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She might be Providence’s next mayor. You should probably learn her name

Providence City Councilwoman Nirva R. LaFortuneCourtesy of Nirva R. LaFortune

Her name is not Nerve-uh. It’s Nirva, and you pronounce it Near-vuh.

I’m talking about Nirva LaFortune, the Providence city councilor who on Sunday launched her campaign to be the city’s first Black and first female mayor.

You should probably learn her name because 1) It’s the polite thing to do. 2) Her daughter doesn’t understand why, after more than four years on the council, people still can’t say her mom’s name correctly. And 3) She has a legitimate chance to win the Democratic primary next September.

That’s not to say that she’s a lock to replace the term-limited Mayor Jorge Elorza. The race is going to have several fine candidates, including Brett Smiley, Gonzalo Cuervo, and former City Council president Michael Solomon.

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But LaFortune qualifies as a top-tier candidate in this crowded race because she has a message that is likely resonate in a very blue city and a realistic path to victory.

“I’m presenting myself as Nirva, the product of our public schools, the kid who grew up here, someone who understands the needs our city,” LaFortune, 38, told me on Monday.

Her personal story is compelling. She came to the country illegally from Haiti when she was three years old (she became a citizen in 2006) and attended Pleasant View Elementary, Nathan Bishop Middle School, and Mount Pleasant High School. She went to college in Philadelphia and later earned a master’s degree at Brown University, which is also where she currently works as the assistant director of the Curricular Resource Center for Peer Advising.

On the campaign trail, she’s at her best when speaks passionately about losing her boyfriend when he was killed by a stray bullet in New York. You’ll also hear her talk about the urgency she feels for fixing a failing school system, which her daughter still attends (her son recently graduated from Classical High School). And you’ll hear her stress that Providence won’t reach its potential without a serious conversation about fixing its finances once and for all.

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Every candidate will have their own talking points about the key issues – public safety, education, pensions. LaFortune’s perspective – as a mom, as Black woman, and as member of the council – is poised to stand out.

Still, as a politician, LaFortune is very much a work in progress.

She’s been on the radar since winning a special election to represent Ward 3 on the council in 2017, and she earned more votes than any of her colleagues while running unopposed the following year. But her record on the council is unremarkable, and she has struggled to build coalitions, most notably during an unsuccessful run for council president three years ago.

We’re still in the early days of the race, but LaFortune hasn’t quite fleshed out her positions on the key issues yet. When I pressed her on the number of police officers the city needs – it’s currently at around 400 and Chief Col. Hugh Clements has said the number should be closer to 450 – she declined to offer a number.

On schools, LaFortune knows that she wants Providence to take back control of the system and its 24,000 students, but she isn’t ready to offer a plan for getting there. And on addressing the city’s underfunded pension system, she said that she’s open to having new employees move to a 401(k)-style retirement plan, but again, she doesn’t have concrete details yet.

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“Right now the most important thing is to meet with people throughout the city in every single neighborhood,” LaFortune said.

In fairness to her, Smiley, Cuervo, and Solomon aren’t rolling out policy papers every week, either. But they also haven’t held press conferences to officially launch their campaigns.

At this point, a year from the primary, all of the candidates have three main objectives: raise money, find validators in the form of endorsements or volunteers, and take as many selfies as possible at events across the city to show that you’re in touch with the people.

LaFortune trails the others in fund-raising, but she still had $130,000 in her campaign account as of June 30. While no one is ever going to turn away money, it only costs around $500,000 to run a competitive race for mayor in Providence, so she’s still on track.

The consensus is that LaFortune and Smiley are going to pull from the same supporter pie on the East Side, but LaFortune also has to worry about Cuervo, who has spent the last six months winning over progressive activists that might have been inclined to support her if she had gotten in the race sooner.

Solomon remains something of a wild card because he was last on the ballot in 2014, when he lost a tight Democratic primary for mayor to Elorza. But he’s leaving his job overseeing economic development for the city this week, and has already loaned his campaign $250,000.

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“This is a marathon, not a sprint,” Solomon reminded me last week.

On that point, LaFortune, an avid runner, agrees. And when it comes to voters getting her name right, she has one thing going for her. There are still plenty of voters who refer to Elorza as “Elorzo” and the last mayor, Angel Taveras, as “Tavarez.”

So maybe history will be on her side.


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