She stood amid overturned toy castles and idle trucks and talked canvassing routes, missed calls from constituents, and the newest batch of yellow T-shirts and posters on her front porch. The conversation with Jen, her campaign manager, was cut up by quick comments to the little kids dodging the toys, yellow “Monica Huertas, Democrat for Ward 10” signs, and congregated ankles of pamphlet-laden volunteers—all indicators that this family’s home was moonlighting as a campaign headquarters. It could have been a scene from The West Wing, if Aaron Sorkin knew how to write women.
Thirty-year-old Monica Huertas is a social worker, a mom of four, and, through years of activism and action, a well-established citizen of Providence’s Ward 10. Her first political act, she said, was being born a Puerto Rican woman, and since then she has fought for justice against any force that has tried to trample it. She has consistently been one of the strongest voices speaking up for the two neighborhoods—Lower South Providence and Washington Park—that make up her district. Residents of her district, like many members of marginalized groups in Providence, have had their health jeopardized by local industrialization and their security endangered by the precarious housing market. When a corruption charge vacated the Ward 10 councilman position, Huertas knew that it was time to get a “bigger seat at the table” to continue fighting from.
“I’m not a career politician,” Huertas emphasized throughout her conversation with the College Hill Independent. She stands in contrast to the besmirched image of Luis Aponte, the Democrat who held the Ward 10 seat from 1998 to his resignation in July, which set off this hurried special election. Aponte, Providence’s first Latino councilman and first Latino council president, was held in high regard by his constituents. According to public opinion, he was on track to eventually run for Mayor of Providence—until the Board of Elections indicted him on embezzlement charges in 2017. Despite the charges, Aponte still won the 2018 Democratic primary to Pedro Espinal by a slim margin of 24 votes. Espinal is running again during the special election, but his campaign has been slowed by the recent discovery of the $93,000 that he owes in back taxes. The winner of the primary, set for October 10, will be a shoo-in for the general election. Natalia Rosa Sosa, a law office assistant, and Orlando Correa, an ironworker whose support for the Fane Tower has won him endorsements from local labor unions like Iron Workers 37 and the RI IUPAT (a progressive painters’ union) are also running. Correa’s underdog “I’m not a politician, I’m just a hopeful citizen” persona mirrors Huertas’, but his widespread labor support seriously threatens her environmentally-geared candidacy.
“Growing up, if there was a bully, my mom was like, ‘You better hit him back,’” Huertas told the Independent. “She understands the system and how there are bullies, and so she did that same threat against me [when the seat opened]: ‘You better stand up against them!’”
When Huertas moved into Washington Park, one of the two neighborhoods that makes up Ward 10, a neighbor asked her if she had heard about the National Grid’s Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) storage facility a quarter of a mile away from her house. She hadn’t, so she went to her first No LNG in PVD meeting. The environmental activism group was formed four years ago in response to National Grid’s attempt to build a new LNG liquefaction facility, in which natural gas tapped from pipelines running beneath the city would be “supercooled” into a liquid that could be kept easily and cheaply in the storage facility, which was built in the 1970s and previously supplied by truck deliveries.
Inspired by the first meeting, Huertas quickly took charge of the group and led it in the fight against environmental racism and against National Grid, whose liquefaction plant would be constructed within a mile of the “11 Providence Polluters”—facilities, including a liquid asphalt plant and a Univar chemical plant, that the EPA has identified as especially prone to toxic chemical releases.
The factories on the Port of Providence already release roughly 4.4 thousand pounds of emissions a year into the air less than a mile from the Ward 10 neighborhoods, which are largely composed of minority and low-income groups. For three years, Huertas and No LNG picketed along busy highways, flooded the statehouse, and ran an education program throughout the community to raise awareness of both National Grid’s insidious proposal and the dangerous factors already at play. “It’s been a slow and long road, but it’s been something powerful,” Huertas said.
Even though the Rhode Island Department of Health was critical of the proposed facility because “it continues that historical pattern of discounting the voices of the people that live in the region” and sets dangerous precedents, the proposal was eventually approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, whose report asserted that the facility is a “safe” distance from existing and future residences. However, even though the project has not yet been decisively cancelled (and some estimates suggest that construction could begin in 2020), the facility still has yet to be built, and both Huertas and No LNG are optimistic that the delays and standstills will continue.
The liquefaction facility is just one of many acts of discreet environmental violence—waged through polluted air and toxic water—against people living on the front lines of the heavily-industrialized port. Huertas cited the area as having the ninth worst asthma rates in the country; in 2018 alone, Huertas’ child was in the hospital seven times due to asthmatic complications and aspirations. Two of these visits were spent in the intensive care unit. “They were literally fighting for their right to breathe clean air,” said Huertas. During this time, she continued to fight for No LNG, because, if the city wasn’t going to take any measures to protect its citizens and her children, she would have to mobilize and fight these blatant acts of environmental racism herself.
“When something happens in our neighborhood—there is a shooting or some violence—they want to say that it’s us,” Huertas said at a rally in 2018. “But when they’re killing us, because it’s Corporate America, they don’t say shit.”
The Lower South Providence and Washington Park neighborhoods of Ward 10 have also been struck by the blight of Providence’s expanding colleges—such as Brown, Johnson & Wales, and Providence College—whose land acquisitions and student populations seeking short-term housing have gentrified the area and raised market rates. Wages are no longer livable and rents (let alone mortgages) are no longer feasible. Barring a drastic policy change, the combination of these two destructive factors inevitably leads to the displacement of people. Affordable housing is one of Huertas’ many lofty goals, and although she’s conscious of the scope of the City Council, she’s no less confident in her ability to help her community through these bold efforts.
Huertas and her siblings were raised between Puerto Rico and Providence by their single mother, who, as an employed certified nursing assistant (CNA), couldn’t always pull the funds together for rent. Huertas’ childhood was colored by these sporadic experiences of homelessness. Then, while in school at Rhode Island College, she experienced homelessness again, at which point she was raising two young children and getting a degree in social work, all while still a kid herself. She spent time and got assistance at Crossroads Family Shelter, of which she is now a board member, and went to the Rhode Island Department of Human Services for childcare when she was at school and her husband was at work. DHS turned her down because “a four-year program is too long of a stretch,” but they did offer to pay for a six-week CNA course. There’s nothing wrong with being a CNA, said Huertas, but the pay gap between CNAs and social workers would make it necessary for DHS to pay for childcare until her kids aged out of the system—a much longer span than the three or so years for which she needed help. The variability of resource availability and efficacy shocked her then and continues to motivate Huertas to improve the system today. “I’ve been a part of this system my whole life,” she said. “A lot of things are fucked up, and that’s one of them.”
But alleviating some of the stresses of homelessness is only a band-aid to a much bigger problem. Huertas’ first goal in office is to enact some form of rent control legislation and eventually use taxes on large companies to generate funds to improve Providence communities and to encourage small, local businesses and developers to construct affordable, subsidized, and mixed-income housing.
“They’re creeping up over here, pushing out people. They need to start paying their fair share of taxes. Something’s gotta give,” she told the Independent. “It’s good to build, but you have to build good things.” The bullies that Huertas opposes are building things—LNG facilities, Fane Towers—on the municipal dollar, much to the detriment of the municipality. Fane “Hope Point” Tower is a proposed luxury housing building currently going through the approval process; it’s slated to be built on land originally intended for a public, riverside park and is currently eligible for $25 million in tax credits.
The residents of Ward 10 and their homes are not safe because of the insidious airand waterborne toxins seeping into their homes from the port. The homes that make up Ward 10 are not stable because of the dwindling (and nearly nonexistent) stock of affordable housing and residents’ lack of means to hold on to such housing. The concept of community is rooted in safety and stability, and these two factors feed each other: When a home is stable, it is safe, and when it is safe, it is stable. How can a community persist when neither safety nor stability feel guaranteed?
Huertas knows the disillusionment of instability at an individual level, and she knows it at the community level; her frustration with the system is born of experience, and the promises that she makes to the people in her community are shaped by an inimitable foundation in strife and triumph and a genuine belief that she can accomplish these towering feats.
“I’m a social worker, and I’m going to do the social work, literally,” she told the Independent. She said that this background is crucial to understanding the systems in place and how policies can interact with and mold these systems, and, most importantly, to avoiding the hubris that keeps people from admitting that they don’t know all the answers. “I just speak my truth and the community’s truth.”
To understand the “community’s truth,” Huertas has been canvassing Ward 10 every day since the election was announced: From 5:30 PM to 8 PM Monday through Friday (after she gets off her nine-to-five at the foster care agency), and from 12 PM to 8 PM every weekend, she goes door to door with her kids, who are veteran door-knockers from Huertas’ time leading No LNG, in tow. “In one night, I may only make it to five homes, but that’s because three of those five homes I’ve visited have wanted me to come in and sit down, and I’ll spend half an hour or more with them,” said Huertas.
She’s met a boy with multiple sclerosis and his mom, who carries him up and down three flights of stairs multiple times a day. She’s met, to the excitement of her kids, a woman with a shark in a fish tank. She’s heard complaints about the air, about the schools, and about the government while standing in people’s front yards, leaning on their porches, and sitting in their living rooms. She’s put names and faces to houses previously seen only from a distance and has genuinely personalized the entire process as a result. Huertas intends to keep up this open line of communication once in office through the establishment of a Ward Committee (an open monthly meeting where constituents can voice their opinions and problems directly to her), Ward 10 holiday parties, and the reestablishment of the block parties that once united the community.
While walking the streets of Lower South Providence, knocking sporadically on the two to three doors on a street that she had previously missed, Huertas passed a number of big blue signs reading, “Orlando Correa, Providence Ward 10,” and passed a number of pamphlets the Correa campaign left in its wake. If you were just polling campaign signs, Correa would seem to be Huertas’ biggest competitor, and, if you look at their policies at a distance, he is also her most analogous rival. He shares her deep roots in Ward 10 and the drive to construct affordable housing, and he even shares the self-selected label of “environmentalist” with Huertas. But Correa's promise to fight for the building of the Fane Tower, sets him at odds with Huertas. Huertas said that he isn’t “a true environmentalist” and that his pro-industry stances are incompatible with environmentalist ideology, suggesting that Correa will prioritize short-term economic wins (such as the Fane Tower) over long-term, sustainable efforts, although he doesn’t have a political track record to prove or disprove this theory. Correa has also been endorsed by PVD Firefighters IAFF 799, while Huertas has won the endorsement of RI Democratic Party Women’s Caucus. She is also one of 25 candidates supported by the new RI Political Cooperative, a progressive grassroots group similar to the Justice Democrats that brought national attention to Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign.
Huertas walked up to the last house on Swan Street confidently, her posture defying the exhaustion that a full day of canvassing brings. The door already sported a “Sorry We Missed You!” flyer from Correa, but Huertas avoided disturbing the pamphlet when she knocked her familiar, oft-repeated knock, whose tone and rhythm she perfected after knocking on nearly every door in Lower South Providence and Washington Park.
“I don’t want to knock like a bully,” she told the Independent.
“The kids in my neighborhood are invested in my campaign,” Monica said at a patio table in her backyard, fitting in a quick lunch before canvassing while watching her son Alex try to open the chain link gate. “That’s what keeps me motivated. When they tell me, ‘Monica, we’re winning,’ I say, ‘Yes the hell we are.’”
DEBORAH MARINI B’22 is also not a politician.