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Rhode Island’s unluckiest politician is running for Providence mayor

Michael Solomon came close to winning the race in 2014. Will this time be different?

Providence City Hall in Providence, Rhode Island on May 28, 2020.
Providence City Hall in Providence, Rhode Island on May 28, 2020.Blake Nissen for the Boston Globe

If things had gone just a little bit differently in 2014 – meaning, if Buddy Cianci didn’t have one last hurrah as a candidate – there’s a good chance that Michael Solomon would be wrapping up his second term as mayor of Providence right now.

Solomon was the City Council president, the best-funded person in the race, and despite never being considered a policy wonk, his proposal to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in the city’s crumbling school buildings was the best idea of any candidate at the time. And despite being painted as the older white guy in the race, he still won the Latino vote in the Democratic primary.

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But Cianci’s late entrance into the race changed everything, and most of Providence’s powerbrokers coalesced behind Jorge Elorza, who gave voters a clear choice between the old guard and the future. It was an unlucky break for Solomon, who still won 43.5 percent of the vote.

Flash forward seven years.

Solomon, 64, is wrapping up a sleepy tenure as Elorza’s top economic development guy, and he’s gearing up for another run for mayor. He reactivated his campaign account this week, and deposited $250,000 of his own money to show that he’s serious about running in next year’s primary.

“There’s no frontrunner in this race, but there’s only one person with a track record — and that’s me,” Solomon, who served two terms on the council, told me this week.

He’s right. With more than a year before the primary, there is no clear-cut favorite for the open seat, and Elorza can’t run again because of term limits.

But three candidates have been raising money and building support for several months, and they are all showing signs that they’re in it for the long haul: Brett Smiley, Gonzalo Cuervo, and Councilwoman Nirva LaFortune.

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Of the three, Smiley has the most money and management experience, Cuervo has a lot of Latino support and the best grasp of city politics, and LaFortune is only one who has actually won an election before. Plus, LaFortune has the opportunity to be Providence’s first Black mayor and first female mayor, a story that might be too good for the voters to pass up.

Still, Solomon could throw a wrench into everyone’s plans.

He spent every penny of the $327,000 of his own money that he loaned his 2014 campaign, and is more than willing to spend that kind of money again this time around. He won the South Side of Providence against Elorza in 2014. And he served two terms on the council, including as president.

Solomon will likely try to paint himself as the grownup in the room, a President Joe Biden-type candidate who is more progressive than voters realize, but won’t be joining the “defund the police” movement anytime soon.

His money and experience suggest that there’s a place for him in this race, but Solomon knows he isn’t starting out as the favorite, either.

Seven years is a long time in local politics, and there are plenty of voters who have never heard of the Solomon family (his dad was state treasurer and the Democratic nominee for governor in 1984). Of the 24,629 Providence residents who voted in the 2014 Democratic primary, only 18,200 are still registered to vote in the city.

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He’s also going to be forced to weigh in on issues that are outside his comfort zone, like police department reform and Elorza’s plans for a universal income program and reparations for residents of African heritage and Indigenous people.

There has been no public polling on the race, and it would be hard to believe any of the candidates have a lot of name recognition at this point. Solomon plans to leave his city job in the coming months, and he’ll have veteran pollster John Della Volpe conduct a private poll in September.

Politicians have a tendency to find a silver lining no matter what internal polls show, so it would be hard to believe that Solomon won’t see a path to victory.

And with no Cianci to walk through the door (or criticize everyone on the radio), it’s still anyone’s race.


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