Scott MacKay Commentary: More Twists In Providence Mayoral Contest

Jul 17, 2014

Just when you thought you knew the candidate field in the Providence mayoral campaign, things changed. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay’s thoughts on the capital city’s revised City Hall election.

Lorne Adrain has dropped out of the Providence mayoral race, bringing the number of general election candidates to three, for now.

Another week, another new twist in the Providence mayor campaign. The departure of independent Lorne Adrain from the race has set off a scramble for his supporters, most of whom hail from his home neighborhood on the city’s affluent East Side.

As he left the election, Adrain took the high road, saying he got out to make it more difficult for the next mayor to win election only a third of the vote or less. He didn’t mention the name Buddy Cianci, but it was clear that Adrain got out to  make it more difficult for Cianci to march back into the Beaux-Arts City Hall in reprise of his improbable 1990 comeback.

Rhode Islanders of a certain age vividly recall Cianci’s 1990 resurrection in a three-way election he won with a bit more than a third of the vote over independent Fred Lippitt and Democrat Andrew Annaldo. This came after Cianci was forced from office in1984 for assaulting his ex-wife’s lover. Cianci’s first reign as mayor was also encircled with the whiff of corruption and multiple convictions of city employees for various forms of chicanery.

Before Adrain’s departure, voters were looking at a four-way race for mayor among Cianci, an independent; the aspirant who wins the three-way September Democratic primary; Republican Dan Harrop;  and Adrain. Now, there will be just three contenders in the November general election. Or perhaps, two and a half candidates.

Harrop, a psychiatrist, is a smart man but in previous elections has been more gadfly than serious campaigner. He has never raised enough money to be a force. He doesn’t seem to harvesting enough cash this time around to move a message. So far, he has been a muddle, saying that the city ought to go into bankruptcy and even hinting that he may decide to drop out.

That leaves the field to the winner of the Democratic dustup among City Council President Mike Solomon, the party’s  endorsed candidate; newcomer Brett Smiley, a campaign consultant who has lived in Providence only since 2006; and former Housing Court Judge Jorge Elorza, a Harvard-trained lawyer. Solomon remains the favorite. This we know: It is unlikely any candidate will raise more money or work harder.

And of course, Cianci, the huge whale in this sea.

Solomon has institutional knowledge of the city through his work with outgoing Mayor Angel Taveras on reigning  in the city’s out of control finances. Political geography tells us that his foundation constituency overlaps with Cianci’s in such neighborhoods as Mount Pleasant, Elmhurst and Fruit Hill. Solomon’s family has deep roots in the city.

A small businessman and restaurant owner, one of Solomon’s challenges will be to explain clearly why a city-backed loan for a downtown building he partly owns went into default. His defense is that he did not walk away from the loan as did so many others in the ill-fated Providence Economic Development Partnership program. The loan is being paid off, albeit it very slowly, and the building now sports a thriving pizza shop business.

Smiley’s challenge is to expand his appeal beyond the wealthy social liberals of the East Side. He made some progress last week by enlisting the endorsement of Rep. Ray Hull, an African-American and  longtime city police officer who once was a Cianci driver. Yet Smiley has already felt the sting of Cianci’s  verbal lash and he didn’t handle it very well.

One of Cianci’s signature tropes is to insist that everyone in politics is bruised. This I’m-not-perfect-but-neither-is-anyone else moment came when Smiley challenged him to a debate. Cianci, the master of on-air and barroom wit, quipped that maybe the two should debate at the Foxy Lady, the strip club that the late father of Smiley’s husband, Jim DeRentis, had an interest in.

Instead of using a witty comeback, Smiley took the sanctimonious path, whining that it was just awful that Cianci attacked his family. The subplot here had nothing to do with family; it was simply Cianci’s rapier way of reminding voters that Smiley’s husband’s family was connected to a sketchy business that is notorious for exploiting women and has forever been suffused with the stench of organized crime.

If Solomon and Smiley become ensnared in negative game of thrust-and-parry, the beneficiary could be Elorza, an up-from-the-bottom success story who mirrors the path broken by Taveras, the first Latino mayor. Elorza, with his well-spoken manner, his Harvard pedigree and law professor background, could become the sleeper in the primary.

Elorza must extend his support in the vote-rich wards of the East Side. But his most crucial immediate task is to unify the growing Latino community in the way that propelled Taveras to a big primary victory in 2010.

As was the case generations ago, immigrant minorities compete not only with the majority political culture but with each other. For years, the fault line in Rhode Island (and Massachusetts) politics was Irish-American and Italian-American. Now, it is a scrum among the newly arrived from such countries as Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, Mexico and El Salvador. To win, Elorza must pull together this diverse community that is often united only by its native language, Spanish.

As for Cianci, well, what can you say about him that hasn’t already been said. The Adrain departure makes it more difficult for Cianci by raising the percentage of votes he needs to win from as low as 34 percent to something more like 44 percent.

That won’t be easy.  (Cianci said after Adrain left that he always anticipated a two-way general election face off. It sounded more like spin than reality). But as he rolls out his redemption tour, none of the other campaigns rule him out. Are you up for a roller-coaster ride in Providence this election season?

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