September 29, 2010 Brown Daily Herald
by Dan Davidson
In Admission Office literature, the diversity of Brown's student body receives a good deal of emphasis. All 50 states and almost 100 countries are represented, and "about 29 percent of undergrads are people of color." These statistics don't take into account the variety of life experiences we bring to the table. "Diversity is one of the most beautiful things about Brown," says resumed undergraduate Teresa Tanzi. After election day, she may be able to claim a unique contribution to the student body's diversity - as a member of Rhode Island's General Assembly.
By now, you have probably heard about Tanzi's upset of David Caprio in the Democratic Primary for District 34 State Representative. While the election of a Brown student would be news under any circumstances, Tanzi's victory is particularly impressive given her opponent. As The Herald reported last week, Caprio is the "younger brother of state treasurer and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Frank Caprio," serves as House Judiciary Committee Chairman and "is an 11-year veteran of the General Assembly."
As Tanzi described her background to me in a phone interview, it struck me that her decision to take on an entrenched incumbent - which even many of her past colleagues thought was a poor choice - was perfectly natural. Throughout her life, she has sought out new opportunities where she can make a difference in her community. For many years, her love of food and cooking has inspired volunteer activity with a bevy of organizations combating hunger and advocating healthy, sustainable food choices. Frustrated with a lack of progress on women's issues, she became more involved with RI NOW, rising to South County Chapter Chair and Executive Board member.
Further angst at the state of political affairs led to involvement with Ocean State Action, a coalition of progressive organizations, where she became vice president of the board and was active in economic policy work. It was in this capacity that her decision to run for office truly began to take shape.
"As passionate as I had been about issues impacting women," Tanzi said, "I found myself more impassioned about budget issues," which affect a whole range of causes she cares about. At the same time, she became increasingly frustrated with the representation, or lack thereof, that her local community was getting on Smith Hill. "So few lawmakers were interested in voting," preferring to avoid taking responsibility for any issues, and Tanzi felt that Caprio had lost touch with his district. "We needed to change the players," Tanzi told me.
Tax and budget issues are the focus of Tanzi's campaign. She is highly critical of this year's tax reform effort, which cut the income tax rate in the highest bracket from 9.9 percent to 5.99 percent at a time when local communities are seeing services cut and property and car taxes raised. She is also alarmed by the current fixation on cutting programs to help close the budget deficit. "The concept of cutting our way out of the budget crisis and leaving people more vulnerable because of the cuts, it's very frustrating," she told the South County Independent.
Tanzi attributes her electoral success to a "slow, methodical outreach" effort that included engaging with business and civic leaders and knocking on over 3,300 doors. Knowing that tax code and the budget process tend to be full of inscrutable and arcane details, Tanzi worked to inform her neighbors and show the links between fiscal issues and local problems.
This strategy clearly paid off and should serve as instruction for progressive politicians and activists. "Someone had said to me ‘a budget is a moral document,' " Tanzi told me, lamenting, "a lot of people involved in policy have forgotten that." Tanzi got people engaged and energized by reaching out to all corners of her local community and hammering home the message that the budget, while not as sexy as various causes de jour, is the most fundamental issue for Rhode Islanders. The budget expresses our priorities and impacts every resident of the state in innumerable ways.
Tanzi's insistence on connecting broad issues to local problems is the right approach to get a wide array of people behind progressive policy goals. Take sustainability as an example. I hear many liberals throw the word around as if it should be obvious to everyone that "green" initiatives will benefit them, without stopping to think about how the issue is being defined or providing concrete examples of what sustainability will mean for them. Tanzi links sustainability to her district's struggling fishing community of Galilee, arguing for the development of in-state processing plants to keep jobs associated with the fishing industry local, and a "buy local" fish program that would spur sales.
After taking a quick, post-victory vacation to recharge, Tanzi is hitting the campaign trail again. Facing both Republican and independent opponents in the general election, she "will take absolutely nothing for granted." As for her future at Brown, she is looking forward to restarting her education after taking time off to run. If she is elected, she won't be surprised if her relationship with the school changes in one way: "They'd be foolish not to lobby me!"