Scott MacKay Commentary: 2014 Providence Mayoral Campaign Up For Grabs

Nov 27, 2013

The 2014 campaign for Providence mayor has become a most difficult campaign to handicap. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay explains why.

Providence Mayor Angel Taveras will be vacating the mayor's office, and who steps into the role is still anyone's guess.

With Mayor Angel Taveras running for governor, the parade is forming to take over City Hall in New England’s second largest city..

So far, five serious candidates are preparing campaigns: Four Democrats and Republican aspirant Dr. Daniel Harrop, a psychiatrist.

The Democrats are a mix of the familiar and the new. The best-known is City Council President Michael Solomon. Based on his fund-raising prowess and political smarts, Solomon, son of former State Treasurer Anthony Solomon, is viewed as the early leader. He has also lined up top-flight campaign talent in pollster John Della Volpe and consultant Mike Donilon, a Providence native with a national reputation who helped David Cicilline win the mayoralty in 2002. Donilon works for a consulting firm that helped Boston Mayor-elect Marty Walsh and New York’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio.

Solomon has also added Taveras allies Matt Jerzyk and Peter Baptista of the Hamilton Group to his team. Baptista has a background in consulting and campaign finance and Jerzyk, a lawyer, is known for his knowledge of the city’s diverse neighborhoods and voter turnout.

Solomon has worked closely with Taveras and hails from the Elmhurst section an important electoral foundation. Yet he has never been elected to anything beyond his home neighborhood and is not as articulate as several other hopefuls.

The most intriguing new face is Jorge Elorza, a Latino and Roger Williams University law professor who holds a Harvard Law School degree and is a former city Housing Court judge. But he has yet to demonstrate that he can raise the money needed to for a high-profile campaign.

Political consultant Brett Smiley has a background in lobbying and running campaigns, most notably former Lt. Gov. Charles Forgarty’s near-miss for governor against Donald Carcieri in 2006. Smiley was head of the Providence Water Suply Board and has an East Side base but has  never been elected to anything. So far, Smiley has had more success in fund-raising than Elorza.

Another candidate with an East Side residence is Lorne Adrain, the former chairman of the state Board of Governors for Higher Education. As chairman, Adrian shepherded the measure that allows the children of illegal immigrants to qualify for in-state tuition at Rhode Island’s public colleges. Adrain has been involved in non-profit community efforts, has a financial business background and is the spouse of novelist Ann Hood.

Then there are the wild cards: State Rep. John Lombardi, a veteran Providence politician who served briefly as mayor after Vincent A. `Buddy’ Cianci resigned as he was facing federal corruption charges. Lombardi lost the Democratic primary in 2010 to Taveras  and has had difficulty raising money. He was also crushed in that race on the East Side.

The wildest card is Cianci, who has been urged to run by former Mayor Joe Paolino.  Cianci is a polarizing figure – he twice left office over  felony convictions, once in 1984 and again in 2002. The demographics and ethnic mix of Providence is far different than it was when Cianci  first won City Hall in 1974. Cianci is now in his 70s, has just bought a nice boat, has become closer to his grandchildren since the tragic death of his daughter Nicole Cianci,  and is earning a hefty living as a talk radio and television commentator.

Twenty-first century Providence is a much different city than it was when Cianci or Paolino served as mayor.  A city of contradictions, the capital city has some of Rhode Island’s wealthiest neighborhoods on College Hill and along the Blackstone Boulevard. It also is host to the seen-better-days sections on the South Side off Broad Street, where  gun shots shatter the night.

In mayoral elections, as in Orwell, all neighborhoods are created equal but some are more equal than others.  The prosperous neighborhoods of the East Side are the fulcrums to victory in the new politics of Democratic primaries. Candidates who get beaten badly on the East Side, such as Paolino in 2002 against Cicilline, or Lombardi against Taveras in 2010, have scant chance of winning.

Taveras harvested about 5,200 of his roughly 12,000 votes from the three voting wards of the East Side and his home 5th Ward in Elmhurst and Mount Pleasant. The highest voting ward in 2010 was Ward 2 on College Hill, which cranked out 2,614 votes; Taveras got a remarkable 2,003 of them. By contrast, Ward 7 in Silver Lake, once a bellwether district dominated by Italian-Americans, generated only 1,271 votes.

A huge shift in East Side politics has been the decline in the Republican Party as a force in Providence elections. The era of Yankee pols such as former House Minority Leader Fred Lippitt and city councilor Mac Farmer are long gone.  Cianci was first elected in 1974 as a Republican mayor. This has meant no longer are GOP primaries relevant. Unaffiliated voters on the East Side flock to Democratic primaries, where the real decisions have been made in recent elections.

If you think Federal Hill is still a crucial neighborhood in city politics, you’ve spent too much time in the dark reaches of Camille’s Restaurant on Atwells Avenue and not enough at Julian’s on Broadway, where the servers have more tattoos than the NBA. A Federal Hill resident today is more likely to be an arty  hipster or a college student than a book maker or DPW worker.

Unionized public employees were once a crucial constituency in Providence politics. But the end of rules requiring city police, teachers and fire fighters to live in Providence have diluted union clout. When less than 15 percent of the firefighters live in the city, how much does it matter which candidate their union endorses?

Latinos are the emerging political power base in Providence, as shown by the 2010 election of Taveras as the city’s first mayor of Hispanic ancestry.  Taveras is unlikely to get involved in the mayoral contest because he’ll be campaigning for the State House and won’t want to make enemies in his home city.

With his money, pedigree and campaign talent, Solomon is the early favorite. But there is so much time to go in this contest that anyone who thinks they can predict the outcome is probably dreaming.

Scott MacKay's commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:35 and 8:35 and on All Things Considered at 5:50. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at the `On Politics' blog at