Scott MacKay Commentary: The Providence Mayoral Race, It's Not All About Buddy

Jun 27, 2014

So Buddy Cianci is back in the campaign for Providence mayor. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay reminds us that he isn’t the only candidate.

Who will sit in the mayor's office next term? There will be at least four candidates for the job on the general election ballot.

Every newsroom used to have a crusty city editor who berated young reporters. Mine was a revered Providence Journal editor named Al Johnson who barked, ``put them in the ambulance before you take them to the hospital’’ when he wanted a story about a car accident.

Rhode Island reporters could take a page from this first-things-first agenda. Before we get to the November election in the Providence mayoral campaign, we would all do well to remember that there is a September primary for the Democratic nomination.

There are three serious Democrats vying for their party’s nod. The pre-campaign favorite is Michael Solomon, the current city council president and the lone aspirant to be elected to anything. The others are Brett Smiley, a campaign consultant and civic activist who has run campaigns but never won one. The third is Jorge Elorza, a former city Housing Court judge and law professor who has been active in the city’s growing Latino community.

Smiley is a bright East Sider who has served as chairman of the Providence Water Supply Board, an important post with control over the Scituate Reservoir and the water distribution system that provides 60 percent of the state with some of the nation’s best drinking water.

Yet he has lived in the city less than a decade and his husband, realtor Jim DeRentis, has deeper ties to the community than does Smiley, and is better known in many civic circles. Smiley so far has gained notice mostly for a creative television commercial that touts his thoughtfulness and his ability develop plans to solve problems.

Elorza is a Harvard Law School graduate who teaches at the Roger Williams University Law School. Active in Latino community issues, he too, has reached out to the vote-rich East Side neighborhoods. In his best scenario, he mimics the coalition that elected Angel Taveras as the city’s first Latino mayor, welding the East Side votes near Brown University's leafy  campus with the ballots cast by the South Side’s significant minority population.

But being mayor of a recession-riven old New England city isn’t all about wonky, 10-point plans and power-point presentations. While governors and U.S. senators float above the electorate on lofty issues, the mayor is the politician whose breath the voters can literally smell. It’s the mayor who gets the call when the mewling cat is stuck in the tree outside your open bedroom window. The mayor takes the blame when a January snowstorm keeps the kids on school buses for hours. And it’s the mayor who hears the talk show rants about tax increases and that gaping pothole that fractured your axle.

This is where Solomon has his prime argument. He’s been council president, a largely thankless job that over the last four years has been akin to herding eels. Solomon has had to make the compromises and the deals to finesse the eight council votes necessary to support Taveras' agenda. Solomon and Taveras worked well together in a perilous time for Providence as they dealt with the ocean of red ink in the city budget that was inherited from the second mayoral term of David Cicilline, now a congressman.

Yet, Solomon isn’t an accomplished orator. He isn’t the book smartest or best debater in the field. A small businessman, he done well raising money and has hired tested consultants who have long experience in Rhode Island. His supporters shrug off his lack of polish, asserting that he would run City Hall along the lines of Boston’s Tom Menino, who had successful administrations despite a speaking style so phlegmatic that he earned the nickname ``mumbles.’’

Cianci, so adept at entertainment and  media messaging, probably relishes a televised debate with Solomon.

Another newcomer to electoral politics is independent Lorne Adrian, an East-Sider who also has a Harvard graduate degree and a record of civic betterment. A veteran of the investment business, Adrain served as chairman of the state education board and shepherded the `Dream Act' measure that allows qualified children of undocumented immigrant to attend the state's public colleges at the -in state tuition level.

Yet Adrain has never held elective office. As is the case with Smiley, Adrain's spouse, the writer and novelist Ann Hood, is arguably better known than he is. Despite the admiration of the Latino community, it is unlikely those voters would choose Adrain over Elorza, who speaks their own language and is an up by his bootstraps example for their community.

This campaign ought to be about substance over style. (If it is all about politics as theater and performance art we may as well just hold a Cianci inaguration next week). Providence is an historic city with great colleges and hospitals, beautiful churches and a thriving food, arts and cultural scene. Yet the challenges are many, from the crumbling streets, to the poorly performing schools and the high property taxes.

Some of the city’s beauty is also its bane. All those colleges and hospitals provide gobs of well-paying jobs but do not pay the property taxes that the old economy of manufacturing and trade contributed to the city. While the East Side is still a wonderful, livable urban neighborhood, the recession has taken a brutal toll on such enclaves as the West End and the crime-ridden South Side. And rare is that East Side homeowner who doesn't grouse about the taxes.

An overarching topic will who you can trust to honorably run a city whose founders were such Yankee optimists with a belief in the future that they named streets Hope, Congress, Benefit and Prospect.

As for Cianci, the media will need to look a bit deeper than the blush of nostalgia and fluffy-as-cotton candy coverage that has ruled the front pages and television screens since he filed for election last Wednesday. One television assignment editor actually sent a reporter to gather reaction about Cianci's resurrection attempt from voters in South County! Hello, have you TeeVee folks no shame; no voter in Narragansett or South Kingstown will have any say or sway in this Providence campaign.

One legitimate avenue of Cianci criticism is how he handled city pension issues.  (WPRI-Channel 12 reporters Tim White and Ted Nesi deserve kudos for delving into this topic since the filing deadline).

We all laughed back in the day when Cianci joked that they city’s mostly female teachers had such generous benefits that they lacked only ``Delta Hairdressing.’’ Or that the all-male fire fighters had everything save  ``Delta Goumada.’’

What isn’t funny is how the ridiculously lavish pension benefits granted police and fire retirees, some with 6 percent compounded cost-of-living hikes, have jumped homeowner and business taxes and nearly caused municipal bankruptcy.

Buying support of city employee unions with taxpayer cash is not prudent government. And neither is failing to make adequate payments to the city’s pension fund.

Listen to Cianci’s own words, from his book entitled `Politics & Pasta.’ It is a lesson in governing by the brass-knuckle ules of the urban machine era. He boasts about  how he won support from the city employee unions during his 1990 comeback campaign.

``I had given paid health insurance a decade before state workers got it. Teachers in Providence had gone from being among the worst paid in the state to among the best. Police and firefighters had gotten substantially improved benefits,’’ writes Cianci.

The media and his opponents will hopefully remind voters that Cianci’s administrations were not all about the spiffed up downtown and the new mall, the Splendor of Florence and the Kennedy Plaza skating rink.

The whiff of corruption encircled  Cianci’s tenure. City finances were too often mismanaged.

Hopefully this crucial Providence mayoral campaign won’t boil down to H.L. Mencken’s famous quip about elections.

``Democracy,’’ Mencken said, ``is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.’’

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 our `On Politics' blog at