The race to replace David Cicilline in Congress may be getting all the attention, but there’s also a special election taking place in Senate District 1, which covers Smith Hill, Elmhurst, and the North End of Providence.
Five candidates are seeking to fill the seat that was held for decades by the late Maryellen Goodwin, who died in April after a lengthy battle with cancer.
Jake Bissaillon, who currently serves as chief of staff to Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, is widely viewed as the front-runner and has racked up key union endorsements. But the Democratic field also includes state representative Nathan Biah, a Liberian refugee who is now the principal of Jorge Alvarez High School; Michelle Rivera, a veteran and social worker who serves as policy director for Progreso Latino; and Mario Mancebo, a Cuban exile who volunteers with those experiencing homelessness.
Niyoka Powell, a nurse who immigrated to the United States from Jamaica, is running on the Republican ticket.
Read on to find out more about the candidates, and where they stand on the issues.
Where and how to vote
The primary election for Senate District 1 will take place on Sept. 3rd, and early voting as already begun. The general election will take place on Nov. 7th, with early voting beginning on Oct. 18th.
You can find out if you’re in the district and locate your polling place at vote.sos.ri.gov.
Right around the time that Nathan Biah was finishing high school in Monrovia, Liberia, civil war broke out.
“We were in our homes for months. We didn’t have food,” he told The Providence Journal in 2020. “You’re under the bed, because right next to you, you see government forces and rebel forces fighting, bullets flying. … You’re asking, ‘Will I even be able to survive?’”
Biah fled on foot, stepping over bodies as he made the arduous 90-mile journey to the Ivory Coast. Eventually, he was able to follow his father to the United States, and began a new life at the age of 20.
Biah’s high school transcript had disappeared amidst the war, so he had to start over and earn his GED from the Community College of Rhode Island. According to his official biography, he went to work in a factory, but still managed to earn a bachelor’s degree from Rhode Island College and a master’s in education from the University of Rhode Island.
Biah went on to teach math in Providence schools, and is now the principal of Dr. Jorge Alvarez High School.
He was first elected to the state House of Representatives in 2020, ousting Moira Walsh, an outspoken liberal who had been a thorn in the side of then-House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello. (Mattiello contributed $1,000 to Biah’s first campaign.)
Biah currently serves on the House committees on finance, education, and health and human services. Earlier this year, he announced that he would seek to replace former U.S. Rep. David Cicilline in Congress, but he exited that race in June in order to run for the state Senate seat instead.
In an emailed statement, Biah said that he was running for state Senate to “give back.”
“Specifically, the State Senate’s power to confirm judges and department directors means I can use this office to fight for a more diverse state government,” he said. ”Rhode Island deserves a government that looks like the people it serves and, too often, we fall short of that goal. As a State Senator, I will use the confirmation process to increase diversity in state government.”
He named mental health, addiction, homelessness, and gun violence as key “challenges” that he hopes to take on.
At a debate hosted by Rhode Island college student Raymond Baccari and high school student and Ryan Lukowicz, Biah indicated that he wants to see Rhode Island adopt a safe firearm storage law. He also said that the legislature has already passed “very strong gun laws” and that now the key is to enforce them.
He also expressed support for a compromise bill that would make changes to the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, which did not make it through both chambers in this year’s legislative session.
He broke with the other Democrats in attendance on one issue: He believes that Rhode Island should keep the name of the controversial Victory Day holiday.
“It is a long, proud Rhode Island tradition,” he said, describing it as a way to honor the sacrifices of World War II soldiers.
Growing up in Merrimac, Massachusetts, Jake Bissaillon showed an interest in politics from an early age — for one seventh grade project, he delivered John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address while dressed as the former president.
He moved to Rhode Island to attend Providence College, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and an MBA, and helped recruit student volunteers for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign.
From 2011 to 2014, Bissaillon served as chief of staff to then-Providence City Council president Michael Solomon. He began working for the General Assembly as a policy analyst in the House of Representatives, then moved to the Senate after earning his law degree from Roger Williams University in 2016.
Bissaillon was named Ruggerio’s chief of staff in early 2021, in the wake of an election cycle where a number of incumbent lawmakers were ousted by progressive challengers.
Early on, he recalled, he sat down with Ruggerio and then-Senate Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey, “and we articulated an agenda that we thought would better reflect what Rhode Islanders were asking for, and the results of that election.” That ultimately resulted in the passage of a $15-per-hour minimum wage, marijuana legalization, and the Act on Climate.
Asked about areas where his views diverge with the Senate president’s, Bissaillon pointed to guns and taxes. Ruggerio has said that a ban on “assault” weapons would need to happen on the national level, while Bissaillon says he’d push for a state-level ban.
Bissaillon also wants to “implement a more progressive tax structure,” which means “reducing taxes for those at the lowest rung of the socioeconomic ladder and raising them on the wealthy,” he said. (He favors repealing Carcieri-era tax cuts on Rhode Island’s wealthiest residents, but doesn’t think the state should simply return to the previous status quo.)
By contrast, he said, Ruggerio believes that the current tax structure gives Rhode Island a competitive advantage over Massachusetts, and “we should not be talking about raising taxes on anyone, especially as we’re running operating surpluses.”
“That’s a pre-existing disagreement that we have,” Bissaillon said, adding that the Senate president has always been someone who “appreciates multiple points of view.”
If elected, Bissaillon would be giving up a powerful, $183,000-a-year position in order to earn $17,627 as a part-time lawmaker. He says he has “no clue” what he’d do for a day job, but would hope to find something flexible that allows him to use his law degree to “further some sort of good.”
Goodwin’s passing created “a vacuum” in the Senate that no one can fill, Bissaillon said. However, he said, he hopes to continue to champion the causes that she was passionate about, like public education and preventing gun violence, and believes that his experience will allow him to “really move the needle.”
Senate District 1 is extremely diverse, and Bissaillon is the only white man in the race. However, he said, his “lived experience” — moving to Rhode Island without knowing anyone, delivering pizzas and waiting tables while going to school, and working his way up through “sweat equity” — has resonated with voters.
“To the best of my ability, I just try to relate to those that I am seeking to represent,” he said. “And at the end of the day, if I’m lucky enough to be elected their state senator, I’m certainly going to be working hand in hand with them to make sure that their needs are addressed.”
Mario Mancebo escaped from Cuba on a life raft, leaving behind his wife and young son, he told The Providence Journal in 2000.
After landing in Providence, he earned a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in administration and education from Rhode Island College, he said at an August candidate forum held at the Smith Hill branch library. He then spent over 18 years teaching in Providence schools, including Hope High School, Dr. Jorge Alvarez High School, and Chamber of Commerce Academy.
“You can say I’ve been all over the place,” Mancebo said in remarks that were livestreamed by Coalition Radio Network, He said his time teaching in public schools had exposed him to how many families are struggling, and that he’d spent the past 25 years “giving food, giving groceries, giving housing, working with the homeless.”
Mancebo could not be reached for an interview. His phone’s voicemail box was full and he did not respond to multiple emails. He has run for office twice before: In 2010 and 2014, he attempted to challenge incumbent Harold Metts in Senate District 6, but lost with less than 30% of the vote each time.
Records from the Secretary of State’s Office list Mancebo as the president of Latin Adult Day Health Care Center and Charles Street Community Center and After School Program, which both list Charles Street addresses. He is also listed as the president of a group called Organizacion Latina Internacional para Ayuda Humanitaria, and Loving Care Transportation, which says that it provides “charitable transportation for adults.”
Additionally, records indicate that Mancebo is the president of Love and Compassion Adult Day Health Care Center on East Avenue in Pawtucket. A 2020 article in Street Sights, Providence’s homeless newspaper, said that the center was providing showers, free meals and a place to “escape the elements and spend time in a warm and friendly atmosphere.”
Mancebo is described in the article as the center’s director. “Tired of spending his time in classrooms, he decided to strike out and begin helping people in need,” it says.
At Baccari and Lukowicz’s debate, Mancebo said that he was in favor of reforming the Law Officer’s Bill of Rights (LEOBOR), adding more gun safety regulations, and changing the name of Victory Day.
He also called for rethinking Rhode Island’s education funding formula, and said that those in office had not done enough to invest in schools.
“As politicians, we like to talk a lot and make everything so look so beautiful,” he said. “At the end, you go to the school department and they don’t have the funding, they don’t have the money.”
Niyoka Powell, the only Republican in the race, was born in Jamaica and moved to the United States with her parents at 9.
She grew up in Connecticut, moved here to attend Rhode Island College, and never left, she said at the forum at the Smith Hill branch library. “It kind of sucked me in.”
Powell went on to become a nurse, and spent more than a dozen years working on the alcohol and drug detox unit at Butler Hospital. According to her LinkedIn profile, she now works for a company called Pivot Onsite Innovations, doing work that includes OSHA compliance.
“Powell transitioned to occupational health in manufacturing after witnessing abuse of power and government overreach at a volatile time for families and businesses in the city,” her campaign website states, without elaborating.
On social media, Powell describes herself as “Pro-Life. Republican. Immigrant. Nurse. Chronic volunteer.” At the library forum, she said that she was a founding member of Millenial RI, and volunteers by teaching English to Haitian immigrants.
She also volunteered with the Rhode Island Disaster Medical Assistance Team during the pandemic, according to her LinkedIn. (Attempts to schedule an interview with Powell were ultimately unsuccessful, and she did not respond to written questions by The Journal’s deadline.)
Powell serves as the second vice chairwoman of the state Republican party. At the library forum, she indicated that she was strongly in favor of “school choice” and charter schools, and also spoke out against the use of solitary confinement, which she described as “torture.”
In response to a question about how candidates would support the LGBTQ+ community and combat anti-trans and anti-gay legislation, Powell said that the state and the country as a whole were dealing with “a mental health crisis.”
“Regardless of bills that are being thrown left and right, regardless of the hate, when you boil it down, there’s something there that needs to be dealt with very delicately,” she said, adding that it was important for people to get appropriate mental health resources because otherwise “you can really tarnish someone, you can really tarnish what they’re going through”
“Any struggle needs someone who is going to delicately help you through that struggle, and that is how I would look at it,” she said.
Powell’s political views appear to have evolved over the years: She was quoted in a 2018 Journal article saying that she planned to vote for progressive Democrat Aaron Regunberg, who was running for lieutenant governor.
“I am assuming he is on the cusp, if not, a millennial,” she explained at the time. “I think as a generation we are annoyed with some things. And I think if we have more of our voice in politics I think that we will have a better [chance at] change in Rhode Island.”
“I am not a polished politician,” Michelle Rivera told the audience at the Smith Hill library candidate forum. ”I’m a regular hardworking Rhode Islander, just like each and every one of you.”
Rivera explained that she’d grown up in poverty, and faced homelessness as a teenager. She described herself as a product of public schools and public housing, saying that she’d spent “half my life” living in the Chad Brown projects.
She enlisted in the military at 17 and did one tour of duty in Afghanistan, she said. Upon returning home, she enrolled at CCRI and then earned a master’s degree in social work from Rhode Island College with support from the G.I. Bill.
Rivera went on to work in schools, residential facilities and the Providence VA hospital as a social worker, she said. Now, she’s the policy director for Progreso Latino, a Central Falls-based nonprofit whose mission is to connect the Latino and immigrant communities with social services.
“I, too, struggle to get by,” Rivera said at the forum, which was co-hosted by Black Lives Matter RI PAC. “I, too, struggle to pay my bills. And I am tired of electing the same officials who do not do what they can for us, who forget about us.”
A native of Puerto Rico who came to the mainland as a child, Rivera has been campaigning on economic issues like repealing the Carcieri-era tax cuts, and increasing taxes on wealthy universities.
“Many people in our community suffer from poverty, but even middle class families are suffering,” her website states. “Our neighborhoods face high utility bills, brutal rents, unaffordable homes, property tax hikes, and devastating healthcare costs.”
She has been endorsed by a slew of progressive Providence politicians, including Reps. David Morales and Enrique Sanchez, Sen. Sam Bell, and city councilman Justin Roias.
Rivera could not be reached for an interview in time for the publication of this article: She announced on Aug. 22 that her mother, who she described as her “hero,” had passed away unexpectedly.
“She was the strongest woman I knew,” Rivera wrote on X, the site formerly known as Twitter, saying that her father had been abusive, struggled with alcoholism and an addiction to gambling, and ultimately took his own life — leaving her mother to raise four children alone. “She was our matriarch.”
Before she died, Rivera added, her mother had been looking forward to voting “for the first time ever.”