Scott MacKay Commentary: Providence's Titanic Mayoral Campaign

Sep 19, 2014

The Providence mayoral campaign, aka the Buddy Cianci redemption effort, is drawing national media attention. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay talks about the paths to victory for independent Cianci and Democrat Jorge Elorza.

Jorge Elorza on the night of his Democratic primary win. He now faces Republican Daniel Harrop, and independent Buddy Cianci.
Credit Ambar Espinoza / RIPR

Cianci, Elorza and Republican Dan Harrop faced off in their first campaign debate last week at Laurelmead, an East Side elderly housing complex. There was more heat than light as Elorza, a former city Housing Court judge, and Harrop, a psychiatrist, attacked Cianci’s record as one of New England’s infamously corrupt politicians.

Cianci shot back in a game, albeit rambling attempt to cover Elorza with mud, conjuring up a 20-year old shoplifting incident and asserting Elorza didn’t believe in God. Cianci’s talk-show one-liners may be tired, but they keep coming in his best mimic of an ancient Borscht Belt comedian.

For a rookie candidate, Elorza held his own. A Harvard Law School graduate, Elorza laid out his plans with lawyer-like precision and never wilted under Cianci’s salvos.

It’s too bad that this campaign has begun with silliness and candidates seeking style points over substance. Providence is a proud old New England capital and port, marinated in history.  A century ago, our capital was the Silicon Valley of the era, a fount of innovation and technology that was a beacon for inventors from around the globe.

They were optimists who named streets Prospect, Progress, Hope and Congress.

Home to great universities, hospitals ,  stately churches and stunning architecture, 21st century Providence is a dowager in serious need of a psychic and economic facelift. The public schools aren’t ready for a new century, too many streets are crumbling and legacy public employee pension and health care costs cast a long shadow over City Hall finances.

All of those venerable hospitals and colleges create well-paying jobs for the educated, but they don’t pay property taxes. Now that industry is gone, the result is high property taxes for businesses and homeowners.

Voters should demand that the candidates offer specific plans to deal with these new realities. And talk about how they plan to pay for their proposals.

Harrop has a concrete proposal – taking the city into a form of bankruptcy, a la Central Falls and Detroit. It may sound attractive to some libertarians, but it is filled with uncertainty, like asking voters who can’t swim to jump into the deep end of the Davey Lopes pool without a life jacket.

Receivership is cumbersome and could well be foolhardy. As City Councilman Sam Zurier, a Yale-trained lawyer, points out, it is doubtful that a judge would rule that the city is insolvent. Even if receivership  is   granted, there is no guarantee that the city would be allowed to change existing union contracts, which cover the legacy pensions.

What business would want to move to a bankrupt city? What would happen to police and fire services? What would mention in the national media alongside Detroit do for the reputation of our small state and its largest city.

Everyone who hasn’t been living in a yurt knows of Cianci’s past – the good, the bad and the ugly. Cianci’s problem is his utter lack of contrition and joking dismissal of his time in prison. At the debate, Cianci gave a lame, Ed DiPrete-like apology to voters, saying ``I’ve got baggage and I apologized for anything you think I’ve done.’’

Cianci’s baggage won’t fit into the overhead carry-on. Yet, Elorza and his affluent East Side supporters should dial down the negatives over Cianci’s prison sojourn. There is plenty of fodder in his two decades as mayor to pore over, notably the mismanagement of city finances and pension programs. Not to mention his sensationally poor judgment in hiring aides who ended up taking bribes and kickbacks.

Cianci may get some help from unions representing city workers, teachers, cops and firefighters. In times of yore, union leaders were urban king makers. Those days are history. The end of city residency requirements means that less than 20 percent of those employees live in Providence, so they are no longer the voting bloc they once were.

Another element that may hurt the 73-year old Cianci, who has been around city politics since the Nixon Administration's Watergate summer, is the 2014 Rhode Island electoral zeitgeist. In the Democratic primaries, voters wanted to turn the page on a generation of pols who have been around and around. Not one endorsed Democratic candidate won any statewide contested election and Elorza defeated Mike Solomon, the city council president who carried the party endorsement, in the capital city.

There has been much talk about an independent group of East Siders organizing an anti-Cianci political action committee. They would be much wiser to put their money into an aggressive get-out-the-vote campaign on Elorza’s behalf.

Yours truly is reminded of some of the best advice I ever got when I came to the Providence Journal 30 years ago. It was from the late, great Statehouse reporter John Kiffney. ``If you want to understand politics in this city and state, don’t listen to anything you hear on the Brown campus, the East Side or in the Journal newsroom. You’re better off at St. Bart’s Club or the St. Rocco’s Church feast.’’

The East Side has to understand that  many voters in other neighborhoods aren’t so keen on a City Hall run mostly by those who live in the 02906 Zip Code.  What Elorza really needs to do is work harder in the South Side neighborhoods he lost in the primary to Solomon. Elorza needs to reach out to African-American and Latino voters. For this, Solomon is a much better ally than such East Siders as Brett Smiley and Lorne Adrain.

Solomon has been loyal, already appearing on the campaign circuit with Elorza. (Contrast how Solomon has acted with Ken Block, the loser of the Republican gubernatorial primary. He hasn't been seen anywhere near winner Allan Fung). Last Thursday evening Solomon was sipping a Dewar’s at his old perch at the Hot Club, vowing to do all he can to help his primary rival.

`               `It’s not about me, it’s about the city,’’ said Solomon. That’s an attitude other Providence politicians ought to adopt between now and November 4th. Otherwise, it could be back to a Cianci future.

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 RIPR.org