Woonsocket's state senatorial candidates made cordial arguments for voters' support Tuesday night during the Meet the Candidates forum sponsored by MyWoonsocket.com and 1380 WNRI.
The free, open-to-the-public event was held at , 267 Main St. at 7 p.m. The house filled up quickly in the minutes preceding the evening's start.
Local journalists Russ Olivo of the Woonsocket Call, Sandy Phaneuf of the Valley Breeze and Woonsocket Patch editor Rob Borkowski each asked candidates questions.
The evening began with opening remarks by Sen. Roger A. Picard (D-Dist. 20), Woonsocket, Cumberland), running unopposed, and Sept. 11 primary opponents Sen. Marc A. Cote, (D-Dist. 24) and Lewis J. Pryeor. The winner of that contest will run unopposed in November.
"I want to be accessible to everybody," Picard told the crowd, inviting people to call him or stop by his front porch to talk. He noted his work on the hospital conversion act to aid the sale of Landmark Medical Center to Steward Healthcare. "I wish I had some ground-breaking news for you tonight, but I don't." He said negotiations between Steward and Blue Cross are continuing.
"Representing Woonsocket and North Smithfield in the senate for the last 18 years is a responsibility that I have always carried out with diligence and in the best interests of our community," Cote said, noting his work to secure toll free phone service to Providence for residents and support for pension reform, saving residents thousands and communities millions, respectively. He also noted his opposition to Gov. Lincoln Chafee's 2011 sales tax increase and this year's proposed 2 percent meals tax increase.
"My opponent is a good man," said Pryeor, "But after 18 years, I think you have to ask yourself, am I better off, is our community better off. I think we all know the answer is no."
Olivo asked Cote about his initial opposition to the supplemental tax bill, which he ultimately supported prior to the measure's defeat, and the reason for his switch.
Cote said he strives to represent the will of the majority in his district. "When the time came for the Senate to take up the bill, which was in early May, I did not feel that the majority of people in my district were behind the concept of voluntary receivership. A lot of people thought it was going to lead to bankruptcy, and we had not made our case strong enough to hold that position," he said.
Olivo's next question was for Pryeor, asking the recent Warwick transplant to outline his civic engagement in Woonsocket.
Pryeor said he's only been involved in Woonsocket for the last year and a half. "Right now I've just been active with the Sacred Heart Church and Fairmount, and over there I've been active with their festival. This year it's going to be October 13, 14, it's going to be quite big, we're going to have rides and everything. I got involved there because our church parish, the priest was not getting anybody to get involved." Also, he said, "I'm starting the Costa Park Neighborhood Association so our neighborhood will have a say in anything coming up in the area. That's really one thing I think we should really push throughout the city of Woonsocket, is neighborhood associations, so if something's coming into your neighborhood, you don't like it, you can have a meeting with the people, with your representatives, and say, 'Listen, we're having a problem here, help us out.' And that's one thing I've always been active in, in Warwick in the past, I was out there with every neighborhood association, working with the people, being out there. Right now as a CNA for home care, I go to all the houses and high rises and I meet with the people on a daily basis."
Borkowski asked Cote about his biggest accomplishment during his time in office, his biggest regret and how he'd handle similar future situations.
Cote repeated his opening remark about toll free phone service for Woonsocket. Also, "I fought very hard to oppose the proposed state subsidy for what was being proposed for the Providence Place Mall," and "Ultimately, ended up reducing that subsidy." Also, he said, he fought to get approval for a bond to cover 81 percent of the cost for the city's new middle school, for the pension obligation bond, a bond that provided tangible property tax relief for the city's businesses, and helped secure more than $300,000 for the city's service organizations to improve residents' quality of life.
Regarding regrets, Cote said he regretted voting for the updated fire code, "Which turned out to be draconian."
Borkowski asked Pryeor what his money-saving alternative to closing Fifth Avenue School would have been. Pryeor said there were two positions added to the Woonsocket School Department that cost the district the money it could have used to keep the school open. "Those two positions, I don't think were needed at the time, and I think right there we would've saved $200,000 to keep Fifth Avenue open, which is a local school, which we did need. I wish it was still there, but it's past, and you've got to look forward."
Phanuef asked Cote what he would say to people who suggest that the city and state has been headed in the wrong direction during his 18 years in office, and if there is anything he'd do differently during his next term.
"I think we've been impacted by a very terrible national economy, regional economy." Cote said, and that RI is perceived as a bad businesses environment. He said one way to fix that would be to do away with the requirement that businesses pay employees every week, as opposed to bi-weekly. Rhode Island is the only state in the union with that requirement, he said. "If we go into bi-weekly pay, it would create tremendous savings for business, and would contribute to making our state a better place to do business."
Phaneuf asked Pryeor what his political adversaries in Warwick might say of him. "I was for the community. I fought for open space in Warwick," Pryeor said, along Rte. 2 near the malls.
Pryeor said he worked with developer Nick Cambio to get $10,000 for Scott School, and 10 acres of open space set aside while he was working on a local development.
Also, "I worked with the pedestrians of Shalom Apartments to get a street light, so they could cross the street safely," Pryeor said.
"I worked against some of the developers, but then I worked with them at the same time, for, there's a way around it. You work together, you talk together, and you can get things done, people and community and in business," Pryeor said.
In closing remarks, Cote said he would work to reduce the state's high unemployment rate, provide job training and work opportunities for the unemployed, work with the rest of the city's delegation to save Landmark Hospital and draft affordable city budgets.
"It's not enough for someone to step forward and say there needs to be a change," Cote said, but that person has to make a case for why they think a change is needed. "In my opinion, my opponent has yet to do that."
"In closing I ask for two years to show the residents of Dist. 24 that I will work together with other general assembly members, not just Woonsocket, all of them so we can get things done in the General Assembly for the state and for the city of Woonsocket. I'll be in the community to see the neighborhoods of Dist. 24's needs. I will be talking, and also be listening to the seniors, veterans and disabled of Woonsocket to hear what their problems are and work diligently to resolve them. I'll work with our federal, state and our city leaders to get the best long-term solutions for our residents and our city," Pryeor said.