By DANIEL KITTREDGE For Democratic District 16 House candidate Brandon Potter, the personal effects of the pandemic have provided motivation to follow what he describes as an otherwise unlikely path toward a bid for political office. "e;Really quite a few
For Democratic District 16 House candidate Brandon Potter, the personal effects of the pandemic have provided motivation to follow what he describes as an otherwise unlikely path toward a bid for political office.
“Really quite a few things had to have happened for me to get to this point,” Potter, 36, said during a recent interview for the Herald’s “Radio Beacon” podcast. “It never was a personal aspiration of mine to be a politician. I just felt that it was an obligation after a number of different things unfolded.”
In January, Potter said, his 31-year-old girlfriend, Katie – who has been diagnosed with a kidney ailment known as focal segmental glomerulosclerosis, or FGSG, and requires dialysis treatment – lost supplemental health insurance policy that has allowed her to remain on a transplant list.
“That’s somebody’s real-life experience where they’re being denied a life-saving procedure in favor of health care profits for private corporations,” he said. “It’s just really powerful to see that up close.”
Then, at the onset of the pandemic in March, Potter said he and nearly 50 other employees at a local car dealership where he worked as a general sales manager were laid off and the location was permanently closed.
Potter said he had the option, along with the rest of the staff, to remain on board for a couple of weeks to see the closure through. He declined, however, fearing the risk of exposure to the coronavirus and the possibility of spreading it to his girlfriend or mother, who is also dealing with health issues. He later learned that one of the workers who had remained at the business had been diagnosed with COVID-19 and passed away as a result of the disease.
Potter said these experiences reinforced an existing view that Rhode Island’s legislative leadership is disconnected from the needs and experiences of constituents – and created in him a new sense that he was “obligated” to more actively pursue change.
“We can’t rely on business to always do the right thing. That’s the role of government. Government’s role is to regulate business, not the other way around. And I think that theme plays so widely across our whole political atmosphere, of so many of the problems that we have in government,” he said.
Referencing the media frenzy that often surrounds President Trump and events in Washington, D.C., he added: “It’s easy to kind of get lost in that shuffle. But as I started looking at what happens locally, I recognized a lot of the same themes and a lot of the same problems that we have in our country as a whole right here in our own backyard. And as I started talking to neighbors and friends of mine within my district, the common theme that I had seen was that our representative is really not that responsive.”
Potter is affiliated with the Rhode Island Political Cooperative, a group that is supporting a number of progressive candidates for General Assembly seats this year.
His frames his challenge to first-term Democratic Rep. Christopher Millea as part of a broader push to change the culture at the State House, with a focus on transparency and responsiveness.
He has criticized specific aspects of Millea’s record – including the incumbent’s support from the National Rifle Association and endorsement from the Rhode Island Right to Life committee – as well as Millea’s ties to House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello.
“I just feel that there’s so much of a disconnect with the people that are elected locally as Democrats with their values and what people expect their values to be,” he said.
He added: “I think by and large a lot of people in Rhode Island run as Democrats because we’re a blue state so they can be elected but they don’t hold Democrat values and they don’t represent the values of what Democrat voters would expect of them … So, whether it’s enacting common-sense gun legislation or standing up for a woman’s right to choose, there’s some really, really fundamental, stark contrasts between my representative and myself.”
About Mattiello specifically, Potter said: “I do not think that he represents the values of the Democratic Party.” He also criticized the Assembly’s decision not to pursue virtual meetings as a means of convening earlier in the current crisis.
“There’s a tone that we’re rushing back to work and we want to prioritize rebuilding the economy and not having the economic collapse be worse than the health crisis that we have, but meanwhile, the General Assembly refused to meet virtually … This could have been something that was set in place months ago. I don’t see a sense of urgency when I look at our local government,” Potter said.
He added: “The simple fact that the General Assembly was not in session, not actively working to figure out the best way to get us out of this situation that we’re in, this crisis that we’re in, but at the same time would promote the narrative of why people need to get back to work quick so that we can rebuild our economy, I think just really speaks volumes for the separation that we have between the people that lead us and the people that are actually in our communities.”
Potter said while he “can definitely identify” with the progressive label, he sees an opportunity to transcend such classifications – even among supporters of the president.
“We have to dig deeper than these blanket labels and we have to really find the policy positions and the values that people share. … when you actually sit down and talk to people and you really think about the things that affect working families and everyday people, we can really find a lot that we agree on. And I think that those are the important things to focus on,” he said.
Priorities if elected
During his interview, Potter pointed to the community’s response to the proposed Costco development at the Mulligan’s Island property as evidence that “when people collectively come together and use their voice as a community they can really demand change – they can be the ones to drive the ball down the field, so to speak.”
That being said, he acknowledges that hurdles will remain even if he and other like-minded hopefuls win seats in the legislature. He also said he sees his prospective role in government as about more than merely having legislation approved.
“I don’t want to sound overly idealistic,” he said. “I understand that the expression ‘It takes an act of Congress’ came for a reason. It’s very challenging to get legislation passed.”
He recalled a conversation with a voter who told him that even if he were to be elected, he would be unable to get any bills passed “for five years.”
“And my response to her was, ‘Even if that’s the case, at least I’ll go out kicking and screaming,’” he said. “Because I believe that when you’re an elected leader, it’s not just all about the votes that you take or the legislation that you introduce. There’s a platform that you have, and you have the opportunity to advocate for different positions and different causes that you care about and that people care about.”
In terms of specific issues, Potter said health care will remain at the top of his list. He said that because so many people’s coverage is tied to their employment, the high level of joblessness during the crisis has created an even greater need for urgency on this front.
“So as far as specific pieces of legislation that I would like to pass, I really think everything is on the table right now, and I think we’re going to have to have some really serious conversations on how we reform a lot of our programs for a lot of different reasons,” he said. “But our health care system to me is something that is a top priority.”
Potter also addressed the school reopening process, saying many people are “confused” and “concerned” about what lies ahead and whether a resumption of in-person classes can be done safely. He spoke of the predicament facing “working-class people that really rely on school not to just grow their child and benefit their child and their progression, but to take care of their children during the day while they’re working.”
“There really is no excuse that we should be in this position right now going into the school year … With functional, competent government, we could have been in such a better position right now where people didn’t have this concern,” he said.
Like most candidates, Potter has been adapting to the current circumstances as he campaigns – wearing a mask and maintaining social distancing as he seeks to connect with voters.
Asked about his views on the Cranston mayoral race, Potter said he made a contribution to the campaign of Democratic candidate Steve Stycos shortly after the citywide councilman entered the contest. He said he remains largely unfamiliar with former councilwoman Maria Bucci, although he has been pleased with aspects of her campaign and policy plan since she announced her bid.
“I’m looking forward to hopefully having some Democrat leadership in Cranston,” he said.
In addition to Stycos, Potter spoke highly of Ward 3 Councilman John Donegan and recently appointed Ward 2 Councilwoman Aniece Germain, who is his representative on the council and is seeking a full term in November.
“I’m really happy to see her be my new councilwoman … Her story I think is just so powerful and a testament to what our country is really about, what it’s supposed to be about,” he said.
Asked about Gov. Raimondo’s handling of the pandemic, Potter said: “I think Gov. Raimondo has done a really good job, especially in comparison to the rest of the country.” He said the president’s behavior and messaging during the crisis have exacerbated the difficulties facing state and local leaders.
“It’s just gut-wrenching to think of the amount of lives that could have been saved,” he said, had the president taken steps such as wearing a face mask earlier in the crisis.