The hippest guy in state government

By IAN DONNIS  |  September 26, 2007

The making of an activist
Segal grew up in suburban Maryland, with physician parents, in what he calls a relatively apolitical household. He chose to go to college at Columbia, he says, since he recognized his need for an immersion in the wider world of new and different things.
If Segal was looking to have his consciousness raised, it worked. Whether it was life in New York City, Columbia’s vaunted core curriculum, or just discussions with fellow students and professors, he came in with a center-right outlook, backing John McCain at one point, before rallying behind Ralph Nader’s 2000 presidential bid.
While in college, Segal had regularly visited friends in Providence, and with activist pals pushing several issues — including a living wage campaign and civilian review of the then-problem-plagued police department — he moved here when a friend from home needed a roommate in 2001.
Segal then decided to run for the open Ward 1 Providence City Council seat in 2002, in large part since outgoing councilor Robert Clarkin was a staunch opponent of the living wage and civilian review, and because a Clarkin nephew, Kyle Diggins, was the Democratic heir-apparent. “I didn’t have very much to lose,” notes Segal. While he didn’t expect to win, running offered the chance to bring more attention to his pet issues, and, “If I won, that seemed like a pretty good thing, too.”
With many of the progressives in the ward — a diverse neighborhood, centered around Fox Point, encompassing students, well-heeled East Siders, and older Portuguese-Americans — backing independent Harrison Bilodeau, the owner of a property management company, Segal’s participation in the race infuriated some longtime residents.
This anger was encapsulated by a November 2002 op-ed in the ProJo — headlined “Election stunt from Brown — A hostile takeover in Providence” — written by liberal activist Karina Wood (it carried the disclaimer that her husband, Cliff Wood, had managed Bilodeau’s campaign). “He [Segal] simply doesn’t know the people, politics, and institutions here well enough to represent us effectively,” Wood fumed. “Listing fine policies on fliers and in campaign speeches is easy. The far harder part and where Segal comes up short is possessing the political skills and experience that result from a history of activism within the community.”
Yet after winning the four-way race, Segal demonstrated a serious dedication to his responsibilities in office, in part by using his roughly $18,000 salary (plus health coverage) as the minority leader of the Green Party on the council to make a full-time commitment to his job.
Segal and Ward 9 Councilor Miguel Luna soon became the most outspoken progressives on the council, pressing Cicilline, who had moved toward the center after winning the mayor’s office, to back the living wage and the long-delayed implementation of a job-preference program for Providence residents, among other measures. Segal passed a large number of ordinances, on issues ranging from city-owned hybrid cars to bilingual eviction notification for tenants.
Karina Wood, whose husband went on to become a department head for Cicilline, and who then won a Ward 2 council seat in 2006, after the couple moved into a different neighborhood, calls her past criticism of Segal “water under the bridge.” She is more energetic in applauding his State House advocacy for increased education funding for Providence, saying, “He did a good job on that.”
Ward 1 residents are generally more robust in their evaluation of Segal. David P. Riley, a Fox Point neighborhood activist who supported Bilodeau in 2002, says of Segal, “He is thorough, thoughtful, concerned — he’s just terrific.” Riley says Segal has the kind of guts and brains that people want in their elected officials. “And it shows. How many other politicians take the time and effort to write commentary about issues? Very few.”
The Providence Democrat, in fact, may be the only Rhode Island legislator who blogs, who has a lengthy archive of published op-eds on his Web site, and who has 433 Facebook friends.

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