My story — and my path to politics — looks different than most. 

My father was born and raised in Medellín, Colombia. In the 1980s, his country was mired in corruption and consumed by cartel violence so he sought a better future for himself and the family he yearned to someday grow. He left Colombia behind and immigrated to Rhode Island, a state founded on the noble ideal of hope and grounded in freedom. 

A state where my family would come to find both – and as General Treasurer, I will fight to preserve that dream for others.

For 30 years, my father worked in a factory in Central Falls. He became part of America’s industrial middle class. For much of that time, he was a member of the local union. My father’s job — and the support he received from that union — provided financial stability and ensured there was always food on the table. And so it was, in the smallest city of the smallest state, that I was born and raised.

As a lifelong Rhode Islander, I am a proud product of the Central Falls public school system. After graduating from Central Falls High School in 2003, I first pursued higher education at the Community College of Rhode Island, taking advantage of all that institution has to offer. That opportunity — to attend a college or university — was something my parents never had. It was their sense of pride that drove me to finish my education. After CCRI, I transferred to a four-year college where I earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Criminal Justice, all while competing for the men’s soccer team. When that part of my journey ended and I walked the stage to accept my diploma, I became the first in my family to graduate college.

Throughout my upbringing, my mother and father always taught me the value of hard-work, community involvement, compassion and caring for others. My father also taught me to always lead with hope. Hope in a brighter future and a better tomorrow.

The same hope that first inspired my father to come here has driven me throughout my journey. That’s why a resounding message of hope from a youthful presidential contender who said, “Yes We Can,” carried such an impact.  

With that call to action, I returned to Central Falls because I wanted to give back to the community that had so openly welcomed me and my family. At the age of 24, I was elected to represent Central Falls’ 4th Ward on the City Council. There, I fought to keep the city’s only public library open amidst budget cuts. Libraries are places of learning and community centers where young and old alike can engage and learn. It was unthinkable that Central Falls could be deprived of such a space. With great effort and cooperation, I was able to save our library. I was also able to keep the city’s only post office open when it also almost fell victim to budgetary woes. While these accomplishments may seem small to some, I’ve often found it can be the little things that have the greatest impact on people’s everyday lives. 

When the sitting Mayor was indicted on corruption charges and the city hopelessly plunged into bankruptcy, Central Falls became the first city in state history to be declared insolvent. 

I saw a city in dire need, and knew I had the experience, passion and hope Central Falls needed. In a five-way primary against far more established opponents, I received 59 percent of the vote. I took office in 2012, becoming the first Latino mayor of Central Falls and the youngest mayor in our state’s history. 

While there was much to celebrate, I immediately set out to improve my city. In this time, I learned, I listened, and I led. 

Over the eight years as Mayor, our city overcame great adversity. After years of fiscal irresponsibility, the city was bankrupt. The pension was left underfunded by $80 million. There were skeptics. National news agencies openly questioned whether a 27-year-old could bring a city back from the brink. 

With openness, transparency, community engagement, and strong leadership, we turned the city around. We stabilized the city’s finances, raised its long-term bond rating to investment grade, and secured millions of dollars in federal, foundation, and private sector funding to improve the city’s infrastructure and quality of life.

To better ensure our pensioners’ financial future, I also collaborated with the Treasurer’s office to incorporate the city’s pension system into the state Municipal Employees Retirement System (called the “MERS”). I saw firsthand the devastating and personal impact of pension mismanagement. Before I took office in Central Falls, pensioners’ benefits were cut by up to 55 percent. Strong and hardworking men and women saw their futures dissipate; their retirement plans destroyed. By bringing the city’s pension into the state administered system, I accomplished lasting change. As part of a larger portfolio, municipal pensioners now benefit from greater diversification and access to more sophisticated tools to help protect them from volatility. There are lower operating costs, and the benefit of shared contracts and investments approved by the State Investment Commission. To me, this decision was just a question of good, transparent governance.

When a new crisis emerged, I partnered with the neighboring city of Pawtucket to create a unified response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Our response included an organized volunteer corps and enlistment of the former head of the Rhode Island Department of Health to serve as the city’s Chief Health Strategist. This quick, organized, and informed response went a long way in stopping the spread of a virus in a city where families of five or more sometimes reside in one room apartments. 

After I completed my two terms as Mayor, I joined Brown University in a senior role with The Policy Lab where I provided strategic advice and insights on The Lab’s engagement with state and local government partners until I began campaigning full time this past spring. For me, public service is no part-time hobby, it’s a lifelong passion started by a spark of hope.

To me, my story is a telling testament to the continued vitality of the American Dream. Our lively democratic experiment is still thriving. This is a country where my father, a migrant, fled violence in his home country and was able to see his young son elected Mayor. It’s this dream and my undying faith in hope that I want to bring to Rhode Islanders across our state, regardless of their background. 

I want to fan that flame of optimism for my two-year-old daughter, Arianna, who I am raising alongside my beautiful fiancée Sandra Cano. And I want to keep it burning for each of you. I’m invested in this state’s future. Now, I’m asking you to invest in me and help me win the Democratic primary this September and the general election this November. 

Conoce a James