PAWTUCKET — Carlos Tobon is trying hard to break into politics, and the 30-year-old Pawtucket native thinks he could bring a youthful vision and committed effort to the House 58 state representative seat. By contrast, his incumbent opponent, William San Bento, is running on his achievements over the past 10 terms, and believes that his focus on more statewide issues will ultimately help the local district the most.
This is the second time that Tobon, of Bloomingdale Avenue, has tried to unseat San Bento, who is deputy majority leader and also serves as secretary of the House Finance Committee. Despite San Bento's years in office, Tobon said that many of the people whose doors he is knocking on in the district say they don't know who their representative is—a problem exacerbated by the district being redrawn to include new sections of Pawtucket. Tobon claims that the “300 or 400 people who vote for him (San Bento) on a regular basis are not truly representative of the district.”
Tobon, a Tolman High School graduate who is now employed as a financial adviser for Barnum Financial Group, has worked previously in social services, coordinating the SKILLS after-school program for Progreso Latino in partnership with Central Falls High School and serving on Pawtucket's Substance Abuse Prevention Task Force. He said he see the importance of improving education and of reaching out directly to local youth for ideas. He also said he understands the struggles of families who want the best for their children but are having a hard time making ends meet,
Tobon said that his parents, who came to the U.S. from Colombia, “broke their backs” working so their children could have something. Yet, he said that while his parents own a house and a couple of cars, they are not that secure financially and he worries about their retirement. He said that a stint in Washington D.C. as a senate page in 1999 fueled his desire to get involved in politics.
Tobon said the city and the state as a whole should do more to improve the job situation, particularly in encouraging small businesses. He cited the recent debacle over 38 Studios as an example of where help should have been provided to multiple start-up companies and “mom and pop” types of businesses, and that more jobs would have resulted in the long run. His idea is to encourage more public/private partnerships, where members of the community would have a stake in local businesses and business development. He said he thinks an economic model where “one million people give a dollar, not one person gives one million dollars” would do more to turn the economy around.
Tobon is critical of San Bento's push for expansion of gaming at Twin Rivers, saying that gambling is not the answer to jobs creation and could also cause more people to spend what hard-earned income they have now. He also believes that Twin River, even with the expansion, will not be able to compete with Massachusetts once that state's casinos are up and running. “Twin River can be a complement to our economy, it should not be the backbone of our economy,” he stated.
Tobon also knocks San Bento for touting his part in enacting a new school funding formula, claiming that the legislator was among those at the State House 15 years ago who who let the previous formula expire. Additionally, he faults San Bento for claiming to fight for the middle class while failing to vote for the pension reform bill. He said he is not “anti-union,” but feels that the current system isn't sustainable. He said he believes that with input from the workers themselves, a solution can be found that will fairly reward them for their efforts and longevity.
For his part, San Bento, a married father of three and grandfather who lives on Nathanael Avenue, said he is proud of his accomplishments and hopes the voters will re-elect him to an 11th term. As a House Finance Committee member, he said he has helped Pawtucket through the enactment of the new school funding formula, which brought in $5.5 million in funding for city schools in the past two years, and helped obtain state resources for other school and local community organizations. He said he was also a co-sponsor of legislation that authorized the city to issue tax anticipation notes (TANs) to help deal with its financial crisis, and co-sponsored a bill that provided a new reimbursement system for nursing homes that will benefit the elderly and disabled.
As an insurance agent and owner of the San Bento Agency in Pawtucket, San Bento said he knows firsthand the hardships of the small business community. He said he sponsored several bills this year that aided small businesses by loosening some “restrictive” fire code regulations and streamlining the state's permitting process.
In contrast to his challenger, San Bento sees the expansion of Twin River as key to protecting the state's revenue, especially in light of Massachusetts' plans to expand its gaming operations. As such, he said he spearheaded the effort to allow voters to decide on the expansion question at the November election.
Of his pension reform vote, San Bento said, “At the time, and still, I don't believe we had to do that. It's amazing how quickly that pension deficit disappeared.” He added, “I have always believed that if you sit down at the table and bargain with the unions, everything will work out. They didn't bother to do that,” he said, of the officials involved in the pension reform effort.