State Rep. Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung (R-Cranston) joins Political Roundtable this week.



The panel includes Steph Machado from WPRI, Channel 12, and URI emeritus professor of political science Maureen Moakley.

Here's a partial transcript of the conversation:

Donnis: Let's start with the big story of the week the verdict in the George Floyd case. This is certainly an important milestone. But clearly the issue of race and police community relations is not going away. Representative Fenton-Fung, from your perspective, what tangible steps need to be taken now to improve the situation in Rhode Island?

Fenton-Fung: Thankfully, the legal system got it right. And it helps to build faith in the system. It really doesn't matter though, how many laws we change unless we change people's hearts and minds. We are literally going nowhere. But let's look we're talking about tangible things here in Rhode Island. We should really be focusing, and I know many of the communities are about diversifying their police forces, okay. And creating more partnerships, where here in Cranston, we have a police force that is very oriented towards community policing efforts. And like we're talking about schools, starting with my husband, he started a program where there's police details that goes around to all the elementary schools in the morning, and, you know, the kids get to high-five the officers. And so there's much more of a partnership and a friendship that forms instead of those adversarial type of relationships. And I think, you know, when we're looking big picture, that's what we need to do in the short term.

Donnis: Maureen, what do you see as the key needs moving forward on police community relations?

Moakley: Well, certainly I agree with the representative. But one thing I wanted to stress is this is not Minnesota, and this is not Minneapolis. So there are things we can do to improve community relations. But I really think it's time that we look at the overhaul of the Officers’ Bill of Rights -- there's a bill up for by Anastasia Williams, and people, the governor said he thinks it's a good idea. Shekarchi said it's a good idea, but they're not coming up with any specifics. And even the commissioner, the police and Hugh Clemens argue that there needs to be some minor changes need to be made, particularly in terms of the composition of the disciplinary board, and the length of suspensions from two days to something more reasonable, like 14 days. So it's a multi-pronged effort, and the representative is totally right, and that we've got to get a better culture around this. But I do think at this point, some minor changes would move this along in a positive way

Donnis: Steph, Maureen brought up the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, which is often described as an impediment to more serious discipline of wayward police officers. How do you see the outlook for some serious changes this year to the Officers’ Bill of Rights?

Machado: Yeah, well, as Maureen alluded to, the Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare has said that if the George Floyd incident had happened in Rhode Island, the police department would not have been able to fire Derek Chauvin as he was fired in Minnesota because this law only allows a two day suspension without having to go through this hearing process. And the whole process gets put on hold when there's criminal charges. We're seeing this right now in Providence, where Sgt. Joseph Hanley has been convicted of beating a man on the sidewalk last year, but he remains employed by the police department because of the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights. So there seems to be an appetite for increasing that two-day suspension to something more tangible in terms of discipline. But the police unions are very concerned that they're going to lose some semblance of due process, if LEOBOR is changed. So I don't think we're at a point where I can accurately predict whether there's going to be movement on this. But there does seem to be appetite on both sides of the aisle for at least inching it along, perhaps not some kind of massive reform. But changing that two-day suspension and changing some of the processes to make it easier for police chiefs to discipline officers who do wrong.

Donnis: Let's continue with some questions for our guest, State Rep. Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung. Representative You are the only Republican in the legislature to vote in support of the Act on Climate. You agree with Democrats who say this would be a good thing economically for the state. We heard from opponents a very different view, that in their vie, it would be very bad for the state, very bad economically. Why is there such a chasm between what supporters like you say and what opponents say on this legislation?

Fenton-Fung: You know, it's interesting, I was the only Republican in the House to vote for the Act on Climate. And I look at a big picture. I'm looking at the vision, what is our vision for the next 20 and 30 years? And we know we're going to move towards more towards a more green economy. And I think it's really important we get these plans in place I represent sure but …

Donnis: The question though, is why is there such a complete variance between what supporters and opponents? What do you what do you what do you know that the people on the other side of this issue don't know?

Fenton-Fung: Well, I'll say that I represent a younger generation of Republicans that really feel we need to make more substantial movement on these issues. I'm the Republican who sits on environment, I listened to hours of testimony on this bill. This bill does not have any individual mandate, it does not have any business owner mandate. And it looks at creating a plan that will make us more eligible for federal funding and says, hey, look, how are we going to create infrastructure over the next 20 to 30 years to get us to a net zero environment? How are we going to get those electric charging stations in place? What are the legal impediments that we have to move? We need to have a vision Rhode Island, often if we can procrastinate on something we do. And this bill starts to hold us accountable at different annual dates. And I think, you know, even just outside of issues with the green economy, it we're looking big picture, we should have more of these long-term plans and making sure we're holding ourselves accountable. So I just take a different viewpoint.

Donnis: Representative, you've cut a noteworthy profile as a freshman lawmaker. Of course, last year in your state representative race, you defeated the House Speaker, Nicholas Mattiello. The climate bill might not have gone ahead had he still remained in the State House. You're also showing an ability to be bipartisan, you seem well-liked by your Democratic colleagues. Why haven't more Republicans been able to emulate the same kind of success that you're having in the legislature?

Fenton-Fung: Well, I I promised everybody in District 15, and I'm just holding true to that, that I was going to go up there and knock heads together. And, you know, I sign on to the bills by Republicans, they sign on to mine, I sign on to some bills by Democrats, they sign on to mine. I'm looking at moving our district for what's in the best interest of District 15. And a lot of that has to do with areas that we can find a lot of agreement on. And, you know, I just take a different approach sometimes. But I think there are other Republicans like Brian Newberry who's worked with Gregg Amore for years on this bill, that I was happy to co-sponsor and we're talking about civics education. We're seeing bills that when we're working together, we're getting them through in the legislature, and I hope we see more of it throughout the year. It's just a different approach that I think is going to be successful and a good recipe for Republicans going forward.

Machado: Representative, as you have broken up with Republicans on several issues, the climate bill, you support it Speaker Shekarchi -- you would have voted for him if you weren't in quarantine that day. What would you say to criticism that you're not a team player, or you're not sticking with the party. It does look like you might have a primary challenger in your district next year. So what would you say to that criticism from the Republicans?

Fenton-Fung: I should get credit for creating enlarging the Republican Party in the sense that this person who might primary me actually joined the Republican Party just to open an account. So I you know, it's one of those things, and you look back at it, look, I have a certain vision of where I think we need to go in the next 10 to 15 years. You know, I work with Republicans. Well, I have great relationships with people like Brian Newberry and Mike Chippendale. And so I have a certain set of core values. But when we're talking about issues that we can find consensus on, when we're talking about healthcare, we're talking about education, issues like the civics bill, and we're …. working with Democrats on that. I think that, you know, our district wants that type of leadership and wants people and I don't think it's just my district, either. I think a lot of people around the state say why can't they work together like that? And I think we're just going to be role models for that. 

Machado: And are you definitely running for reelection next year? Or might you see higher office?

Fenton-Fung: I am running for reelection next year. Let's end that right now.

Moakley: Representative, the Biden stimulus plan allowed for unemployment benefits of up to … $400 a month. And what's that done is seems is discouraged people from looking for work. And right now …. you know, there's problems getting people to work, they want to open up but they don't have help. The Department of Labor and Training is thinking of regulations that would require the recipients of these benefits to be at least looking for looking for work. What do you think about that requirement and the general Biden's stimulus plan?

Fenton-Fung: So let's let's look first at the disincentives of work. That's been a problem in restaurants, not just in Newport or I talked to many of the restaurant owners, but also I'm sponsoring one of the bills that we're trying to create these bridge programs so that people can get off unemployment. And look in the workforce right now. We have so many openings. It's not as though we were back 12 months where everything was really tight. Right now, we're having huge issues not only in the restaurant industry, but with home health agencies. They can't find enough CNAs we were talking to the drugstore the other day, they can't find pharmacy techs. It's been very frustrating for people because now these small businesses that have worked so hard to get through the pandemic and they've done everything possible. They never foresaw that they would have a labor shortage issue at this point as they tried to make the turn. This is critically important when we're talking about the tourism industry, you're talking about Newport, Block Island as well, these guys need a break, and they cannot be having to pay $20, $25 an hour for hostesses just to get somebody in the door and to keep open.