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A political insider will be Providence’s next mayor. Will it be Gonzalo Cuervo?

Providence mayoral candidate Gonzalo Cuervo kicks off his campaign at the Roger Williams Park Casino.Cuervo for mayor campaign

Providence has elected two politically inexperienced mayors over the last 11 years, and the results have been, well, mixed.

In 2010, Angel Taveras beat a powerful state lawmaker and a veteran councilman in a competitive Democratic primary and easily won the general election to become the city’s first Latino mayor. He got so popular so fast that he couldn’t help but run for governor almost immediately. He lost and quickly moved to the suburbs.

Jorge Elorza was the outsider seeking to replace Taveras in 2014, and he took down the City Council president and Buddy Cianci to become the mayor. Elorza will be remembered as a two-term mayor who treated City Hall like a think tank but rarely followed through on his ambitious goals.


Whether voters like it or not, they are all but certain to take a different route next year when they elect a new mayor from a field of Democrats that includes an incumbent councilwoman (Nirva LaFortune), a former council president (Michael Solomon), and two others (Brett Smiley and Gonzalo Cuervo) with plenty of political experience at the city and state level.

Cuervo, 47, formally kicked off his campaign for mayor Monday evening with a fundraiser at the Roger Williams Park Casino, and we sat down for coffee (I asked for 30 minutes, and he gave almost two hours) to discuss his vision for Providence.

What I found was that Cuervo isn’t shying away from having worked in high-level jobs for two different mayors – Taveras and David Cicilline, who was elected to congress in 2010 and has been there ever since.

He’s embracing it.

“I’m a combination of knowledge, experience, and authenticity,” Cuervo told me as we sat in the Bagel Express on Broadway. “My sense is that people find that refreshing.”


He’s got a compelling case to make. He describes himself as the candidate in the race who is furthest to the left politically (they all claim to be some version of progressive) but he approaches every issue with a sense of pragmatism that suggests he wants to make Providence work better for all residents, but not necessarily blow up City Hall to get it done.

Cuervo’s entry into politics nearly 30 years ago was a marriage of convenience.

He was 19 when he started working as part paralegal, part Spanish translator, part gopher for Cicilline, a young defense attorney at the time who had lost a race for state senate but would soon be elected a state representative in Providence.

“I found politics fascinating and he could see in me a future bridge to reach Latinos,” Cuervo said. Cicilline was elected mayor in 2002 in large part by building a coalition of wealthy, East Side voters and the Latino voters that Cuervo helped win over.

Cuervo followed Cicilline to City Hall, serving as a communications director and later as the mayor’s liaison to the planning department before leaving to run for council in 2010. He lost handily to Miguel Luna, who died in office a year later.

Cuervo returned to city government to work in the Taveras administration, rising to chief of staff before Taveras left office in January 2015. Most recently, he was deputy secretary of state and chief of staff for Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, who is now running for governor (Cuervo said he isn’t endorsing anyone in that race.)


So yes, Cuervo will know how to find the bathrooms in City Hall on day one.

But as much as he looks up to Cicilline and Taveras, Cuervo isn’t shy about their shortcomings.

He says Cicilline was able to capture a moment after “the Buddy debacle” in 2002, but he left to run for congress before the job was done. He thinks Taveras understood how to leverage the power of the mayor’s office to get things done, but his biggest mistake was attempting to close the Davey Lopes Recreation Center pool late in his administration.

“That was a big political miscalculation,” Cuervo said. “What he didn’t see at the time is that the value of the pool wasn’t whether 20 people or 200 people used it. It was that it existed.”

Cuervo is going to make the case to voters that he can bring the best of both the Cicilline and Taveras administrations back to City Hall, but add in a twist of progressivism that wasn’t as politically acceptable even a decade ago.

He does have plenty of his own ideas.

He thinks Providence should considering selling Triggs Memorial Golf Course and build hundreds of new housing units on its 140 acres of land – essentially creating a new neighborhood.

When it comes to policing, he is leaning toward hiring the next chief from within the current department rather than conducting a national search. Current Chief Col. Hugh Clements is expected to retire within the next year.


On crime, the city has now seen 23 homicides in 2021, the most in one year since 2009. Cuervo said Providence needs to find ways to employ more young people, something he credits Elorza with focusing on in recent year. He said it’s a “false choice” to have to support either more resources for police or defunding the department, and he would rather invest in community policing.

Cuervo also said Providence needs to prepare to take back control of the city’s school system, which has been run by the state since 2019. He said he would vote to move from an appointed school board to an elected school board if the question ends up on the ballot next year.

One area where Cuervo would be different from the last three mayors is that he’s not a lawyer and he didn’t attend an Ivy League school. He graduated from Springfield College, and has mostly worked in government over the last two decades.

He moved to western Cranston after losing his race for council, but bought a home on Mount Pleasant Avenue as he prepared his campaign for mayor. His adult son owns a home in Providence and his daughter will graduate from UConn next year.

So can he win the race?

The conventional wisdom is that between 24,000 and 26,000 residents will vote in the primary, and if Smiley and LaFortune split the majority of the votes on the East Side, Cuervo could run the table with strong support in the Latino community and from progressives in the West End. He’ll compete with Solomon and Smiley for votes in the Mount Pleasant and Elmhurst neighborhoods, and the northern section of the city is considered up for grabs.


At this point, it’s too early to declare a frontrunner, but Cuervo is quietly building momentum. He tapped Jason Roias, one of the most talented young political operatives in the city, to run his campaign, and he’s already chalked up more endorsements from City Council members and state lawmakers than anyone in the race. He also has the support of Taveras, the former mayor.

And he’s not shy about what he thinks of his opponents.

He said LaFortune “has accomplished nothing” in her time on the council, Smiley is “beholden to the donor class,” and Solomon has been Elorza’s head of economic development “until a minute ago.”

Cuervo won’t dazzle voters with lofty campaign rhetoric, but he also doesn’t want to make promises that he can’t deliver on. That’s part of his appeal.

“I think people want someone who knows how to run this place on day one, but also gets the vibe of the city,” he said. “I believe I bridge those two realities.”

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