Scott MacKay Commentary: Down To The Wire In Providence Mayoral Campaign

Aug 15, 2014

With three weeks to go, the Providence mayoral campaign is heating up. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay on what to look for in the Democratic primary as the days dwindle down.

Jorge Elorza, Brett Smiley, and Micheal Solomon, are coming down to the wire as the Democratic primary for Providence Mayor draws close.
Credit Aaron Read / RIPR

One of Rhode Island’s favorite spectator and participant sports has long been Providence mayor elections. A mélange of circus, street theater and rugby scrum, this year’s campaign is bound to land in the capital city’s political Hall of Fame, and perhaps, shame.

As the clock ticks until the September 9 Democratic primary, City Council President Michael Solomon remains the favorite, but he’s far from a lock. His two challengers – Jorge Elorza and Brett Smiley – could overtake Solomon. But only if they move fast.

One hurdle both Elorza and Smiley must clear quickly is money, the mother’s milk of politics. Campaign reports released recently  show Solomon sitting on about $400,000 in campaign cash. Elorza had $160,000 and Smiley reported just $37,000.

While all the candidates have issued position papers and proposals, this election won’t hinge on policy or ideology. The jabs are flying, but it isn’t clear if any are landing.

Case in point: Last week’s kerfuffle over Solomon’s plan to raise the city’s car tax exemption from $1,000 to $2,000. Providence has the state’s highest car tax levy at $60 per $1,000 of value. This is a modest plan that wouldn’t break the city’s bank. But Elorza and Smiley reacted as if Solomon had started World War III.

Elorza claimed that Solomon ``voted twice to impose his car tax on Providence residents.’’  The Smiley campaign also blasted Solomon for voting for the car tax as a city councilman.

As is too often the case in politics, this issue is more complicated than sound-bites. It harkens back to Gov. Don Carcieri’s  administration, when he and his Democratic enablers in the General Assembly cut income taxes for the wealthy and slashed aid to cities and towns. To soften the blow to communities, Carcieri and lawmakers approved allowing cities and towns to impose this tax on vehicles worth less than $6,000.

Carcieri and Democratic lawmakers made mayors and city council members the fall guys on this one. By slashing aid to communities, the Statehouse gang gave city and town few options for getting the money they need for schools and roads. The choice came down to raising taxes on homeowners or car owners. So community after community put the `clunker tax’ into effect.

Solomon and the city council actually deserve credit for the way Providence handled this mess. Yes, they raised car levies. They also cracked down on homeowners who scoffed at the tax by registering their cars in other states. Nothing galled honest taxpayers more than the sight of BMWs and Mercedes with Florida plates in Blackstone Boulevard driveways.

The blizzard of desultory campaign rhetoric likely won’t sway most voters. Neither will 10-point plans and pie-in-the sky messages. Smiley, for example, says he wants to invest in high-speed trains. This may be a fine idea, but anyone born before last week knows we can’t pay for such things.

There are really only two big issues for Democratic primary voters.  One, who do you trust to do the basics? You know, plow the snow, police the streets, teach the school kids, fill the potholes, clean the streets and parks. And do it without further squeezing   overburdened taxpayers.

The second is more elusive, but foremost in the minds of many: Which candidate has the best chance of stopping the Buddy Cianci redemption tour in November?

Neither Elorza nor Smiley has proven he  can harvest the cash and put together the organization needed to stop Cianci’s third act. Solomon has yet to show he wouldn’t get shredded in a television debate. Cianci has proven that he  is not an honest administrator, but he is the reigning Rhode Island master of politics as performance art.

Elorza has a better chance than Smiley of galvanizing the South Side- East Side coalition that vaulted Mayor Angel  Taveras to City Hall. Yet given his meager campaign kitty, Elorza’s primary chances may hinge on how well he can piggyback onto  the Taveras campaign’s gubernatorial ground game with Latino voters.

According to data from the secretary of state’s office, more than 4,000 new voters have been registered in Providence since April. Most of them have been quietly  recruited by the Taveras campaign, which is keenly aware than they need to win substantially in Providence, Pawtucket and Central Falls to win the three-way gubernatorial primary.

Unlike the governor’s race, a Providence mayoral victory is forged more by grass roots voter turn-out than television advertising.

Solomon is not popular on the vote-rich East Side. So the question swirling around him is can he convince East Side voters to hold their noses and support him over Cianci?

It is easy to argue that Providence can do better than Elorza, Smiley or Solomon. We can also do worse. We know this because we have.

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 our `On Politics’ blog at