NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Though most of them may not be able to vote, a group of North Kingstown High School students certainly made their voices heard in this past election.
NK Students4Candidates, a group co-founded by seniors Joe Vento and Jacob Cedor that’s unaffiliated with the school, made waves earlier this fall as the group of now over 20 students and recent alumni came together to support candidates running for town office that they felt best represented their interests as students by supporting the school system and listening to the concerns of youth in town.
Ahead of the September primary, the group collectively endorsed candidates in the races for Town Council and School Committee, which would later become known as the “Five Forward NK” and “Three Forward NK” teams respectively, all of which were Democrats. For Town Council, the group backed Town Council President Greg Mancini, former School Committee Chairwoman Kim Page, social worker Katie Anderson, retired Newport Police sergeant Jack Kliever and MyMOC CEO Brad Artery while going with incumbents Jennifer Hoskins and Jacob Mather along with newcomer Jen Lima.
The organization produced videos and signs for their endorsed candidates, as well as created a Facebook profile, though soon these actions would find themselves at the center of local controversy, particularly among some local Republicans as well as some independents and Democrats, who accused the group of using school department resources and imagery to campaign for solely Democratic candidates.
This controversy came to a head at the Oct. 19 Town Council meeting when Councilor Kerry McKay directly challenged Mancini on several topics, including NK Students4Candidates, which he accused the Town Council President of “directly engaging” with the students to create a “pro-Democratic website” in support of Mancini and his fellow Five Forward NK candidates, while fellow Republican Mary Brimer said Mancini and others were “using” the students and Councilor Kevin Maloney, an independent, said he hadn’t been contacted by the group and was “a little bothered” to possibly being perceived as not supporting the school district.
Complaints were filed about the group and its funding to the Rhode Island Board of Elections. At the request of the School Department, they ceased all usage of the Skipper logo, something Vento said the group was already looking at moving on from anyways, and they were made to register as a political action committee (PAC) with the Board of Elections.
Initially it was reported they were forced to pay a fee, however Vento said in the end it was waived.
“We were told by the Board of Elections that the penalty was administratively waived, so we will not be assessed a $25 late fee,” Vento said.
Of their eight endorsed candidates among the two boards, five were successfully elected or re-elected, including Mancini, Page and Anderson to two year terms on the Town Council and Lima and Hoskins to four year terms on the School Committee.
“We’re generally very happy with how the election results turned out,” Vento said. “We’re very proud of the candidates that we endorsed and we have great hope moving forward that both the School Committee and the Town Council will be even more interested in listening to student’s perspectives now that we have candidates who have promised to do so on the campaign trail.”
“I think it’s really good that people are going out there and voting for people who are going to make the right changes for the town,” Cedor said.
For their case, NK Students4Candidates never said there was any ill intent behind their fundraising efforts and that the mistakes came from learning to navigate new waters as a student-ran political organization, mistakes Cedor said have been made by other newcomers in the past.
“I thought it was interesting that the candidates we didn’t endorse thought that they needed to bring up that we filed incorrectly originally considering people are 50 years old and they start a campaign for town or state office or any other office and they do the same things that we did,” Cedor said.
To that end, Cedor said it was one of the biggest lessons he learned about the election process.
“I think I learned a lot about what goes into (elections) from a campaigning perspective, especially like I mentioned about the finance and some of the laws behind the campaigning process,” Cedor said. “I didn’t know before this that it was so in depth. It’s good to independently start something like this and kind of learn on my own without any help from any adults or anything.”
After formally registering as a pack and updating their logo, NK Students4Candidates continued to campaign heavily for their endorsed candidates, including having multiple members and allies hold signs in front of the nine polling locations in North Kingstown on Election Day.
“Before (Election Day) we had coordinated with a bunch of students who are very involved with NK Students4Candidates and I just wanted to say I’m very thankful for their efforts to turn out Tuesday and hold signs at the polling places,” Vento said. “I do think that contributed to the success and I’m very proud of all of our members, everyone who stood outside either on Election Day or put a sign in their yard or participated in one way or another for NK Students4Candidates.”
With the majority of their endorsed candidates victorious, Vento and Cedor said they were pleased with the election outcome and the combined efforts of their fellow members, as well as their support for each other.
“It’s good that we were able to get three of our five (endorsed candidates) through to the Town Council and two of our three through on the School Committee,” Cedor said. “I think the voter turnout this year was amazing and I think that we played somewhat of a role in that.”
“I’m really thankful for the candidates’ willingness to defend the student organization when there were misleading claims made about the organization,” Vento said. “I’m very proud of that and now I’m confident that as they’re governing, the School Committee or the Town Council, they’re going to be interested in hearing the perspectives of students and they’re going to work with us on a bunch of items.”
To that end, Vento said one of the biggest things he learned this election was to never take support from others for granted.
“Support from the candidates means a lot,” Vento said. “I think as unfortunately we learned that things can get nasty even at the local level, so I might have taken the support for granted from some candidates and I definitely didn’t anticipate how grimey this would get at the local level, but looking at it hindsight (is) 20/20, (so) I’m so thankful for the people that did support us, whether it be the candidates or people from town, I think that the level of support that we got was really high and that’s something that I think we’ve learned to cherish, to be honest.”
As for the elected officials who the group didn’t endorse, both Vento and Cedor were hopeful to come together with them in the future to work on issues that benefit the town as a whole.
“Even though we didn’t endorse some of the candidates who ended up winning the races for Town Council and School Committee, that doesn’t mean that we’re not willing to work with them or have discussions with them,” Vento said. “I think anything and everything is on the table. We want to work with the people who are part of our town government and that includes the candidates that we did not endorse and to be honest I’ve worked with some of those candidates in the past and I would be willing to do so in the future. I’d just like to say that we’d definitely be interested in extending a hand and working together with all of the candidates who won the races on the Town Council and School Committee.”
“Hopefully they are willing to work with us and listen to us because we’re all working towards the same goals,” Cedor said. “We’re all trying to make North Kingstown better. We’re trying to make Rhode Island better for the people that live here, so hopefully they hear us out even if they don’t make every decision based on what we say, hopefully they at least listen to what we have to say and consider it when making decisions.”
With their first election cycle out of the way, and the only for Vento and Cedor with the group as they’ll both be graduating in the spring, the co-founders envision a bright future for their organization, with Cedor laying out a potential path.
“We plan on changing our name to Students4Change so that we are not limited to just North Kingstown or elections,” Cedor said. “We want to try and make some changes in other towns in Rhode Island and do similar things in future elections and just on policies in general throughout their terms and not just get (candidates) elected but try and get some crucial decisions made.”
“We’re going to have some discussions soon as per what our future holds, but I think now is a great time to reflect on our successes and once again it’s not something that Jacob and I could’ve done on our own,” Vento said. “It was entirely a group effort from all of the people who put signs in their yards, went to the polls, participated in the videos that we made, made posts on social media for us (and) we’re so proud of everyone who did that.”
In particular, Vento pointed to how rare of a thing it was to see a student-run PAC actively involved in the municipal election process.
“One thing I really want to emphasize, and this is something I’ve been told by some of the candidates and some of the people from the Board of Elections, is that this is extremely new, it’s never really been done before, a student-run political action committee supporting local candidates,” Vento said. “It’s very new in Rhode Island and we’ve gotten a lot of support from members of the town who commend students for being involved politically and fighting for what they want at the local level.”
It’s getting students involved and interested in local elections that really is one of the biggest points of pride for the group in Vento’s eyes.
“This is really unprecedented and it’s great to see students involved in local government,” Vento said. “As my time as the student representative to the School Committee comes to an end, I’m hoping and I’m actually really hopeful and confident that some of the younger students who are part of Students4Candidates and part of our Student Union and student government are involved in our local politics will play a big role in the future in determining what occurs at the local level, so I see a very bright future for North Kingstown students.”
Vento said while he understands the North Kingstown School Department distancing themselves from the organization, and reiterated they were independently ran and not affiliated with any other on campus group or organization, he hopes that administrators in the future encourages and promotes more student involvement and interest in the local political process.
“It’s our hope that in the future, the NKSD welcomes and applauds students efforts to take active roles in their local democracy,” Vento said. “Of course we would always expect them to do this in a nonpartisan manner.”
As for Cedor, he said with the involvement of multiple underclassmen now with experience under their belt, this is only the group’s beginning and added that he’s looking forward to working with the town’s elected officials to accomplish their goals.
“I hope we move in the right direction, get the proper funding for the school department (and that) proper improvements are made,” Cedor said. “I’m looking forward to working with what the Town Council and School Committee are going to do the next two years.”