Scott MacKay Commentary: The Providence Mayoral Campaign 11th Hour Scramble

Aug 22, 2014

The Providence mayoral campaign has featured more twists and turns than a Grand Prix auto race. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay on what’s next in the run for City Hall.

Providence City Hall. The democratic primary for the mayor's office is now down to two candidates: Jorge Elorza and Michael Solomon.

This we know about Providence politics: One person’s backroom deal is another person’s noble gesture.

That is what voters will decide in the September 9 Democratic primary, when the favorite, City Council president Michael Solomon, faces off against Jorge Elorza, a law professor and political neophyte. (Perennial fringe candidate Christopher Young is also in the mix).

Mayoral campaigns in the capital city have forever been suffused with odd bedfellows and a nose-wrinkling stench, but last week’s developments were both surprising and strange. On Friday, Brett Smiley dropped out the campaign and tossed his support, such as it is, to Elorza.

Smiley was the darling of a slice of the East Side, but failed to connect with voters in other less affluent neighborhoods. He was the guy with all the 10-point plans and wonky position papers. Smiley, a campaign consultant who has never been elected to anything, was supposed to be the candidate who knew how to pull together a smart campaign.

At this, he was an abject failure. Smiley ran a clever television ad featuring his husband, realtor Jim DeRentis. And he issued his plethora of campaign this-and -that’s. Yet, in the end, he didn’t budget his campaign cash well. He was pretty much broke on the day he pulled out.

So Smiley left.  He tried to put the usual political spin on full cycle. He said he was leaving the race for the greater good of the city and to stop the Buddy Cianci vindication campaign. Smiley hammered away at both Solomon and Cianci, calling them`` old-time politicians’’ and insisting that Elorza has the best chance of winning a general election over Cianci.

Elorza, was of course, grateful  for Smiley’s support. Elorza, a former city Housing Court judge, said Smiley put the ``city he loves’’ ahead of his City Hall ambitions.

Solomon pounced quickly, accusing Smiley and Elorza of a ``backroom deal.’’  Solomon asserts that the arrangement will only increase cynicism among Providence voters and help Cianci, who is running as an independent.

This campaign has been shuffled more than a blackjack deck at Twin River. Cianci spent the spring keeping everyone guessing about a comeback, then waited until the very last minute before the filing deadline before deciding to run as an independent, rather than jump into the Democratic primary. (Cianci began his career as a Republican then switched to independent).

Then independent Lorne Adrain dropped out in an effort to winnow the field and keep Cianci from winning a multi-candidate race with a third of the vote, as was the case in his improbable 1990 redemption tour, when he won a three-way contest with 34 percent.

Elorza and Smiley both insist there was no deal, except their mutual contempt for Cianci. If you believe that, you think the Red Sox are going to win the World Series this year. Smiley will get just about anything he wants from an Elorza administration. Elorza should have been honest  and simply said that of course he would consider Smiley, a talented man,  for a role at City Hall.

Besides a lack of money, Smiley stepped out of the contest because campaign polls showed he couldn’t win so long as Elorza remained a candidate. Those same polls showed that Solomon currently holds a double-digit primary lead. (This is consistent with Solomon’s internal polling, say sources). And the polling showed that most Smiley voters picked Elorza as their second choice, but that Elorza supporters were split between Solomon and Smiley as a backup choice.

Solomon has his own problems. He isn’t a polished debater. And Solomon is under the cloud of a state Ethics Commission complaint involving his failure to disclose some old business dealings that included a loan from a city economic development program.

Yet Solomon is still the lone candidate in the primary who has any hands-on experience at City Hall. For the past four years as City Council president he has been a stalwart ally of Mayor Angel  Taveras’  quest to keep Providence from sliding into bankruptcy.

Solomon would do well to come up with a credible defense of his failure to pay off the old loan. And he needs to better articulate a clear vision for shoring up city services as we get closer to September 9.

No matter who wins, you can be sure that Cianci will spew mud from primary night until November 4. No one understands like Cianci the other iron rule of Providence politics: ``There’s always a deal.’’

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 analysis and reporting at the `On Politics’ blog at