Innovation Ecosystem

Voters elect candidates who listen

State Rep.-elect Tina Spears’ victory is a story about how competence, pragmatism, and progressive politics can win

Image courtesy of Tina Spears

State Rep.-Elect Tina Spears

By Richard Asinof
Posted 12/5/22
An interview with newly elected state Rep. Tina Spears, who brings with her a passion to make things work better through informed investment decisions to repair what is a broken health care delivery system.
How will the abrupt departure of OHIC Commissioner Patrick Tigue, who was coordinating the creation of a comprehensive, inclusive database of Medicaid rates, trends and comparisons with regional and national markets as part of the legislatively mandated rate-setting process, change the outcomes? In what ways will Rep.-Elect Tina Spears change the dynamics around budget deliberations around the state’s human services safety net, given her expertise? Will Gov. Dan McKee’s proposed FY 2023 budget address how to make the current investments in housing and health care sustainable, rather than serving as stop gap, short-term, one-time investments? When will Gov. McKee sit down for a one-on-one interview with ConvergenceRI?
It is always important to listen, to take the pulse of the community, to hear what they are thinking. This past week, in four separate, off-the-record conversations, ConvergenceRI engaged with top Rhode Island leaders – in business, in philanthropy, in regulation, and in health care delivery. They candidly shared their biggest concerns.
First, they all voiced grave concern about the perilous fragility of the current health care delivery system. Second, they all expressed their great frustration with the lack of in-depth reporting in health care. Third, they all talked about the need to translate one-time investments, moving from stop-gap actions into sustainable programmatic policies.
Finally, without being asked or prompted, talked about the value of ConvergenceRI’s reporting and analysis.
At a time when ConvergenceRI is confronting the real limitations being imposed by health conditions, the conversations took a surprising turn: to consider ways to expand the digital news platform, to create a more inclusive voice in Rhode Island, and what it would cost. The door, as one leader put it, was not shut, but ajar.
It sent ConvergenceRI pon his jumbled bookshelves to find the well-worn translations of Pablo Neruda and his volume, Extravagaria, and the lines: “I have lived so much that some day/they will have to forget me forcibly/rubbing me off the blackboard. My heart was inexhaustible.” Neruda continued: “It’s a question of having lived so much/that I want to live that much more.”

PROVIDENCE – One of the most under-reported stories of the 2022 campaign was the election of state Rep. Tina Spears, a Democrat, who will be replacing Republican stalwart Blake Filippi, the former House minority leader, in District 36, representing all of Charlestown and New Shoreham [Block Island], and portions of South Kingstown and Westerly.

Spears’ election, for some reason, fell off the radar screen of most political reporters in Rhode Island, but her victory is far more instructive in analyzing what voters want and value in a disrupted political landscape: competence, courage, expertise in the art of governing, and, most importantly, someone who is willing to listen to voters, talking with them, not at them.

In her professional life, Spears is the executive director of the Community Providers Network of Rhode Island. She played an instrumental role in the successful advocacy for the R.I. General Assembly’s decision to become involved in rate-setting for Medicaid. She also served on the Senate commission looking at the future organization of the R.I. Executive Office of Health and Human Services.

Translated, Spears understands how state government works – as well as the problems about what happens when government does not work – and how to work toward solutions.

Earlier this year, ConvergenceRI interviewed Spears, asking her why it was so hard for her voice to be heard regarding the low reimbursement rates by Medicaid. Her answer, in so many ways, defined the “disconnect” in our electoral politics – and why her election may promise to change the way that business is done at the State House. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Finding a voice of their own.”]

ConvergenceRI: Why do you think it has been so hard to have your voice and the voices of your colleagues heard about the current crisis in low reimbursement rates by Medicaid? What do you think is the best strategy to remedy that?
SPEARS: Fundamentally, I believe it is linked to a long-standing stigma and or misunderstanding of the needs of people with disabilities, behavioral health conditions, and more generally, people on Medicaid. This system is often viewed as a drain, and an expense, instead of an investment in the well being of our community or our economy.

We have a dynamic in which the state says, “This is what we are willing to pay for clinical, residential, or community based services,” that has no relevance to cost, which does not match how the state contracts with other industry vendors of service.

Later, in that same interview, ConvergenceRI asked about how the messaging needed to change so that the voices could be heard.

ConvergenceRI: If you could create and launch a billboard campaign to address the gaps in funding and care in Rhode Island, what would it say?
SPEARS: We [the Community Provider Network of Rhode Island and its member agencies] are constantly discussing how we talk to the public and policymakers about this. Right now, I think our billboard campaign would say, “It’s time to include everybody.”

Because that’s fundamentally what this is about: the inclusion of people with disabilities and behavioral health conditions in our society. This is very much a civil rights issue. And we don’t get to a place of inclusion and integration if we don’t have a well compensated professional, experienced workforce, if we don’t have providers who can take in new clients.

Our social media hashtag is #StableWorkforceStableLives, and I think that also sums up the issue well. The health and human services system is destabilized [that was true even before the pandemic, but the pandemic made it worse]; its workforce turns over incredibly quickly because they have been undervalued. Our members need stability in their workforce to provide the stability in their clients’ lives and bring about a state that’s fully inclusive of people with disabilities.

Here is the ConvergenceRI interview with state Rep.-Elect Tina Spears, whose voice in the General Assembly will be both progressive and pragmatic – a voice that has found resonance with the voters.

ConvergenceRI: What led to your decision to run for office?
SPEARS: No one thing led to me saying, “I am running for office.” It really was an evolution. The number-one reason was my sense that our district needed representation that was focused on policies that were important to our local issues. There were many instances that our interests weren’t necessarily reflected in the voting process.

In addition to my desire to have my district's values represented, there was my concern that politics had turned more partisan. I think the national partisan divide has resulted in less trust in our government and political system. The best way to combat that is to provide an example of how to do it differently.

ConvergenceRI: How much of that decision was influenced by what you experienced as a community advocate and the desire to achieve better results?
SPEARS: A lot, actually. Having worked in policy for over a decade, I do have an understanding of what it takes to make progress on good policy and steer investments toward communities.

The government is a complex system and having an understanding of it will be very helpful to me as a legislator.

ConvergenceRI: What were the most surprising lessons of running and winning?
SPEARS: The biggest surprise was how great it was to meet so many people in my community that I would have never met had I not run.

Of course, I knew I would meet a lot of people, but the experience was deeply fulfilling for me personally – and I really enjoyed it.

The biggest lesson was: people really care about their community. The process of canvassing left me with a stronger sense of my community, and it has really informed me as a newly elected representative.

The feeling of winning is always great, but it is also very humbling. I have a responsibility to my community in a way I had not before, so I feel a sense of duty to make progress on issues that are important to my district.

ConvergenceRI: How important is it for you to preserve the privacy and sanctity of family?
SPEARS: Very. My family didn’t run for office; I did. I will work very hard to sustain balance with my family, work and elected position. It is important to them to remain private, and I will make sure to respect that request.

ConvergenceRI: What is the best recipe to eliminate vitriol in our political conversation?
SPEARS: Stay focused on building coalitions and working toward solutions. I had many conversations with residents in my district that had differing political perspectives.

At the end of the day, so long as those differences are not harming, disadvantaging or discriminating against others, you can find common ground.

Respecting one another and opening up the lines of communication between people who have different perspectives is critical to our progress together.

ConvergenceRI: I heard recently Block Island is the Rhode Island community that is the best wired and connected community in the state for broadband, according to the head of OSHEAN. Did you know that?
SPEARS: Could you provide more information before I officially respond?

[Editor’s Note: David Marble, president and CEO of OSHEAN, in a discussion about “Closing the Digital Divide,” held on Friday, Nov. 4, shared the fact that Block Island was the most “connected” community in Rhode Island when it came to broadband coverage, a result that Marble attributed to the community leaders who leveraged the creation of the nation’s first offshore wind farm to build out the community’s digital infrastructure. See link below to ConvergenceRI, “A new theory of connectivity gains traction in RI.”]

ConvergenceRI: Your work to create a way to increase Medicaid rates is a work in progress. What would you like to see happen in the 2024 budget?
SPEARS: Yes, that was a great success and example of a community working together to accomplish something important for our community.

I would like to see the process that is underway to fully inform the General Assembly and the public on the state of the health and human service system in Rhode Island.

We have a lot of work to rebuild the delivery system from a decade of neglect, a global pandemic, and the changing needs of our communities. I am hopeful this process will allow the Administration and the General Assembly to make informed investment decisions and repair what we know to be a broken system.


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