Democratic state Rep. Deborah Fellela recently announced her candidacy for an eighth term representing District 43 in Johnston, while she is set to face a primary challenge for the first time in six years.
The Sun Rise reported in February that Melinda Lopez would seek a primary bid against Fellela, who has run unopposed in her last two elections. Republican candidate Nicola Antonio Grasso has also declared for the seat.
Fellela dispatched her last challenger, independent candidate Karin Gormin, by more than 16 points in 2016. Her only primary came against Edward Doyle in 2014, a race she won by almost 14 points and more than 300 votes.
While she hasn’t had an opponent in a while, the incumbent representative said she feels she has “a good base” of supporters and has established strong relationships over the past 14 years. She said that she may not be too experienced with social media, but she remains accessible to constituents.
“When I started in 2006, it really hadn’t taken off and I’m not a big social media person, so I do see that as a challenge, because I’m not too tech savvy,” Fellela told the Sun Rise last week regarding potential obstacles she may face during her reelection campaign. “My kids are very helpful with that, but I haven’t really gone that route. I feel I communicate with my constituents, my cell phone is out there, my email is out there, my home phone is out there… I’ve created relationships with folks, no matter what the issue may be, so I feel like I’m pretty much accessible if someone needed to reach me.”
Fellela lauded Gov. Gina Raimondo’s response to coronavirus and said the state is “moving in the right direction” as it reopens. She did, however, agree with Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello’s recent comments that restaurants could be opening sooner and with greater capacity.
“We see the restaurants really, really having a hard time – the caterers, the venues for weddings and florists, and you go right down the line there of different businesses,” she said. “We had a small business meeting last week and it’s really sad to hear the stories, but people are resilient and people have made adjustments to their business and they’ve moved forward.”
Fellela said the pandemic has led to a “wasted year” in the General Assembly, stalling much of the legislation intended to hit the floor. She noted that some of her goals included increasing the gambling age from 18 to 21 and implementing a tax-free weekend for those looking to purchase gun safes.
“I think that would be something, I know gun safes can be pretty expensive and it could add up, the sales tax, but it gives an incentive to people to buy gun [safes],” Fellela said. “It seems like people are buying more guns and to have a safe environment for them, especially if you have a family in the house.”
She also said the Law Enforcement Bill of Rights is a matter the General Assembly should “ look at, at length.”
“Like we’ve said about past legislation on the books … I’m sure there are some things in that Bill of Rights that are antiquated,” she said. “It is something that we should take a look at. I’d be happy to support something like that, maybe a commission to take a look at that.”
On a local level, though, Fellela intended on submitting legislation to aimed at alleviating the school district’s financial duress. She and Dist. 13 Rep. Mario Mendez attended a School Committee meeting shortly before the statewide shutdown, during which members of the board pleaded for help with the rising costs of sending Johnston students to technical schools elsewhere in the state, such as Cranston West or Ponaganset.
There was hope that a bill would be submitted, but then the pandemic took hold.
“Johnston is getting really hit with the cost of the vocational school that so many of our kids are going to in the town,” Fellela said. “I talked to the School Committee at length and Dr. DiLullo, and we were going to put in some legislation, we were going to have something drafted but then this all hit. I’d really like to work with them on that.”
She said her working relationship with the School Committee, and the rest of the town’s officials, remains sound. School Committee Vice President Joseph Rotella, who reached out to Fellela about the vocational schools matter, is “always there to bounce things off of.”
“Mayor Polisena’s been excellent. The [Town] Council, any time I have an issue, if it’s a local issue with a road or something that is not a state road where I have to reach out to one of the council [members] – everyone’s been wonderful to work with over the years,” she said.
As the state gets back to business, Fellela said she doesn’t feel any anxiety walking in to the crowded chambers. When she spoke to the Sun Rise, she had yet to see the plexiglass barriers that had been erected between seats, but noted that it would be difficult to wear a mask during the entire meeting.
She said she feels healthy as she embarks on another legislative session and campaign season.
“You don’t know if families want to open their door and talk. I’ve been out a little bit and talked to a few people and tried to catch them in the yard as much as possible to just see how things are going for them, but that’s a little bit of a challenge, those types of things,” Fellela said.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to provide context on Rep. Fellela's statement on people wanting to buy more gun safes.