John Goncalves describes himself as the embodiment of Rhode Island’s motto of “hope.” He’s the son of immigrants, was raised by a single mom and went on to get two degrees from Brown University. Goncalves is serving his second term on the Providence City Council, representing Fox Point, Wayland Square, College Hill, the Jewelry District, and Downtown Providence. He says he sees the world through the eyes of his most vulnerable constituents and wants to make a bigger impact. Now, Goncalves has a bigger challenge: He’s one of the 15 Democrats running for an open seat in Rhode Island’s First Congressional District. What makes this Providence city councilor a compelling choice, and how will he set himself apart from his rivals? This week I’m going in-depth with Providence Ward One City Councilor John Goncalves.


Ian Donnis: Welcome to The Public's Radio.

John Goncalves: Thank you for having me, Ian.

Ian Donnis: Why are you running for this open seat in the first congressional district?

John Goncalves: Well, that's a good question. As the son of an immigrant mother, I understand better than anyone else in this field, the struggles of working families in Rhode Island. With rising inflation, it's getting harder every single day for Rhode Islanders to get by. My goal is to go to DC, and fight for those people and advocate for them every single day. And that's the reason why I'm running for Congress.

Ian Donnis: There's a lot of competition for this seat, you're part of a large field, what is your path to victory in this race?

John Goncalves: That's a good question. Look, when I ran my first race for city council, I was counted out every step of the way. I was outraised, four to one. I've been in this arena before and I understand the dynamics and what it takes. I would say that ultimately, it's about fighting for the people of Rhode Island. I've got the lived experience as someone who has been in the field. I've done this work at the local level, I've been a responsive, reliable and effective city councilman, serving on my second term on the city council as senior deputy majority leader. And ultimately, this is about fighting for working class families here in the state, we've got a lot of work to do. And I certainly look forward to representing the people of Rhode Island in Washington.

Ian Donnis: Your day job is as a teacher at the private Wheeler School in Providence. We've heard for decades about the need to improve public education in Providence and the entire state of Rhode Island. What's your explanation for why the state has made meager if any progress over the past few decades?

John Goncalves: Well, to put simply, bureaucrats don't really understand education. As a practitioner of someone who has been in the classroom for the last decade, I think I offer a really interesting perspective on education. I do it every single day. And I think unfortunately, a lot of us have been in formal education, we've had experiences in classrooms growing up, but it's different being a practitioner, and someone who is just making policy decisions. I think that lived experience of being in a classroom, being a teacher, and it ultimately informs my work. And look, Republicans are banning books in classrooms. This is why I'm really passionate about this work. And ultimately, every single day, I wake up at the crack of dawn, to serve students, to serve families, to serve my community. I've been doing that for decades. I was raised in Providence, I was raised in CD-1. So I think I'm the right person to lead during this time.

Ian Donnis: You tout yourself as a working class candidate who sees the world through the eyes of the most vulnerable people among us. If you were to win this race, you would be the last of the last the 435th member of Congress, in the political minority and with no ability really to influence legislation for many years. If you were to win, how would you make your presence felt in Congress?

John Goncalves: Well, look at my track record on the local level. I've been the lead sponsor on over 70 pieces have passed legislation. I've done the job at the local level. I know how it works. And I think ultimately, we need a fighter in Washington who can get the job done. Sure. The Republicans are in control of the house, but people are struggling. And we need someone who's going to be a fierce advocate at the federal level. There's the rising cost of living and it's affecting everyone in CD-1. Families are struggling to pay for the basic things like health care and rent. As a teacher, I can tell you that our schools are criminally underfunded. I talked to seniors who are talking about how they're just scraping by, and Republicans in Congress want to cut Social Security and Medicare. I would vote to expand those things. And they're going after student loans. I would vote to double Pell grants for Republicans want to wage war on working families. And I will fight them every step of the way. That's the kind of leadership that we need in Washington.

Ian Donnis: Let's get into some more issues. You're on the Providence city council. So do you support Mayor Brett Smiley's proposal to cut the commercial tax rate while increasing the residential tax rate?

John Goncalves: I think that's a good, good question. I'm looking forward to the negotiations with the mayor in my role as senior deputy majority leader on the council. As a councilman, I've been clear, and I've had a clear track record in opposing property tax increases. Property owners are under tremendous, tremendous stress and under a tremendous burden. And that's why I fought when they tried to raise taxes on the east side, and I won. But the city is under a great burden to fund critically needed services, partly because we have large tax exempt institutions like my alma mater, Brown University that don't pay their fair share in taxes and are gobbling up more and more real estate and shifting that burden on the rest of us. Look, I love Brown. I'm a proud Brown alum, and it's a great institution, but we need them to step up and other institutions to pay their fair share. And that goes for Washington as well. We need to reform the federal tax code, which right now...

Ian Donnis: Okay, let me stop you there, because we've got a lot of ground to cover. We're talking here with John Goncalves, a candidate in the first congressional district. Do you support or oppose the proposed residential development at Brook and Wickenden Streets in Providence?

John Goncalves: That's a good question. We're doing our due diligence, and I'm talking to a lot of neighbors about that particular matter. You'll hear my stance on that loud and clear in the coming weeks.

Ian Donnis: The Superman building has been a controversial proposal, do you think it's a better use of money to direct some public funds or public subsidy to the Superman building, or to put the money into something like a proposed 160 unit apartment on Taunton Avenue and East Providence led by one neighborhood builders that arguably could do more to get at the issue of affordable housing, which which is a better project? 

John Goncalves:  We need all the above. We need low income, affordable housing, we need market rate housing, and ultimately I was...

Ian Donnis: But there's not enough money for all the above. If you had to choose one, which would have been?

John Goncalves: I would say, definitely the affordable housing component. And I would say on the Superman project, specifically, we worked really hard to ensure that the developer doubled the number of affordable units that were going to be in that project. Look, this is about bringing over 245 residential units to downtown Providence, it's going to create 1600 direct construction jobs, it's going to contribute to our local restaurant business and hospitality industry. We... to support that project is the right thing to do as the councilman for downtown. I've been an ardent supporter of that, because I know on the ground, how much our businesses and our folks are struggling. And we ultimately need to have a more vibrant, residential and commercial downtown in the city of Providence.

Ian Donnis: Republicans were pretty transparent about their plan to move the US Supreme Court to the right. And now that's happened, how come Democrats weren't more effective in countering that?

John Goncalves: Well I think, look, the Republicans have been working really, really hard to do things like stack the courts and to do everything that they can to strip people from their basic rights, what they're doing around stripping people from their reproductive rights. So

Ian Donnis: The question though, is why Democrats were not more effective in responding to this rightward move?

John Goncalves: Well, that's exactly what I was saying. The Republicans have been working on this process for years, they've been stacking the courts in their favor, they are a lot more organized, unfortunately, then the Democrats and they're funded, unfortunately, by millionaires and billionaires that allowed them and enable them to do this kind of work. That's why Democrats need to stand up and fight tooth and nail to ensure that we're holding Republicans accountable during a time when they're trying to strip us of our basic human rights.

Ian Donnis: In your campaign launch video, you vow to stand up for the extended gay, lesbian, queer, transgender community. Nonetheless, we see in red states laws are moving forward against the interests of gays and transgender people, is this just gonna come down to a matter of whether people live in a red or blue state?

John Goncalves: I think it certainly will. But I think ultimately, we have to fight by the values that we believe in. And personally, I believe in an inclusive society. And that's why I've been fighting for that, whether it's in the classroom, or more broadly, in our local community, we need to make sure that our values are being recognized. And look, there are people who need our help, they need our support, they need our affirmation. My job is to embrace those people, every single member of our community, it doesn't matter your station in life, it doesn't matter how you identify, you need to be affirmed in that process.

Ian Donnis: Speaking of an inclusive society, the United States has gotten increasingly brittle as a political culture, how do we become more resilient as a country?

John Goncalves: Well, I think it's about bringing people together. And unfortunately, there is a lot of divisiveness in Washington. But ultimately, as a city councilman, what it comes down to is delivering for the people that you represent. From a constituent services perspective, I can assure you that if I'm elected to Congress, I'm going to deliver the best constituent services that we've seen. And I think it's also a matter of solving problems. People want their problem solved. And I'll give you a perfect example. At the height of the pandemic, we sent up a rapid response operation to send daily emails to constituents about the executive orders coming from the governor. We delivered masks and medicines and groceries to seniors. People were terrified during this time and they needed reassurance. People often feel like Washington doesn't work for them anymore. And it's incumbent on us to be responsive to their problems. And that's exactly what I've done on the city council. And that's exactly what I would do if I'm elected to Congress.

Ian Donnis: You might be well known in your ward one on the Providence city council, how do you broaden your support to get known by voters in communities as disparate as Barrington, Newport and Woonsocket? 

John Goncalves: I would say half the students that I teach, actually live in Barrington, believe it or not. I grew up in the city of Providence. I've got tentacles, everywhere in the state, I've got a lot of family that live in, you know, East Providence or Pawtucket. And I've been on the ground living in the community in CD one for nearly my entire life, besides a short stint that I did in Minnesota, where I was actively involved in politics. So that's exactly what we're gonna do. We're gonna broaden the message to everyone in CD one. And I can assure you, we're going to be out in every single community connecting and resonating with voters. Because I think the vast majority of CD one connects and resonates with our values, and we're going to continue to fight for them.

Ian Donnis: How does your experience in Providence translate for voters in other communities in CD one?

John Goncalves: Again, I've done the work. I've been a reliable, responsive and effective council person. And when it comes to constituent services, that applies to what we're going to be doing in Washington as well. I'm also a teacher. I'm an educator, I think people have to remember that. During a time when Republicans are trying to ban us from books, when they're literally trying to strip away Social Security and Medicare, we need a fighter in Congress who can understand the issues on the ground. And that's exactly what I've done as a local council person, and arguably one of the most challenging, and also one of the most important districts in our city. And in our state. I represent the east side and downtown. If you can do that, you can do the rest of CD one.

Ian Donnis: The ward one city councilor in Providence, and a candidate in Rhode Island's first congressional district, John Gonzales, thank you for joining us.

John Goncalves: Thank you and for having me.

Everyone talks about child care, but no one does anything about it. Actually, that’s not exactly right. Although child care is very costly, and child care workers get meager pay, there are signs that child care is rising on the local and national political agenda, at least among Democrats. CNBC reported this week on how a lobbying group that represents Apple, Amazon and other tech giants wants child care for workers to remain a requirement in the Biden administration’s plan to grow the microchip industry. The point person for that plan is none other than former Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo, now the U.S. secretary of Commerce. Closer to home, Raimondo’s successor, Governor Dan McKee, took part in a Statehouse event this week  -- dubbed “Strollin’ Thunder” -- to highlight the importance of child care and early childhood education. McKee and Raimondo had a famously chilly relationship during their overlapping time in state government. Now, though, when it comes to boosting the significance of child care, they’re singing from the same hymnal. You can read more about that in my Friday TGIF column, posting around 4 this afternoon on my Twitter @IanDon and at the publics

That’s our show for this week. Our producer is James Baumgartner.

I’m Ian Donnis and I’ll see you on the radio.