Rep. Mario Mendez said he hopes Tuesday’s primary will be a “revalidation” of the support House District 13 voters showed two years ago, saying he has represented voters with “dignity and class” during his first term.
Mendez’s path to reelection is much like 2018, when his only competition was a Democratic primary against then-incumbent Ramon Perez. Now, the field is a bit more crowded, as Perez and newcomer Janice Falconer are challenging Mendez for the right to represent District 13.
Mendez said that, if he keeps his seat, he will look to focus closely on education during his next couple of years in office. He specifically pointed to student debt and increased technical education as key initiatives.
“Many, many folks, I think are seeing the effects of being burdened by student debt, and I think these folks were somewhat pitched college as a panacea to every possible dilemma and it’s not something, as we’ve seen, that was the optimal solution,” Mendez said during a recent interview with the Sun Rise. “There are plenty of opportunities in the trades that offer a very decent wage without the burden of a college education in terms of student loans, so that’s something that I’m looking to champion this upcoming term, if I am lucky enough to be reelected.”
Technical education has created a hot-button issue in Johnston, one with which Mendez is very familiar. Before the coronavirus pandemic took hold in Rhode Island, he and District 43 Rep. Deborah Fellela attended a School Committee meeting during which Superintendent Bernard DiLullo and Chairman Bob LaFazia asked for financial assistance.
Transporting Johnston students to technical programs, like those offered at Cranston West and Ponaganset, has cost the town millions of dollars and helped create a deficit for the past year. LaFazia and DiLullo asked for the Johnston delegation to assist in alleviating the burden.
“The issue here is the practice of busing is drawing away resources from our school districts, and I think that’s something that shouldn’t be understated with regards to the effect that has on our budgets,” Mendez said. “It’s in the works at the moment, I can’t say that it’s been top priority because of everything that’s been brought upon as of the pandemic hitting, but it is something I look forward to working with once we can sort out the issue of the state budget as a whole and the deficit that we’re facing.”
Mendez lives in Johnston, and he said that he shares plenty of the same values as town voters. He said residing alongside his Johnston constituents has allowed him to show them “that the person who represents them at least has some semblance of knowing what they lives are like on a daily basis.”
“I grew up where your word is your bond,” Mendez said. “Often when I am knocking on doors I am told that I should call folks by their first name, and that’s something that I can’t become to accustomed to. I’m 31 but I see most of these folks as adults, and I was raised to treat adults with respect. Sir and ma’am. It’s something that I’ve been trying to change for the sake of that personal connection, but it’s something that goes back to the way I was raised.”
Mendez said his first term has come with quite a bit of learning and adapting. He said his days oftentimes run from 9 a.m. to midnight, investing time in the Finance Committee and other legislative matters.
He said that while some matters may seem cut and dry, “it’s a learning experience” to witness the variety of viewpoints a seemingly uncontroversial bill could produce.
“When I was first running, when I was walking door to door, I had three priorities on my agenda – education, employment opportunities and public safety,” Mendez said. “I arrive at the State House not realizing how much being the prime sponsor of one bill takes in terms of resources and time, and so when I got there I’m thinking, ‘Well, it’s one bill. I could’ve submitted five bills, and been more ambitious,’ let’s say.”
He realized he would have to concentrate on one bill at a time, rather than being too ambitious.
“The amount of time it takes to work on one bill is something that’s underestimated,” Mendez said. “I introduced legislation with regards to principals being able to conduct hiring decisions with regards to their staff, which as it stands now is under the purview of superintendents, and so when I introduce that bill, it’s generally a bill that aims to be able to return that autonomy but also authority to those administrators who are directly in the building with the staff that they’re choosing.”
He said he’s “optimistic” about his chances with District 13 voters, and it’s bound to be a tight race. Mendez only defeated Perez by just more than 70 votes in 2018, and now their roles have been reversed.
“I am confident that my record holds up,” Mendez said. “The way that I’ve represented the district with dignity and class is something that I’m very proud of, and something that perhaps seems one-dimensional but when that was a concern for most folks in the years prior, I think I’ve succeeded in that.”