Libby Kimzey wasn’t pulling punches at a public town hall meeting on February 6 with Rhode Island House Speaker Gordon Fox and State Senate President Teresa Paiva-Weed, hosted by The Rhode Island Young Democrats. Kimzey, a community activist, is running to replace a Democratic incumbent to represent Federal Hill and parts of Olenyville and Valley in the State House. At the Town Hall, facing the two leaders she hopes to have a chance to work closely with starting next year, she asked, “Will you raise taxes on people who earn more than $250,000?” The answer was simple: no.
Kimzey is a self-proclaimed progressive Democrat. She’s challenging first-term incumbent Michael Tarro in the Democratic primary in Rhode Island House District 8. That night in early February she highlighted what many already know about Rhode Island politics: that much of the battle is fought under the tent of the Democratic Party, rather than between Democrats and Republicans. Rhode Island is a traditionally Democratic state, but it is not always politically liberal. Elected Democrats range from unabashed leftists to those who would likely be Republicans in most other states.
Kimzey is amongst a group of statewide activists that can loosely be defined as the “progressive community,” who share ideas in places like the blog Rhode Island’s Future and often work with groups such as Ocean State Action and Marriage Equality Rhode Island. Both chambers of the Assembly have progressive caucuses. Kimzey said that the caucus in the House needs to grow slightly larger in order to become more effective. “A caucus of about 25 can effectively stop a budget from going through,” she said. “If you’re talking about a caucus of 30 or 35, then you’ve got a huge amount of power.”
Her campaign stands out not only because of her progressive identification, but also because she did not grow up on Federal Hill, or even in Rhode Island. She is a 23-year-old former Brown student who chose to run for office rather than graduate from college. She prefers to be active in the community, and says that she will not go back to Brown unless they allow her to do so on a part-time basis.
Kimzey’s announcement of her campaign garnered attention across the progressive community. Her platform features policies like public transportation to help low-income families, improving the environment, and publicly financed elections. In addition, she had already made a name for herself with local politicians and activists through her work with Rhode Islanders for Fair Elections, as director of programs at the Capital Good Fund, and by working last election cycle as campaign manager for now-Representative Teresa Tanzi, who successfully challenged incumbent David Caprio in House District 34 (Narragansett, Peace Dale, and Wakefield).
The attention she received translated quickly into support for her campaign. Kimzey announced in January that her campaign had raised an impressive $13,000 in its first twelve days. According to numbers from the National Institute on Money in State Politics, the average Rhode Island State House campaign in 2010 raised just over $13,000 over the entire election cycle. At the time of her reporting, Representative Tarro announced a balance of $452 in his latest filing.
From College Hill to Federal Hill
Kimzey first worked Federal Hill in 2008 as a Brown student when she managed Project 20/20, installing environmentally efficient light bulbs in Rhode Island homes. She moved to the neighborhood in early 2010, after leaving Brown. “I moved here because it was interesting, it was close, it was attractive,” she said. And she is not alone, as many young people have come for the art scene, another key feature for Kimzey: “It was close to the center of the art scene, to the steel yard, Building 16, and that whole scene.” Out-of-town students are exactly the type of people many Providence and Rhode Island politicians have been trying to attract in recent years, especially through support for the arts and the development of the Knowledge District. Whether or not an eager convert to the area is the ideal representative for its communities, however, remains an open question.
Kimzey described her district as, “mixed income, mixed racially, and facing a lot of economic stresses.” She does not believe that enough efforts are being made by the state government to address these stresses. When she brought that concern to a meeting with Representative Tarro, she was disappointed to hear him supporting, in her words, “whatever the Chamber of Commerce wants to do,” a body which she said, “doesn’t stand up for the interests of small businesses.” Mr. Tarro did not respond to requests for comment, and he does not yet have a public campaign. In his first term, he has opened discussion about improving safety on Atwells Avenue, introduced legislation financially assist the construction of the Urban Collaborative Accelerated Program’s independent public schools, and helped coordinate the Hardest Hit Fund, which helps homeowners facing financial hardship. He also sits on the Judiciary and Municipal Government Committees. Kimzey said that in their meeting, his stated issue priority was to require “pet restraints on motor vehicles,” also known as “doggie safety belts.”
After deciding that Tarro did not represent the community to which she had moved, Kimzey found herself asking whether or not she was fit to run: “I’m 23. I didn’t graduate from college. I’ve only been living in Providence for seven years.” What’s more, she worried about the “tremendous sacrifices from family and friends, and political and professional friends” which running for office necessarily entailed. When asked how she raised so much money so quickly, she responded, “I’m not really sure. I got a lot of $25 gifts from friends of my parents who I hadn’t talked to in years.” This was not the only time when her youth was made clear. She is undeniably a policy wonk, but not one who claims to have all of the answers. When considering a complex tax issue, she stopped herself, smiled, and said, “I have a lot to learn.”
Managing Tanzi’s campaign in 2010 provided a blueprint for potential success. Caprio, the incumbent, was then chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and is a member of a powerful Rhode Island family: Caprio’s father is chief of the Providence Municipal Court and his brother was the state treasurer. Tanzi was, like Kimzey, a rookie politician and a Brown student, though not an undergraduate, and still managed to win the District 34 seat.
Tarro’s name carries similar weight to Caprio’s, as both his grandfather Anthony and his father Richard once held the District 8 seat. Although Tarro is not a Caprio, and is only in his first term, this race has a similar feel. Tarro fits the perhaps stereotypical image of Federal Hill, Providence’s Italian cultural center.
Kimzey risks appearing as an outsider who is not connected to her district; or at the very least, she must contend with the possibility that her connections within the community will be insufficient—both in the campaign and, if successful, in office. On her campaign website, she promises “to bring accessible, community-centered leadership to my home district.” Indeed, the race may hinge on her ability to convincingly call this her “home district.” As for challenging a member of an old Federal Hill family, she points out that the district is now more Latino than Italian. “The more time you spend here,” she said, “the more you realize that the big names, the big families, just don’t live here anymore. They’ve all moved to Johnston.”
Good little girls
Although she does not see a return to Brown in her near future, Kimzey said she developed a lot of useful relationships as a student, especially through Project 20/20 and the fair elections student group Democracy Matters. Zack Mezera, B’12, has signed onto her campaign as field director. “She’s actually listening to the people she’s working with,” he said when asked why he chose to work for Kimzey. “Which I think is radically different from the old style of politics, which is saying, ‘I know how to run things.’ I have a lot of faith that if she were elected she would be extremely accessible to the district.”
Despite her connection to Brown, she admits that she was not a perfect fit for the school. “I’m just not an academic, she said. “I want to make sure that my energy is going to real-world solutions. Brown is a very academic institution, so in that way our relationship wasn’t a match.” On the other hand, she is grateful that, unlike some undergraduate experiences, Brown did not try to train her to be “a good little girl.” Because, she said, “Good little girls don’t run for office.”
Nor do good little Democrats, not against Democratic incumbents. She said she was aware of “the idea that what a good Democrat should do is wait for their turn, and wait for an open seat. That’s not what I’m doing, because I don’t think that works.”
In the long-term, she said, we have to ask, “Why is our general assembly all private-sector lawyers, white men in their forties and fifties?” One solution Kimzey supports for creating a more diverse electorate is to install publicly financed elections, a proposal she began pushing for when still a full-time student. “[State Representative] is kind of a crappy job,” she said, and this reform would “make that more palatable.”
For many, there are more structural barriers to running for office. Representatives earn a salary of just over $13,000, and so it is very difficult to juggle with a full-time job, especially one with an inflexible schedule. “One of the reasons it’s a bad job is it’s 20 hours a week,” she said. “Making it a little bit easier to reach satisfying levels of healthcare, income, housing, transportation, and education makes it easier to run for office. Yes it takes a candidate, but it also takes a stronger social safety net.” Kimzey believes that many potential representatives are not able to run today. Government policy that helps protect less-well-off citizens would begin to open up candidacy to a wider range of Rhode Islanders.
A race to watch
It is clear that Kimzey is passionate about policies that would seek to help the concerns of all Rhode Islanders, including those who are least represented in government. Her knowledge of and experience in the district are less convincing. Her campaign website lists thirty groups, societies, and projects of which she is or has been a member, making it read somewhat like an extremely active high-school student’s resume—evidence both that she is highly skilled and enthusiastic and that she lacks the key accomplishments in the district that a more experienced candidate might herald.
As for the citizens of District 8, they will have to decide whether her experience and knowledge of the community are enough to be a good representative. And the race could still take on a new shape entirely. Former Acting Mayor and President of the Providence City Council John Lombardi, who lost in the Democratic primary for mayor last year to Angel Taveras, is rumored to be considering a run for the seat as well. Whether or not he joins this September will be closely watched by politicos, Democrats, Progressives, and the Brown-RISD community.
JESSE TOWSEN B’12 designs doggie safety belts.