State Rep. Candidates Face Off in MassVote Online Forum

State Rep. Dan Ryan and Chelsea Councilor and state representative candidate Damali Vidot faced off in one of the first debates of this strange and unique election season – and yet another unique piece was there was no stage.

Both candidates and Moderator J. Keith Motley, of UMass-Boston, participated remotely via Zoom in the MassVote-sponsored debate for the 2nd Suffolk District – which encompasses Charlestown and most of Chelsea.

State Rep. Dan Ryan speaking about housing issues during the MassVote debate.
Councilor Damali Vidot speaking about environmental justice issues during the MassVote debate.
The moderator of the online debate was UMass Boston’s J. Keith Motley.

Sitting in their homes debating the issues gave the event more of an informal appeal, but it didn’t lack any seriousness in regards to the weight of issues debated. After the one-hour question-and-answer forum, Rep. Ryan came off as the polished and experienced state legislator who is accustomed to the system on Beacon Hill for getting things done. Meanwhile, Councilor Vidot came off as someone with a new voice that would challenge the ways things are done on Beacon Hill and would call to re-invent long-standing priorities in society.

It was a thread that ran throughout the debate as Rep. Ryan cited a long and successful record, and Councilor Vidot cited dreams and aspirations for a new set of priorities that would elevate concerns of both communities in the 2nd Suffolk.

Vidot off the bat said she decided to run for the seat – which she did not plan on doing at all until after the pandemic started – because of a lack of leadership from the district’s state delegation, including state representative.

“Food insecurity and housing insecurity have long been an issue, but I feel the current elected officials have been ok in turning a blind eye to it,” she said. “I didn’t think the same folks that perpetuated these cycles…would be the ones to lead us out.”

Ryan said he is asking the voters to send him back to Beacon Hill because he has been doing a good job, and many of the problems tackled in Charlestown and Chelsea have become models for the state.

“I think people should re-elect me because I’m doing a good job,” he said. “It’s an amazing district and a diverse district, not only racially but socioeconomically…There was talk earlier about a lack of leadership for this district. The Student Opportunity Act was championed by Dr. Mary Bourque from the Chelsea Public Schools. The head of the Police Chiefs of Massachusetts reshaped the way police think about policing – that’s Chief Brian Kyes in Chelsea and he’s a state leader. The Chelsea Collaborative, GreenRoots and the Charlestown Coalition – which I was a founding member of – are all leading. What we’re doing in the 2nd District creating the statewide models on how to fix urban communities. That’s why people should re-elect me. I understand the issues and I’m moving things forward. I have a record to run on and it’s a pretty good one.”

Vidot said when referring to a lack of leadership, it wasn’t about overall leadership, but just the state delegation.

“Ultimately why people should elect me is there is a lot of work to do and we need advocates that are going to amplify the people in a way that isn’t politics as usual,” she said. “My reference to a lack of leadership wasn’t about the local groups; it’s about the state delegation and the state period.”

A noticeable difference wasn’t so much on the issues at hand, but on the practicality of certain issues. For example, on free education at public colleges and free fares on the MBTA, Vidot said it was time to make those things free and prioritize them. Meanwhile, Ryan said he was open to thinking about such things, but would need to hear a practical way to pay for such massive, free services.

“I’d like to say free public transit for everyone, but you can’t say that unless you find a way to pay for it,” he said. “There are ways to do it with some of the big developments in downtown Boston. Then again, we don’t know what downtown will look like after COVID-19.”

Said Vidot, “I don’t plan on going to the State House and start by giving everyone a free education. I’m saying we need to re-imagine the possibilities and re-imagine our priorities where we’re putting people first…We need to invest in our people.”

Ryan had a highlight in talking about Affordable Housing, when identifying Gov. Charlie Baker’s bill that has stalled out in the Legislature – mostly because suburban lawmakers and residents don’t want to consider more affordable housing in their communities. He said a lot of the issues and suffering underlying COVID-19 had to do with the inability to spread out affordable housing.

“I have been working with the City Councils and City governments to do more to make housing affordable,” he said. “If the people in the suburbs don’t want to build, this problem will continue statewide. They might have their progressive signs on the lawn, but they have a pretty big lawn. If they don’t want to build, it’s going to take a while to get our vote to 50 percent to approving housing statewide. That’s why I’m working with City Councils, because we understand the City’s problems.”

Vidot had a highlight when touching on overall themes about environmental justice, education inequity and health care for all. Her them was that all of those issues were racial issues and needed to be discussed holistically.

“We need to talk about all of these issues holistically,” she said. “Otherwise it’s just a slice of pizza and we’re not looking at the whole pie.”

One of the major issues in the election – and every state legislative election – is that of policing reform, particularly on Qualified Immunity which protects police officers and other public officials while in the function of their jobs.

Both candidates are in line with reforming Qualified Immunity.

Vidot said she supported its repeal, noting that no other job has such protections.

Ryan cited that he was an original co-sponsor of the bill to reform Qualified Immunity 18 months ago when it wasn’t an issue in the public eye, and no one showed up at a hearing to testify on it. He has since not changed his position on the matter.

The debate is available to watch on the MassVote Facebook page as a recording, and another forum sponsored by the Chelsea Record on climate issues is slated to take place Thursday, Aug. 13, online.

Voting has already begun by mail, and early voting starts this month, with the Democratic Primary Election Day being Sept. 1.

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