PROVIDENCE, RI – The clich is that politics makes strange bedfellows. WRNI political analyst Scott MacKay brings us the odd couple that is working together to fix the Providence financial mess.
Shortly after Angel Taveras was elected Providence mayor, City Council President Mike Solomon brought Taveras some bad news; the city's finances were in shambles, worse than they had been depicted by former Mayor David Cicilline.
At first Taveras was skeptical; things couldn't be that dire, he thought.
Within weeks, though, the new mayor discovered Solomon was right - the city was drowning in red ink, with a $110 million deficit.
Solomon and Taveras met again and pledged to work together on a solution. Thus began the alliance of Providence's unlikely couple, two politicians as different as Neil Simon's Felix Ungar, the neurotic neat freak, and Oscar Madison, the rumpled mess of a sportswriter.
Taveras is Providence's first Latino mayor. He was raised in poverty by a single mother on the city's gritty South Side. He vaulted to Harvard and Georgetown Law School. He made a tilting at windmills run for Congress 11 years ago, but mayor is his first elected office. Taveras, 40, is single and is about to become a father for the first time.
Solomon, of Lebanese ancestry, grew up in middle-class Elmhurst. He has been steeped in Rhode Island's political culture since he handed out leaflets n his father's campaigns as a child. His dad, Anthony Solomon, was a longtime state rep, who won election as general treasurer and ran for governor. Mike Solomon is more a product of hard knocks than the classroom. He spent a year at Roger Williams, dropping out to work in the family pharmacy and food business. A small businessman, he now owns Wes' Rib House restaurant.
Solomon is a married father of three daughters who all graduated from college and have professional careers.
He can often be found sharing laughs and drinks with friends and family at the Hot Club bar, one eye glued to the Red Sox on television.
Taveras is a teetotaler, soft-spoken and cerebral.
Their alliance has been forged, in part, by the city's predicament. It was once an axiom that a Providence mayor got rich and all his friends and family got jobs, city contracts or juicy pensions.
Now there is little to hand out. ``The Latino community is upset with me, but I can't do much. Once you had all that patronage. Now it's different,'' says Taveras.
The bright side, the mayor says, is that hard times have brought cohesion to a City Hall that in the past was more identified with cronyism and scrums. ``What we are facing is something that is bringing elected officials together.''
Solomon didn't support Taveras' campaign. (He backed former State Rep. Steven Costantino) Now, Solomon calls the mayor an ally. ``We treat each other with respect. I don't surprise him and he doesn't surprise me. I am a man my word and so far he has been too.''
Solomon and Taveras have lobbied together at the State House, worked on union negotiations as a team and talk and text often. Taveras shares credit with the City Council and listens. The mayor recently shifted his stance on property taxes after the council requested a change that shaved down the mayor's proposed property tax increase on homeowners but increased auto taxes.
Solomon once harbored mayoral ambitions, but says age has tempered him. ``Do I want to be mayor when I'm 60 years old.?''
There are clouds on the horizon, particularly how city government deals with hundreds of millions of dollars in unfunded pension liabilities.
``There will always be disagreements, but so far we have been able to disagree without being disagreeable,'' says the mayor. For now, Solomon is Oscar and Taveras is Felix.
Scott MacKay's commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:35 and 8:35. You can also follow his political reporting at the `On Politics' blog at WRNI.org
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