Political newcomer challenges RI House majority leader

EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – She says he’s out of touch with his district. He says she’s controlled by special interest groups.

And while they both may be Democrats, John DeSimone and Marcia Ranglin-Vassell differ on a lot of issues.

DeSimone – the 24-year incumbent representative from Providence’s House District 5, and since 2014 the powerful House majority leader – debated challenger Ranglin-Vassell in a televised debate Friday on WPRI 12’s Newsmakers.

Ranglin-Vassell accused DeSimone of failing to connect with the people of his district, which covers the North End of Providence.

“My opponent has never come to my door in 20 years,” Ranglin-Vassell said. “It tells me that you would not seek me out, because you would not seek out anyone who is poor, disadvantaged or really working hard to make ends meet.”

DeSimone shot back that “maybe she wasn’t home.”

“I’ve been fighting for poor people, the people of my district, my entire career,” DeSimone said. “You, on the other hand, are backed by outside millionaires who don’t care about our district.”

DeSimone was apparently referencing a push by RI for Gun Safety, a group that has targeted the district with fliers criticizing the veteran lawmaker’s stance on gun laws. The group has received $87,500 from former Hasbro CEO Alan Hassenfeld to target voters in four districts, including DeSimone’s.

On the topic of car taxes – where Providence residents face the highest rates in the state – both agreed they are too high. But they disagreed on what to do.

“I think that should be shifted quite honestly off the backs of the people that need it the most and should be spread across the state,” Ranglin-Vassell said.

Asked how she would propose paying for the lowering of car taxes, Ranglin-Vassell said taxes need to be raised on the wealthy.

“Everyone needs to pay their fair share of taxes,” Ranglin-Vassell said. “We should not be going to most vulnerable, which is our seniors and our children and their families.”

DeSimone – a labor attorney – proposed seeking more money from large nonprofits such as colleges and hospitals, which do not pay city property taxes.

“Certainly I wish we could get rid of the car tax in Providence because it’s overly burdensome, but unfortunately the cost of that is insurmountable.” DeSimone said. “Right now Providence receives $30 million or so for the car tax. They need that $30 million.”

He added, “I think some of the tax-exempt institutions, of which some of the people that support my opponent work for those institutions, they should pay their fair share.”

During a “rapid fire” section of the debate, Ranglin-Vassell said she is pro-choice on abortion, while DeSimone said he is pro-life. The pair have been endorsed by Planned Parenthood and Rhode Island Right to Life, respectively.

The two also differed on whether the state should issue driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants: she said yes, while he said it’s “a federal issue.”

DeSimone gave Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza the letter grade “A” for his job performance. Ranglin-Vassell – a Providence schoolteacher – gave Elorza a “C.”

Elorza endorsed DeSimone, one of his close State House allies, earlier this week.

Ranglin-Vassell struggled with the question of whether or not the state should legalize the recreational use of marijuana for those 21 years of age or older. In the end, she said the issue needs to be studied.

DeSimone said marijuana legalization should be decided by the voters in a referendum.

The primary is Sept. 13. The winner will face Roland Lavallee, a Republican, in the November election.

Tim White ( twhite@wpri.com ) is the Target 12 investigative reporter and host of Newsmakers for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook

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