A closer look at the Providence mayoral field

Providence, RI – Read Scott MacKay's essay on the mayoral race in the latest edition of Providence Monthly.

Providence's West Side is a microcosm of the city. It has a little bit of everything: young professionals live here along with a number of poorer residents; there are hip restaurants, and low-income housing.

Kari Lang advocates for this area as director of the West Broadway Neighborhood Association. She's seen the change that neighbors can make when they work together, even on something as basic as a recent spring cleanup.

"Neighbors came out, cleaned the streets, and that's even an interesting transformation," Lang says. "In the old days, you'd find car parts, refrigerator parts and rats and everything -- and now we're finding sand and dirt and twigs, and it's a great thing, because people are out involved, meeting each other and making a difference for themselves."

With a job opening in the Providence mayor's office, Lang wants whoever succeeds Cicilline to partner with residents on key issues. Not surprisingly, the economy is her number one priority.

"I'm looking for a mayor that works on economic development and really can create some jobs for the people of Providence, a variety of different jobs," Lang says.

The candidates appear to be listening to people like Lang, and focusing on job creation.

With six months to go before Election Day, there are at least seven candidates who have declared their intention to run, or who have expressed an interest. So far, there's little disagreement among the three considered to be the front-runners over the top challenges facing Providence.

"Basically, there are three major issues," says longtime city councilor John Lombardi, of Federal Hill. "The first one is economy and jobs. Secondly, is the schools, and thirdly is the delivery of city services."

Lombardi, a lawyer, briefly served as mayor in 2002 when Buddy Cianci was convicted of racketeering conspiracy. He says his wide-ranging experience makes him ready to be Providence's next mayor.

"Having been in a small business since I graduated from law school, having lived in the city for 58 years, having been on the city council for nearly 26 years, and also having been in the executive branch of government for four months," Lombardi says.

Another candidate attracting significant attention in these early days is lawyer Angel Taveras - who ran for Congress unsuccessfully in 2000 and has never held elective office.

But with his Dominican heritage, Taveras can claim kinship with the city's growing Latino community. He says his own story of overcoming a poor upbringing in South Providence and going on to Harvard makes him the right person to lead Rhode Island's capital.

"I think that Providence is looking for somebody who understands what it's like to struggle, who understands what it's like to get a good public education, who understands the problems that most of the folks in our city are going through," Taveras says. "My background gives me that opportunity."

Taveras is taking a page from Mayor Cicilline's 2002 playbook, hoping to win with the same East Side-South Side coalition. He, too, says getting the city working again is his top priority.

"The most important issues are jobs, safety and public education, in my opinion," Taveras says. "Jobs, jobs, jobs. That's going to be very important overall because we have an unemployment rate of 14 percent in the city, and in some neighborhoods, it's as high as 25, even higher than that. So we've got to start focusing on getting people back to work."

Also considered among the early front-runners is Steven Costantino, who's been a state representative for 15 years and is now chairman of the powerful House Finance Committee. He says that gives him the experience to prepare Providence for economic recovery.

"The key for this city is to create an environment that pushes Providence to the point of making sure that when we have a recovery in this state, Providence is positioned right in the exact position to take advantage of that recovery," Costantino says.

Taveras, Lombardi, and Costantino each call the city schools a priority.

And like Lombardi and Taveras, Costantino promises to push for what they call a fair and equitable school funding formula.

Costantino's family owns Venda Ravioli on Federal Hill - which makes him a bit of an advocate for small businesses. He says he wants to make city services more responsive to businesses as well as to individual residents.

"So that when residents and businesses need things from our city, they're looked [at] as customers," Costantino says. "They're taxpayers that have actually contributed to the quality of life that the city needs and should have."

Joining Costantino, Taveras, and Lombardi, is perennial candidate Christopher Young - who's known for his outspokenness, conspiracy theories - and for occasionally getting thrown out of public meetings. His mayoral bid is a long-shot, at best. Also facing an uphill battle is Daniel Harrop, an East Side psychiatrist who grew up in West Warwick, who's the lone Republican running in a very Democratic city.

Finally, former Providence Mayor Joseph Paolino is a possible candidate - who could shake up the race - if he actually decides to run. Paolino served between Buddy Cianci's two turns in office, and is considering jumping into the race as an independent. Paolino could draw on his personal wealth, but he received just 34 percent of the vote in the Democratic mayoral primary in 2002.

Back on the city's West Side, neighborhood activist Kari Lang knows that Providence - like any city - faces serious challenges. But she remains hopeful about the relationship that can be struck between the next mayor and the city's active and involved residents.

"We're looking for a mayor that would collaborate and work together with the citizenry to move our city forward," she said.

The mayoral candidates will be spending the months to come making the case that they're the best choice to do this.