Scott MacKay Commentary: Old Providence Or New?

Oct 10, 2014

Today is Columbus Day, the holiday honoring  explorer Christopher Columbus. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay explains why it’s the day political calendar signals crunch time in the Providence mayoral race.

Buddy Cianci and Jorge Elorza face a tight race for mayor's office in Providence.
Credit RIPR FILE

As revelers feast on sausage and peppers and celebrate Rhode Island’s storied Italian-American culture  on Federal Hill, the three candidates vying to be the capital city’s mayor will be stumping for votes.

The Federal Hill neighborhood is a symbol of what this election among Democrat Jorge Elorza, Republican Dan Harrop and independent Buddy Cianci is about. Once an Italian-American redoubt, the Hill neighborhood assimilated waves of immigrants.

Now, it is rare to hear Italian spoken on Atwells Avenue. As Providence has changed so has the Hill. This charming section of restaurants and wood-frame triple-deckers is now home to Latinos and college students, as well as a declining Italian-American population.

Everything old may be new again. That’s what Cianci, first elected mayor in 1974, has to bank on. His redemption campaign may seem improbable to outsiders, but no one who knows anything about Providence politics counts him out.

The overriding question in the next three weeks is this: Is this Last Hurrah of  20th Century  Providence politics, or a continuation of a 21st Century politics that gave the city Angel Taveras, the first mayor of Latino ancestry.

Cianci loves to speak of his vision, but he represents nothing so much as this old Providence in the same way Elorza is an avatar of the new.

Like the Four Tops Farewell Tour, it seems as if Cianci has been with us forever. The one-liners seem stale…yet  they keep on coming. He is selling nostalgia in every television commercial and debate. Providence, he repeats over and again, was a better place when he was last mayor during the economic blush of the 1990s.

Whether it’s the speaking- truth- to- potholes t.v. spots or his incessant call for raising the city’s ```self-esteem,’’ Cianci’s appeal is to voters who cast their first votes for John F. Kennedy and remember that Cianci became his city’s first Italian-American mayor during Gerald Ford’s administration.

This is high-wire act, because Cianci needs voters to share his selective memory. He’s running on nostalgia for the rebirth of downtown, the opening game of the Providence Bruins season and such Bread and Circuses as the Splendor of Florence art display and the treacly television show Providence that bathed the city in an autumnal  glow and brought Hollywood stars to the Biltmore lobby.

What he doesn’t like to talk about is his record of  blatant financial mismanagement, the purchase of city workers support with taxpayer money and the days when City Hall was a theme park for the FBI and investigative reporters.

Cianci has been endorsed by an army of old Providence pols and public employee union leaders. It’s easy to smirk about some of these has-beens. Yet in urban politics, a has-been is often a better ally than a never-was. A has-been knows how to sow a row of law signs and the importance of getting out the mail ballots over the next three weeks.

There’s an old trope in politics: Politicians use the first half of their careers burnishing their resumes. And the second half burnishing their obituaries.

Cianci seeks vindication. He doesn’t like the way he left office after his 2002 federal corruption conviction for running the capital city as a criminal enterprise.  Who would?

He wants the first line of his obit to be about his resurrection at age 73, when he won a nobody-predictd-this upset campaign to take back a City Hall  that he was carried out of in an orange jump suit a dozen years earlier.

Harrop is an articulate gadfly. He doesn’t have a chance of winning, but he has a crucial role in this campaign. Will he cut sufficiently into the anti-Cianci vote to deny Elorza victory?

As for Elorza, it won’t be enough for he and his supporters to depict Cianci as a charlatan in that prison suit. The former Housing Court judge and Harvard Law School graduate has three weeks to fashion a serious get-out-the-vote effort, especially in the South Providence neighborhoods he lost in the primary to Michael Solomon.

The 37-year old Elorza also must quickly raise more money and step up his campaign appearances. He has gotten better with each debate, but he needs to give voters the impression that he is more than an honest broker with progressive ideas. Voters need to be convinced that he can tackle government in a historic New England city that has a crumbling infrastructure, faltering schools and a reputation for a sclerotic City Hall bureaucracy.

Elorza has just three weeks to make this election about the old Providence versus our new city. If he  can’t get this done, it will be back a future nobody imagined just a few short months ago.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:35 and 8:35. You can also follow his political analysis and reporting at the `On Politics’ blog at RIPR.org