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How the reinvention of Mayor Elorza can shape the race for Rhode Island governor

Providence Mayor Jorge O. Elorza speaks during a vigil for Tatyana Francois, 19, outside the Nonviolence Institute in May 2021.
Providence Mayor Jorge O. Elorza speaks during a vigil for Tatyana Francois, 19, outside the Nonviolence Institute in May 2021.Matthew J Lee/Globe staff

The conventional wisdom around Rhode Island politics right now is that Governor Dan McKee has emerged as a clear favorite to win a full four-year term leading the state next year, even if he’s up against several formidable candidates in a Democratic primary.

Aside from obvious benefits of incumbency and federal COVID cash to sprinkle everywhere (you’re welcome, WaterFire), McKee has proven to be a likable leader who has perfected the age-old art of blaming his predecessor for all of the state’s problems.

But Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, who is all but certain to run for governor himself, appears to be dead set on not allowing McKee to people-please his way through the 2022 election.

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And that’s a good thing for Rhode Island.

Over the last five weeks, Elorza has written a provocative commentary for the Globe calling for the state to rip up the Providence Teachers Union contract, defended that position in a fiery television interview on Channel 12′s “Newsmakers,” and then ripped McKee for cozying up to the union instead of standing by one of the top-performing charter schools in the state.

In doing so, Elorza has simultaneously turned his biggest negative – Providence’s schools are so bad that the state had to take them over in 2019 – into a solid line of attack against McKee and reinvented himself as a straight-talking reformer who can drive the conversation about some of the state’s most pressing issues.

It’s not just education, either. Elorza has the credibility and experience to talk about police reform in a way that McKee and other gubernatorial hopefuls like Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea and state Treasurer Seth Magaziner do not.

While the others are still trying to learn the nuances of Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights (LEOBOR), a law that deeply limits the ability of police chiefs to suspend troubled cops for more than two days, Elorza has called for its outright repeal.

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Elorza doesn’t need to gut check these things with unions or through polling. His police department currently has an officer who was convicted earlier this year of assaulting a handcuffed man, but the LEOBOR prevents the officer from being fired until all appeals are exhausted.

His closest aides and supporters have noticed a newfound spark in Elorza’s step recently, although they’re quick to point out that he has never been afraid to take tough positions. He picked a bitter fight with the Providence firefighters’ union over the department’s sky-high overtime budget during his first year in office and spent several years clashing with environmentalists for trying to lease the city’s water supply to pay down the city’s billion-dollar unfunded pension tab.

“I think there’s a real sense of urgency right now,” said Theresa Agonia, Elorza’s chief of external affairs.

Agonia said she believes Elorza is thinking more about his legacy as mayor — he can’t run for re-election next year because of term limits — than his political future, but the two factors are inextricably linked. Elorza himself acknowledges that it’s his record as mayor that will determine his success in the governor’s race.

If history tells us anything, that record will also be Elorza’s biggest challenge.

The last time the sitting mayor of Providence was elected governor was in 1950, and it’s not because they haven’t tried. Buddy Cianci, Joe Paolino, and more recently, Angel Taveras, all learned that “they’ll do for Rhode Island what they did for Providence” is usually a devastating attack ad.

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Despite having more than $955,000 in his campaign account, Elorza may also struggle to find a natural constituency. While his strong progressive credentials will be attractive to many Democratic primary voters, it won’t take the other candidates very long to remind voters that Elorza has clashed with all of his public employee unions and that he strongly supports charter schools. Those are often litmus test issues for Democrats.

At this point, there’s a chance that no Republican candidate will emerge as a strong threat to be the next governor. And while there are still some Gina Raimondo acolytes pining to see a moderate problem solver like US Wind CEO Jeffrey Grybowski or former CVS executive Helena Foulkes toss their hats in the ring, it’s possible that we’re destined to have McKee, Elorza, Gorbea, or Magaziner as the next governor.

If that’s the case, getting those candidates out of their comfort zones and past their basic talking points on the future of education, policing, and the state’s economy is going to be vital.

Some of Elorza’s supporters have suggested that he find a different office to run for, and it might be true that he has a better chance of being elected state treasurer than he does governor. But if he’s looking to lead the state, his call-it-like-I-see-it approach could make for a much better campaign.

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