Johnston Dist. 43 Rep. Deborah A. Fellela will have a primary challenger for the first time since 2014 this fall, as candidate Melinda Lopez has thrown her hat into the ring.
Fellela last had to battle for the Democratic nomination six years ago, when she defeated Edward Doyle by nearly a 14-point margin on her way to a general election victory over independent Karin Gorman. Fellela did not face a contender in either the primary or the general election in 2018, coasting to her sixth term.
Lopez, a career educator, said during an interview in January that she doesn’t feel as though she’s running against Fellela, but for the community she wishes to represent.
“I feel strongly that people aren’t talking to us about what we care about, and my decision to run for state representative was based on elevating Johnston at the state level,” Lopez said. “I feel like we have a reputation that isn’t great and it shouldn’t be that way. It’s more important to me that more of what’s good in Johnston gets elevated and that we get more of our needs heard at the state level.”
Lopez graduated from Brown University in 1994 with a bachelor’s in psychology before earning her teaching certificate at Roger Williams University in 1997. She’s spent the last 25 years in education, working her way up from being an intern at the Lincoln School Early Childhood Center to four different positions she holds today.
Lopez is the president and director of the Latina Leadership Institute in Providence, as well as an adjunct professor for Rhode Island College’s early childhood education department. She also works as an early reading first literacy mentor coach for Connecting for Children and Families in Woonsocket, and she serves as an educational strategies specialist for the Highlander Institute.
It comes as no surprise, then, that education is a key part of Lopez’s platform. She said she would like to meet with Superintendent of Johnston Schools Bernard DiLullo, as well as principals and parents across town, to “get a sense of what they think is and isn’t working for Johnston.”
“I think that communities get better when their schools are serving the needs of the students and families,” she said. “I’ve been in education since 1994, all different schools and … facets of education, and it matters how we’re educating and raising our children, and it matters the opportunities we’re providing them and the messages that they’re getting and the resources that we have. So I hope that my experience in education will help to elevate parents as well as teachers who work really hard and hopefully push on some things.”
Lopez, a self-described moderate Democrat, said she also cares deeply about women’s issues and health care. She cited her own personal, harrowing experience of how confusing and cold the health care system can be.
She said her son was born with half of his heart missing, and she did not have the best coverage at the time and had trouble making sense of her policy.
“Understanding how to navigate the system was totally overwhelming, so when I think about policy that matters to me, I certainly think that making healthcare more streamlined in a way that more people can access the language and the literature, whether digitally or on paper, matters, because it really changed my life to have that son and to have those bills,” she said.
When asked her opinion on Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello, Lopez said after a brief pause that she has never met him and wanted to do so before forming any opinions. Fellela supported Mattiello’s most recent reelection as speaker.
“Because of that, I’m not completely comfortable answering, so I don’t want to make decisions based on what I read and hear,” Lopez said. “That’s all I’m going to say.”
However, she did speak out regarding Mattiello’s recent comments on climate change during a January forum with the Boston Globe. Mattiello said, “There’s nothing Rhode Island can do to address climate change in a way that’s real or impactful.”
“I completely think he’s wrong,” Lopez said. “To think that the smallest state can’t do anything that would impact climate change is an error on his part. I think we can all do something, and the longer we wait, the worse it will be. So I do not agree with that statement at all.”
While education, women’s issues and health care are important platforms for Lopez, she said she doesn’t want to commit to any concrete legislative initiatives until she hears what the top issues are from constituents.
“I don’t want to say I’m going to do ‘X’ if it doesn’t actually match the needs of the community,” she said. “When I talk to parents, one of the biggest things that’s top of mind for them is we don’t have [career and technical pathways] programs. A lot of kids are going to high school in other places and Johnston’s paying for that. That’s highly problematic. That’s a problem that we can fix if we get enough funding, and if we get people to realize that continuing to send students out of our district isn't helping our district.”
She said she and her group of volunteers will start canvassing this spring, and she wants to host monthly community forums to hear from residents. She anticipates summer being the busiest time of the year as she gears up for the primary in early September.
Lopez recently launched her website – melindalopez.org – and is active on Facebook and Twitter. She likes to use a particular hashtag, #listenlearnlead, on the latter as a way of summing up her campaign goals.
“I would start with the fact that my goal is to listen to what is coming out of the small business owners in our town – the families and the individuals – and try to learn about what matters to them because it might be different than what matters to me, and if that’s the trend then that’s what I have to respect, because a representative is supposed to represent,” Lopez said. “And then lead. Lead comes from this idea that a leader is representative of his or her community, not selfishly.”