Jennifer Stewart Runs For Office

Jennifer at her birthday party and campaign launch at The Guild in Pawtucket

After years of teaching students about the American political system, humanities teacher Jennifer Stewart is taking part in it herself. She is a candidate for state representative of her district in Pawtucket.

“Our past is full of examples of people doing things that haven’t been done before,” says Jennifer. “So, I decided to apply that to my own life.”

She took time out of her very busy schedule to answer a few questions:

What part did students play in encouraging you to campaign for office?

Over the years, because I teach a political science course, students have asked if I had ever tried to run for office and would I ever consider running. When those questions would come up, I would laugh a little and reply that people like me don’t do that. By that reply, I meant that I study politics but don’t get involved in that way, and that as an everyday, working person, the political system is not really set up for people like me to run for office. This past school year, Enzo Battaglia ‘22 asked these questions, and I replied as I did in the past. Unlike past years, afterwards, the response I gave did not sit well with me. With that feeling in mind and after talking with others, eventually, I asked “why not me?”

Later, it was fun to share with Enzo that I changed my mind and decided to run for state representative for my district in Pawtucket. As I try to convey in my history classes, people can do a lot.

What are your personal motivations for running?

I see the decision to run for office as an extension of the motivations that have kept me teaching – I care about people being empowered to create the future they want, to express themselves, and to take action to make a difference. Also, while the pandemic years have brought so much tragedy to many people, they seemed to also raise the question of whether we’d begin to change things about our society that create a lot of hardship for many people. Personally, I grew frustrated to see that we were not making these changes and that broadly popular policies were still not being sufficiently acted upon by our political leaders. I don’t want my students to feel cynical and powerless about our political system and I didn’t want to feel like that. So, I decided to do something by running for office.

Are there ways that your career as a teacher has helped you prepare for politics?

My career as a teacher has been very helpful because the skills needed are similar. In both contexts, I must be able to write and speak clearly, to figure out how to connect with people in a short amount of time and to ask questions that can open up conversation. Like in the classroom at the beginning of a term, I’m having these conversations with people I do not know. Sometimes, I answer questions about how our system of government works, so being a history and political science teacher has been especially relevant.

What have been some challenges thus far?

Raising sufficient money to fully fund the campaign is challenging. I’m at the point in the campaign season where I’m out canvassing neighborhoods to meet prospective voters and make the case for my candidacy. It’s been very difficult to do that when the temperature has been in the 90s.

Also, I’ve experienced firsthand the obstacles that non-incumbents face – many of these obstacles are procedural like petitioning to simply get on the ballot within a short period of time. Some of these obstacles have been particular to Pawtucket. For example, Pawtucket has specific laws pertaining to campaigns that are not shared by other cities and towns. For example, it restricted the display of candidate yard signs to only 30 days before election day. This kind of law was deemed unconstitutional in Warwick years ago; somehow it was still the law in Pawtucket.

With the help of the RI ACLU and joined by another plaintiff, I sued Pawtucket to challenge that law because it was a blatant First Amendment violation, and one meant to hurt non-incumbents and make elections in Pawtucket less competitive. We got a temporary restraining order to prevent the city from enforcing this law. Consequently, we had a win for democracy in Pawtucket – residents could now see earlier that we have a contested primary election.

What have been some surprises?

People have been more receptive and supportive than I initially imagined. It has been wonderful, remarkable, and humbling. Also, I have been hearing more from voters about the housing crisis – anecdotally, it seems to be worsening at a faster pace here.

To find out more about Jennifer’s campaign, you can visit her website:
https://linktr.ee/jenniferstewartforri 

Or, find her on social media at:
Twitter: @JenStewartRI
Facebook: facebook.com/JenniferStewartforRI/
Instagram: @jenniferstewartforri