Holly Taylor Coolman: Running to Represent Everyone in My District

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As a first-time candidate, I’ve gotten the question from many people, sometimes incredulously: “What would make you want to go into politics?”

The story begins with the election two years ago for the very seat for which I’m running. I’ve long been an interested voter, and in this race I noticed something unusual. In our very small district, it was obvious that large amounts of money were being spent on behalf of the challenger for the position of State Representative. At one point, when someone came to canvass at my door for the third or fourth time, I asked for details about the candidate, and the visitor responded, “I don’t know. They’re just paying me to hand out these fliers.”

As an “adopted” Rhode Islander–my family and I moved here about a decade ago–one of the things I have loved about the Ocean State is how local and personal politics are. The idea of so many dollars pouring into our district felt wrong to me.

As it turns out, the challenger, Marcia Ranglin-Vassell, succeeded in her bid for election, and the long-time incumbent, John DeSimone, was unseated.

The Backstory

I think a challenge to the powers that be is often a good thing. And I share some of Ranglin-Vassell’s political concerns: education, gun control, and a focus on those whose voices are often ignored. As time passed, though, I began to feel that the infusion of cash had resulted in the election of a candidate who did not best represent the range of political opinions in our district.

The first example appeared immediately. I contacted our new representative, Marcia Ranglin-Vassell, when, only weeks after taking office, she stepped to the forefront to advance extreme pro-choice legislation with which I did not agree. I, and others who identify as pro-life, felt brushed aside. As Rep. Ranglin-Vassell herself has repeatedly said publicly, it is not simply that she herself is pro-choice, but it “boggles” her that anyone could hold a pro-life position.

I voiced frustration with the situation to friends, and then someone said to me, “I think you should consider running yourself.” I was initially taken aback, but a seed had been planted, and I began to have a different sort of conversation with friends and neighbors: should I consider a run for this office?

Over and over, I received encouragement to go ahead. Many of my neighbors told that me that they were looking for a change in leadership, and that everyone in the district deserved a choice. Others responded that they felt that I had certain skills that would be valuable.

Coolman wants to be more inclusive than her opponent, she argues.

As a professor at Providence College, I have had to work with big ideas. As a wife and mom to four kids, I’ve also had to work on lots of practical solutions. And becoming a foster and adoptive mother has been its own education in working through complexity, while striving for generosity and respect.

Standing to be Counted

I came to realize, too, that I had come to feel a deep connection to Rhode Island and to District 5. This is where I have settled into my life’s work as a teacher. This is where my kids have grown up, attending schools both public and parochial; where my boys played Little League baseball, and where we adopted our beloved daughter. I hope someday to share some of the same pleasures with grandchildren in the same community.

I bring to the campaign both long-time political commitments and also concerns that are important to me for personal reasons. There are the fundamental concerns that make me a Democrat to begin with: protecting workers’ rights (especially in the era of the new “gig economy” and an increasing gap between highest- and lowest-paid workers); ensuring access to healthcare for everyone; and committing to environmental sustainability both immediately and for the long-term. I also bring first-hand experience to a specific set of pressing issues: improving our schools, ensuring access to mental-health care, and reforming the Department of Children, Youth, and Families, which oversees the children in our foster-care system. (I am the proud adoptive mom of a former foster child,)

A Government For Everyone

In addition to these specific issues, I am concerned with the way we go about the business of of politics. I am facing an opponent who, again, is running an extremely well-funded campaign, hiring campaign consultants and paying canvassers to go door-to-door. My own budget is more modest, and my campaign has depended entirely on volunteers. It is a grassroots effort in every sense, and I think that matters.

At the same time, I am determined to resist unnecessarily divisive politics. I’m committed to do my part to rebuild the thoughtful, charitable public discourse that is indispensable for a democratic system to function. We need representatives who are committed to work hard on specific issues; we also need them to be ready to listen to opposing views, and to realize they must be a “representative” for those who hold those views, not just of their own; and to work with others in crafting the thoughtful, nuanced legislation that will move us forward.

Let’s End Divisiveness 

If elected, furthermore, my goal at the State House will be to push not only for the issues I have listed above, but to step back and consider the bigger picture. What do we need in order to make Rhode Island a place where young people are motivated to come and build their families, rather than leaving and making their lives elsewhere? I want to be a part of tackling these big-picture challenges by leading with attempts at collaboration, and consensus building, and compromise, and by looking for ways to make common cause, both with political allies and with political opponents.

These days, I am learning a lot about the busy final phase of an election. I can’t say that it’s all surprising. In any case, though, I am glad to be spending this summer in this way: to have taken the challenge to run, and I continue to be out there almost every day, meeting neighbors, having conversations about the things that matter to them, and understanding better the state that my family and I have come to call home. I look forward to the opportunity to serve.

(Editor’s Note: RI Relevant will run one Op-Ed from every statewide or state legislative candidate in this year’s election cycle. Please send submissions to russmoore713@gmail.com)