hurts families and it hurts the integrity of the government. It hurts people's belief in institutions, which hurts the ability of the government to deliver services well.

Donnis: We should know there's no information at this point indicating that Dan McKee himself is the subject of this probe. But let's talk about the big news this week. That was a decision by a federal court judge stopping Rhode Island's truck tolling program. The rationale when this program started was that big trucks caused the most wear and tear on Rhode Island's roads and bridges, and they therefore they should pay toward their upkeep. Do you agree with that general premise that if trucks are causing more damage to Rhode Island roads and bridges, they should be part of the maintenance of them?

Kalus: What I would say is that with this law, we knew that it was not a good law, and that it was likely unconstitutional. And so the other part of the story is we spent millions of dollars on a politically connected law firm to fight businesses in this and we lost and that was not a good use of public funds. And so as we move forward, you know, the question is, are we going to continue to use taxpayers' money inappropriately for this lawsuit that we knew it was unconstitutional to begin with? I mean, you have to be a responsible steward of public money. And Dan McKee is not.

Donnis: Did you vote for Donald Trump in 2020?

Kalus: I am really focused-- I mean, Donald Trump is not running for governor of Rhode Island. We don't know if he is running. Donald Trump is--

Donnis: He's still a big presence in the Republican party.

Kalus: The issues of Rhode Island are issues of affordability in terms of is it affordable to live, work and raise a family and Rhode Island? What are we going to do about a school system that has failed a generation of--

Donnis: Okay, the question is whether you voted for Donald Trump in 2020?

Kalus: The question of Donald Trump is not the question of the governor's race in Rhode Island. I am sure that Dan McKee would like that to be because he doesn't want questions about his record. And really what we should be talking about his Dan McKee's record as governor because that is what people are voting on his record and my vision and my ability to deliver a better Rhode Island for the future of Rhode Island. And so these questions distract us from the real issues in Rhode Island. I am running for governor of Rhode Island. Donald Trump is not.

Donnis: You've cited Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. As one of your political role models. He was in the news this week for sending some, using state funds to send us some immigrants to Martha's Vineyard. Do you think that was the right or wrong move?

Kalus: I have said that we should not use people for political stunts. And what I said in an economic forum is that I look to models that work. And the economic policy in Florida, if you look at it empirically, is delivering results. Businesses are doing well. There is development in Florida. So that is an economic policy that is working. People are going to Florida because they feel that they have a good shot there. People are leaving Rhode Island because we do not have a good business environment.

Donnis: If you were governor, would you sign a bill extending abortion coverage to state employees and people on Medicaid in Rhode Island?

Kalus: I -- This is being made an issue and I want to be very, very clear. In 2019, the right to an abortion was codified in state law. I will do nothing to change that law.

Donnis: But there are people who say that this coverage should extend to women on Medicaid and who are part of the state employee health care plan. Would you sign that or not sign such a measure?

Kalus: Like the majority of Rhode Islanders. I do not support partial birth abortion or state funded abortions.

Donnis: All right, that's all the time we have. Republican candidate for governor Ashley Kalus, thank you for joining us.

Kalus: Thank you.

Can Rhode Island implement ranked choice voting? State Rep. Rebecca Kislak (D-Providence)

Ian Donnis: Governor Dan McKee won the Democratic primary earlier this month with 33% of the vote. Some people believe that elections count for less if the winner doesn't get at least 50% of the vote. One approach for changing that is what is known as ranked choice voting. Joining me now to discuss that concept is state representative Rebecca Kislak, a Providence Democrat. Representative Kislak, we saw how back in 2014 Governor Gina Raimondo won that race, the general election with less than 50%. Same thing with independent Lincoln Chafee back in 2010. What is wrong with that? Why challenge that process?

Rebecca Kislak: I'm not sure that there's anything particularly wrong with that. But we need to have conversations about voting and how we want to vote and how we want our votes to count. Constituents came to me about a year ago and said, would you please put in a ranked choice voting bill, a bunch of us -- several of us met together and discussed what that could look like and came up with the bill that we introduced. I know that a lot of voters will feel more confident in their vote if the winner does have over 50% of the vote. And so ranked choice voting is definitely something we need to talk about.

Donnis: You're one of two state lawmakers taking the lead on this issue. In the State Senate, it's Sam Zurier, a Providence Democrat. Tell us a little bit about how your proposal would work. And I believe it would cover only legislative races with at least three candidates, is that correct?

Kislak: Correct. Ranked choice voting only works if there are more than three candidates. And we together, the constituents who gathered to discuss what to introduce, and Senator Zurier is one of my constituents who also came to those meetings, we decided to start small and collect data. And so we decided to only introduce a bill that would apply to state legislative primaries. So that we could try it out.

Donnis: Why not make the proposal include also something like the five way Democratic, gubernatorial primary field that we saw?

Kislak: Yes, that would absolutely be a thing that we could do. The group that met last summer decided to introduce the bill that we did, there will be additional public process or process with my constituents and others around the state to determine what bill we want to put in for this year. I also know the Senate is going to have a study commission that will be discussing these issues. My primary concern is that voters turn out and vote. I hope that talking about how we vote will generate more interest in elections and do that. And there are a lot of different ways that we could get to that end result and ranked choice voting, I think is a very strong method.

Donnis: Where do we see ranked choice voting currently used? And how is it working out?

Kislak: So we saw it famously in the mayoral election in New York. And I am sure that many listeners have spoken to friends and family in New York City who have various opinions about how that worked out. One of the things about rank choice voting right now is that most of the time, we see that the person who gets the most votes in the first round, ends up with the most votes at the end. And so it doesn't change the results necessarily, but perhaps it gives the person who won more of a mandate. And also, as we use ranked choice voting going forward, it's my hope that we might change the way that we run elections, and that people campaign, possibly more positively, possibly in coalition with other candidates, so that you could see some partnering, and also so that people feel more comfortable voting for who their true first choice is, knowing that their second choice vote may also count.

Donnis: Ranked choice voting is a very different approach than what has traditionally been used in America. How's the outlook for actually moving forward with your proposal in Rhode Island?

Kislak: I think that more and more states are using ranked choice voting for different elections. One of the earliest elections that I worked on after college was for a Cambridge City Councilor. And Cambridge famously has used a form of ranked choice voting called proportional representation. That is actually my personal preferred form of ranked choice voting, where everybody for the City Council runs on one ballot, and anybody who achieves enough support from the voters is elected.

Donnis: Representative Kislak. We saw how voting participation in the recent primary was about 15%. Pretty bad, should the emphasis perhaps be more on trying to increase turnout In elections.

Kislak: My emphasis is on talking to all the stakeholders, all the voters to figure out how to do exactly that. And yes, I think ranked choice voting is one tool. I think the conversation about how we vote and why we vote is really important.

Donnis: State Representative Rebecca Kislak thank you for joining us.

Kislak: Thank you very much.

The role of diversity in the Westerly political arena

Like many places across the state and country, Westerly is a town where issues of racial justice have come to the forefront since the murder of George Floyd. Now two candidates for town council and school committee are hoping to make equity a bigger priority at Westerly Town Hall. They’re Kevin Lowther and Leslie Dunn, two Black residents running for office for the first time. As part of our ongoing series One Square Mile: Westerly, they spoke with South County Bureau Reporter Alex Nunes. Lowther began by saying he became inspired to run for town council after watching a candidate forum last election.

Kevin Lowther: I just was not being represented. When they asked questions about “Is there systemic racism in Westerly?” or “Should Juneteenth be a state holiday?” I just saw that there were just a lot of candidates who had really not had to consider that perspective, the perspective of some percentage of their constituents. And I think from that moment on, I knew there might be a space for someone like me.

Alex Nunes: And what about you, Leslie?

Leslie Dunn: So I had the pleasure of starting to get myself more involved in attending town council meetings, school committee meetings, and just really being invited into spaces to hear more about what was going on in the town. Something that stuck out to me at a town council meeting was we kept talking about diversity and multiculturalism and the lack of representation. And everybody's response was always, “Well, we want everybody; we want to be diverse; we want to be inclusive.” But nobody's showing up. So to me, because I'm a stubborn person, I took that as an invitation of like: Alright, I'm gonna start showing up. And I said: If you're going to speak out, and you're going to talk about injustices, and you're going to talk about inequality, and you're going to become an advocate, you have to put yourself out there and be willing to take the next steps to say: I can write a letter; I can stand up at a town meeting; I can stand up at a school committee meeting; I can stand out in public places. But you have to be willing to put yourself into that space where you can really impact change and be a part of the decision-making that moves our community forward.

Nunes: Can you give people a sense of what it's like being a person of color in this community?

Dunn: It's something that, in general, there's always been a statement of “Things are done in the Westerly way.” And one of the things that's a challenge already coming into this community is a lot of things are name recognition, and what families people are a part of. And there's already a little bit of a barrier to accept anybody who's new. So then to add on top of that being a person of color, and somebody who doesn't look like the majority of this community, it's a struggle to feel accepted. And it's a struggle to feel like you're not being tokenized, or just invited in to fill a quota for something. And there aren't a lot of people who understand what you're going through. So a lot of times people in this community, they do find the few people who do identify with them, and they become almost subcommunities. And they have to kind of exist in that world and make sure they're helping each other, and sharing resources, and doing all of that work on their own. And then still trying to figure out: How do I fit into this community? What stores and businesses are, in a sense, friendly to people who look like me? And what are some spaces that I shouldn't be in, because there's going to be some unfriendly faces, and there's going to be some comments made?

Nunes: What's the response been like from people in the community to your candidacies?

Dunn: I have to say, so far, it's been extremely positive. There are a few naysayers out there. But I've kind of taken an approach of: I want to focus on the positive pieces of this and the learning aspect of it, and worry about the negative stuff another day.

Nunes: For both of you, what would you say are the most important issues for you right now?

Lowther: My top three: Number one is affordable housing. The affordable housing crisis that we have in this country and in this town is really leading us to a real demographic shift in this town to an aging community. We're losing our school age population. We're losing our families. And that is not a recipe for an economically vibrant Westerly in the future. We need to attract more young people, more families, and we need to give them a place to live. Number two is just governance, good governance in general on the council. We have to understand that our ideologies, our individual ideologies, cannot get in the way of the business being done and accomplished for the people of Westerly, because there are a few in this town who are trying to throw wrenches in the process. We give them their say, but we don't let them overtake the process. And then the third thing is we have to value equity in this community in all kinds of ways, which means engaging all kinds of different ethnicities, all kinds of different people in the process who have not been a part of this process in the past. We have a big Asian community; we have a growing Hispanic community; we have a hidden Native community–people who are disenfranchised in the process. And there is a cost to that to the community. Because we haven't engaged these communities the way that we should, and so we don't have the votes to get things accomplished that we need to do.

Dunn: So for me, a big one is looking into equity in our schools. And equity crosses so many things. It not only just looks at race as something to gauge where we are and what we need to be doing to be more inclusive, but it also looks at financial disparities among our community, what resources are available. So an equity audit would just really kind of peel everything back, and especially if it's done by a third party company. It really takes a scientific look at where this community can do better to make sure our students, across the board, are getting what they need.

Nunes: So I have heard some people say they feel like, when they see people protesting or hear people kind of taking a critical eye to the town or town government, that that's divisive. And that's something that they think isn't helpful. How would you respond to someone who says something like that?

Dunn: When something's not your experience, it's easier to say that it's divisive, and that it's not helpful. But it's probably one of our best indicators of what's actually going on. I don't need people to come and hold a sign up for me. I don't need people to sympathize with me, but I need people to empathize, and to understand that it's very real, it's very current, and there's a legitimate barrier to being a person of color that's in this town. 

Lowther: There are people who are opposing our candidacy, saying that we're puppets of the BLM organization, and that's all we are. It's unhelpful. It doesn't help people talk about issues. It doesn't help people understand who we are as individuals and the kinds of skills and relationships that we might bring to the job. It doesn't do anything except for rile up people's sensibilities, because they think that they hate this organization so much. We just want to be people, we want to be real, and we want to have real conversations. 

Nunes: Kevin Lowther and Leslie Dunn, candidates for Westerly Town Council and School Committee, thanks very much for speaking with me.

Lowther: Thanks for having us.

Dunn: Thank you so much. It was great.


Thanks for listening to our show this week. If you have a question or comment, drop us an email at, or connect with me on Twitter @IanDon. This has been a production of The Public’s Radio. Our producer is James Baumgartner. Our editor is Mareva Lindo. Our executive producer is Sally Eisele and our CEO and General Manager is Torey Malatia. I’m Ian Donnis and I’ll see you on the radio.