Why did Taveras flunk his swim lesson?

Oct 27, 2013

Providence Mayor Angel Taveras is scheduled on Monday to become the first Democrat to formally announce his candidacy for his party’s 2014 gubernatorial nomination. The 43-year-old Harvard-educated lawyer’s State House ambitions have been one of Rhode Island’s worst-kept secrets.

Taveras, who would be the state’s first governor of Latino ancestry, will make his announcement at 10 a.m. at Meeting Street School. He will speak to a relatively small gathering of family, friends, elected officials who support him and reporters, then take questions from members of the media.

The mayor’s announcement will likely trigger a similar move by State General Treasurer Gina Raimondo and perhaps from Clay Pell, the 31-year old grandson of the late Sen. Claiborne Pell and the spouse of skating queen Michelle Kwan.

Taveras is generally credited with running a good administration that focused on bailing the city out of the river of red ink in the city budget that he inherited from the administration of former mayor and now congressman David Cicilline. Taveras is a street-smart politician who made some rookie mistakes early on (firing all the teachers) but has avoided most of the perils of Providence’s tribal, and all-too often in the past, pay-to-play politics.

Except for the Davey Lopes swimming pool controversy, a minor thorn in his side that he and his aides clearly fumbled and allowed to take on a life of its own. When you want to run for governor, it isn’t smart to get bogged down in a neighborhood spitting contest that gives your enemies an issue to yammer about.

In recent days, Taveras and Council President Mike Solomon, who has been a fairly strong mayoral ally, have devised a way to tamp down this controversy. The council, through its chief of staff, Jake Bissaillon (erroneously reported Sunday that he is the mayor’s chief of staff) announced that a special council commission will study the pool issue, with a particular focus on the Taveras move to close the Lopes pool and replace it with a water park.

Taveras could have done this months ago and deflated the hot air of his opponents. Instead he stubbornly grasped on to his position that the pool should be closed, despite what the neighborhood thought.

While some of his opponents were clearly grandstanding – especially Ward 11 Councilman Davian Sanchez – the mayor could have been more flexible. Davey Lopes is one of the best athletes ever to emerge from our tiny state and had a fine career in major league baseball. He is currently a coach with the Los Angeles Dodgers. His family has deep roots here (his brother John is a top local labor leader with the union that represents longshoremen) and he is revered by the local Cape Verdean and African-American community.

Taveras and his high command should have seriously considered the mayor’s immoveable stance on this issue. Why would any politician who wants to be the state’s first Hispanic governor walk into a South Side matter that opens the old, now mostly submerged, rivalry between the area’s African-American and Latino populations? (It was this issue that largely drove the voter i.d. issue, a solution looking for a problem is there ever was one).

Then when a black contractor group offered to do the pool work gratis, Taveras didn’t immediately accept the offer. This minor frittata jumped to page one.

Finally, the council and mayor have worked out a solution that Taveras could have had months ago. ``The commission will do its work,’’ said Taveras spokesman David Ortiz. ``I think it’s a way forward.’’

But this pool patter has made many wonder just who Taveras is listening to at City Hall. While his tight-knit group of aides don’t talk out of school, more than a few of his admirers from the penumbra of Rhode Island politics place the blame squarely on the shoulders of his chief of staff, Michael D’Amico, who has served Taveras well in the administration but whose talents are more in financial matters than politics.

Now, with his formal entrance into the State House campaign, everyone in Rhode Island’s gang of 500 will be paying special attention to the Taveras staff and campaign organization.