When Brett Smiley was running for mayor of Providence in 2014, he sought to frame himself as the fresh-faced outsider running against the Democratic machine. It wasn’t entirely true, since Smiley was already deeply involved in both city and state politics, but it made for a smart campaign narrative.
He famously vowed to end the “know a guy” culture of city politics, but he didn’t make it to Election Day (although his name was still on the Democratic primary ballot, and he received 745 votes). He dropped out to endorse the eventual winner, Jorge Elorza, in an effort to block Buddy Cianci from returning to City Hall.
Now, after stints running the city for Elorza (as COO) and the state for former governor Gina Raimondo (as chief of staff and director of administration), Smiley is officially one of the most important guys to know in all of Rhode Island politics. And that means that instead of running as a long shot to be mayor, he’s a top-tier candidate for the job.
Smiley officially launched his campaign to succeed the term-limited Elorza on Monday, although it has been apparent to anyone paying attention that he’s been running for mayor ever since dropping out of the race eight years ago.
For some voters, that’s enough to never consider supporting Smiley. Who wants to back the guy who spent eight years positioning himself to run for office again?
But in a race filled with insiders – the Democratic primary field includes Councilwoman Nirva LaFortune, former longtime City Hall staffer Gonzalo Cuervo, and former council president Michael Solomon – Smiley’s experience in Providence and the State House stands out, so much so that he’ll be more prepared to run the city on day one than any mayor in nearly a century.
Even Smiley’s critics, and some opponents in this race, acknowledge that he’d be an effective manager of the city.
The challenge will be actually winning.
To do so, Smiley is promising to be the quality-of-life mayor, a pragmatic leader who is going to improve snow plowing, clean up the graffiti, and finally hold the utility companies accountable for seemingly targeting freshly paved roads that they can cut into, causing those craters that force you to buy new tires every year.
In a subtle jab at his former boss, Smiley wants to lay off some of the ambitious, City Hall-as-a-think-tank experiments that Elorza has salivated over during his eight years on the job. One example: Although Smiley likes the concept of a universal basic income program, he’s not convinced that Providence should be the one funding it.
“The moment for lofty promises, maybe some of which were unrealistic, has passed,” Smiley told me when we spoke last week.
It’s a tricky campaign strategy. Although voters might expect government to function efficiently, it’s unclear if promising to be the best street sweeper the city has ever seen will motivate them to turn out for the Sept. 13 Democratic primary (it’s unlikely that a credible Republican or independent will run for the job).
It’s not as glamorous a concept as being the education mayor, something LaFortune is promising, even though she would take office with the state controlling the city’s school system. And it doesn’t give you all the feels like Cuervo, who pens weekly love letters about the city to his online newsletter subscribers.
But Smiley sees getting the little things right as a way to build trust in government. If voters see that he can clear the roads and sidewalks of snow, they might be willing to give him the benefit of the doubt when it comes to tackling what he sees as the three most pressing issues for the city:
- The expiration of most of the city’s payments in lieu of taxes deals with its major colleges and hospitals.
- The return, after 10 years of being frozen, of cost-of-living adjustments for more retirees.
- Life after the recent infusion of federal COVID-19 relief funding that has allowed city leaders to forget about Providence’s long-term financial challenges for the past few years.
Smiley does have at least one out-of-the-box idea he wants to explore: a voucher program to allow Providence kids to play sports or join arts programs for free. It’s possible that he knows that I coach Little League in the city and he was just trying to throw me a bone, but now I’m going to spend the rest of the year asking about it.
It’s too soon to say whether he’s about to become the guy every voter needs to know.
He certainly has some vulnerabilities.
He’s been a prolific fund-raiser, but he also agreed to pay a $4,500 fine to the state Ethics Commission last year for soliciting donations for his campaign from state vendors when he was still state director of administration (he denied ever discussing donations with those vendors).
He’ll face criticism from the left for not supporting an effort to defund the police or being too cozy with the building trades.
And his husband, Jim DeRentis, is chairman of the powerful Providence Redevelopment Agency, although he says he will step down if Smiley becomes mayor.
But in a campaign where the next mayor could win the office with fewer than 10,000 votes, one thing is certain: Smiley won’t be leaving the race early this time around.