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COLUMNIST: DAN McGOWAN

Mayor Elorza has plenty of bold ideas. It’s his execution that is questionable

Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza announces the creation of a reparations program.
Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza announces the creation of a reparations program.Dan McGowan/The Boston Globe

If you were to use the create-a-player feature in the video game that is Rhode Island politics, the ideal Democratic candidate for governor in 2022 might come out looking a lot like Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza.

Before you spit out your coffee, let me explain.

He’s been a successful two-term mayor of the state’s largest city, has become a prolific fund-raiser, and has solid progressive credentials that can boost him in a primary. He’s got a great story – from nearly flunking out of high school to graduating from Harvard Law – and he’d be the first Latino governor of Rhode Island. Battle tested? The guy beat Buddy Cianci.

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There’s only one problem: While he’s got no shortage of big, bold ideas for his city, he hasn’t been able to get many of them done. And as he prepares to run for governor in real life, his ability to execute will deserve as much scrutiny as his overall vision for the state.

Just consider the past year.

Last summer, Elorza drew national headlines when he announced he was initiating a reparations program for Providence residents of African heritage and Indigenous people. Then he pitched a separate plan for exploring a guaranteed income program for poorer residents.

Those are ambitious concepts at any moment, let alone in the middle of a pandemic and a renewed social justice movement. But there’s a certain set of expectations that come when you start talking about handing out money to your constituents. Like ... actually having the money to hand out to your constituents.

Elorza has been courting private donors, but he’s offered no price tag for these plans.

His latest proposal came this week when he held a press conference to release a lengthy report that recommends significant changes to Providence’s public safety departments, including a reduction of police officers (through attrition, not layoffs) and diverting non-criminal police calls away from the cops.

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It’s not defunding the police, as some activists in the city would like. But it would definitely shake up some departments that are often reluctant to change. But remember: Elorza just signed a four-year contract with the police union, and he’s budgeted for a class of 50 more officers on the way. Nothing says reform like 4 percent raises and a new police academy.

As you can probably imagine, Elorza says all of his projects will come to fruition.

“I reject the premise that this is all just talk,” he told me in an interview this week.

On reparations, he said the city is still probably nine months away from having a true plan, and it could come in many forms. While individual compensation is on the table, community investments or structural changes to city government will also be considered. Elorza said he’s raised more than $1 million in private funds for a universal income pilot program, but he isn’t ready to reveal more details. In overhauling the police department, he said “change doesn’t come overnight.”

“I was elected to serve eight years, not six-and-a-half years,” he reminded me.

In other words, trust the process. But now we have almost six-and-a-half years of his track record to look at.

For years, his staffers have cringed every time the mayor takes a trip to a US Conference of Mayors event or some Mike Bloomberg-funded think tank extravaganza. It’s not because they don’t think he should travel. It’s because he always comes home with the next cool program he wants to steal from Austin or Denver. Before anyone has a chance to vet an idea, he’s moved on to the next one.

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Who could forget the giving meters? The program was designed to raise money for social service organizations, but the orange donation stations have only generated $2 a day since 2017.

During his first campaign for mayor, the time he toppled Cianci, he pledged to create a free citywide Wi-Fi network. It was a great idea — a lifeline for low-income families or extra beer money for millennials who still use their parents’ Netflix account.

He took office and had to address traditional municipal problems. A budget deficit here, a thorny contract dispute with the firefighters’ union there. Years later, most of us still have a monthly bill with Verizon or Cox.

It’s nice to have a mayor who wants to swing for the fences from time to time. But his ideas would be taken more seriously if he could get some of them across home plate.


Dan McGowan can be reached at dan.mcgowan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @danmcgowan.