BURRILLVILLE – A group of local residents, who say they’re tired of feeling as though officials at the state level do not represent their interests, have put together a series of town hall-style meetings with candidates for high ranking state government.
And as more political hopefuls come forward to schedule stops in Burrillville, they say they’re making progress in putting the town on Rhode Island’s political map.
The meetings began in February with a visit from Republican candidate for governor Patricia Morgan. Another candidate for the state’s top office, Democrat Matt Brown, visited the town in April.
Next Wednesday, the series continues with a visit from Judge Robert Flanders, a Republican candidate for the US Senate.
“Slowly, but surely, candidates are realizing that the path to the Statehouse now runs through Burrillville, and they are not only coming to listen to all of our statewide concerns, but they have taken an interest in learning more about our biggest battle,” said organizer Donna Woods.
That battle, and a uniting force that has galvanized the northern Rhode Island voting bloc according to Woods, is in opposition to Invenergy Thermal LLC’s proposal to build a 1,000 megawatt gas-burning power plant by the George Washington State Forest.
The Chicago based firm first applied to build the $1 billion facility in 2015, and in the years that have followed numerous organizations have come out against the project. One of the first, Woods notes, was Burrillville Against Spectra Energy, also known as B.A.S.E., as well as the Burrillville Land Trust. The FANG Collective and Keep Rhode Island Beautiful have since become involved, and many Burrillville-based opponents are aligned with a group simply dubbed “No New Power Plant.”
Last week, a coalition of local environmentalist, tourism and conservation officials added their voices to the mix, holding a press conference at Pulaski Park that included a walking tour of the area.
The plant, she notes, has also inspired many residents who were previously somewhat ambivalent about politics to get informed. Woods herself is among them.
“I was not politically involved before this,” she said.
The Pascoag resident has a personal connection to the issue. Woods’ uncle, Republican Town Council candidate Robert Woods, built his home on land that later became the Ocean State Power Plant. She was just a teenager at the time.
“I remember them talking about the devastation of them losing their home,” said Woods. “They wanted to leave Rhode Island.”
Instead, she says, her family chose to stay and fight to protect the rural area, buying 48 acres of land next to George Washington Park – right where Invenergy now hopes to set up shop.
“They wanted to make that area their retirement and the power plant would be in their front yard,” said Woods. “I started to think ‘this doesn’t feel right.’ It’s paradise up there. ”
“Instead of getting helpless we all got busy fighting it,” she said.
In emotional testimony before the Energy Facility Siting Board – the state authority that will ultimately decide the plant’s fate – Woods also shared her personal story of wanting to contribute to the health of the area she calls home after overcoming ovarian cancer.
But the plant itself, Woods says, is not the only issue of concern for Burrillville voters, and the meetings, which are all held at the First Universalist Church on Harrisville Main Street, do not focus solely on the topic.
“Although this fight to save our homes, our livelihood, our health and generations of a certain way of life is what woke us up, we are not singularly focused,” she said. “We don’t want to be taken as ‘NIMBY’ or a one issue voting block.”
The nonpartisan gatherings do not serve as candidate endorsements, but rather are opportunities to speak to the candidates about any topic. They are free and open to the public and refreshments are served following the discussion.
The church venue, Woods notes, provides the guests with a bit of town history and also creates an intimate atmosphere where the voters have the candidates’ full attention. The guests give a brief introduction and explain why they’re running, and then Woods opens the floor for questions.
“An organic conversation comes from that,” she said.
The candidates also stay for coffee and refreshments.
“It’s intimate and it gives us an idea of how genuine or disingenuous someone might be,” Woods said.
The meetings also serve to educate the candidates themselves. Many, including Flanders, take a tour of the land where Invenergy would tear down acres of forest.
Flanders will tour the forest just before his forum on Wednesday, July 25. On Wednesday, August 29, Aaron Regunberg, a Democratic running for lieutenant governor, will come to town. Republican gubernatorial candidate Allan Fung has also agreed to come, for a date to be determined.
“Their interest in our fight is encouraging,” said Woods. “Candidates reach out to us now. It’s understood that it’s become part of the conversation, and it’s going to be a big deal in the election cycle.”
Woods notes that incumbent Gov. Gina Raimondo has yet to accept the invitation.
“I’d like to personally extend the invitation to join me in one of these events and prove us wrong,” said Woods. “We don’t bite….we vote.”
“We want a chance to interview these folks who claim to represent us,” Woods said. “We always thought they did represent us, but it seems to be about big money interests.”
And after being told for years by government officials to “trust the process,” Woods is now among those working to change that process. In May, she testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee about why the state’s method for approving such projects needs reform.
“After years of research, education and outreach, we have become experts on this so called process and we see just how rigged it is,” Woods said. “I challenge anyone in RI to look behind the curtain of our state’s politics; we don’t have a shady reputation by accident.”
“We think that a change in leadership would be advantageous to us,” she said. “The current one is not representing northern Rhode Island.”
“We are loud, we number in the thousands and we are in the fight of our lives,” said Woods. “Ignoring us feels a lot like it may be politically fatal.”
The community forum with Flanders will take place at the church at 134 Harrisville Main St. on Wednesday, July 25 from 6 to 8 p.m.
Woods is still accepting requests for forums from other candidates seeking high ranking state offices. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Facebook Messenger as Donna L. Woods.