The upside to Providence’s next mayor having deep political experience – no matter which of three Democrats wins the Sept. 13 primary – is that they won’t make the mistake of overpromising on the campaign trail and under-delivering when they take office next year.
The downside is that Gonzalo Cuervo, Councilwoman Nirva LaFortune, and Brett Smiley are running campaigns that lack creativity at a moment when the city is flush with federal cash, and show no sense of urgency for addressing some of Providence’s critical challenges, like the failing school system and the affordable living crisis.
The result of these lackluster campaigns is an apathetic electorate that either sees no discernible difference among the three candidates or has no clue that the election is less than 100 days away.
On Monday evening, Cuervo, LaFortune, and Smiley sought to out-dull one another during a sparsely attended candidate forum, this time hosted by the Providence Foundation and Downtown Improvement District and held in the Schneider Auditorium at Johnson & Wales University.
The forum’s moderator was Cliff Wood, a former councilman and current head of the Providence Foundation who has been urged to run for mayor himself in the past. He did his job, asking good questions about rejuvenating downtown, solving the city’s pension problems, and making Providence a more environmentally resilient place.
But the candidates delivered the kind of unremarkable B-/C+ performances that you typically expect to see in the middle of August, when they’re on their fourth forum of the day and have been around each other so much that they can recite their opponents’ talking points in their sleep.
Here’s a quick recap.
The Mount Pleasant resident has positioned himself as the candidate furthest to left in the race – he’s got signs supporting progressive Senator Sam Bell and progressive council candidate Jackie Goldman on his lawn – but you wouldn’t quite know it from his comments during Monday’s forum.
He correctly pointed out that most families won’t be able to afford to live in the Superman building or in other new developments downtown, but he hasn’t offered a plan for fixing the problem.
Cuervo said tax stabilization agreements – subsidies for developers – have become a “crutch” over the past 20 years, but he wants to focus on improving the regulatory environment in city government (think inspections, permitting, etc.).
On crime, he said “it’s safe to say that most people don’t feel safe” in Providence right now, and spurring economic activity can be a catalyst to fixing that perception.
On the environment, he said creating a more resilient city is going to require partnerships with the state and federal government, an area where he has deep experience.
He said he will vote yes on Tuesday’s pension obligation bond election.
Councilwoman Nirva LaFortune
There were no direct questions about education during the forum, but LaFortune repeatedly (and accurately) noted that the city can’t have a thriving economy without taking steps to address its school system. The district is in the midst of a state takeover that hasn’t resulted in a dramatic change, and LaFortune didn’t identify the ways she would seek to improve the system.
She did land the one punch of the night when she said that Providence school buildings have been crumbling since her two opponents were working for the city (Cuervo under former mayors David Cicilline and Angel Taveras and Smiley under Elorza).
On the Superman building, LaFortune said she supports the state and city subsidy package that has been proposed for the renovation, but said she plans to fight to expand the definition of what’s considered affordable housing.
On public safety, she said that the city’s effort to divert calls for service based on the kind of emergency has been a success, and she wants to keep that program intact.
LaFotune is voting yes on the pension obligation bond.
Smiley has positioned himself as the best prepared candidate in the race, and he’s right that he is the only candidate with deep experience negotiating labor contracts and managing a sizable workforce. But he still runs the risk of believing his own hype and convincing himself that he’s the runaway favorite in the race.
He’s not. None of them are.
On pensions, his idea to essentially use the pension obligation bond to help the city buy its way into the state municipal pension system is a sound one. That could prevent future mayors from making promises the city can’t afford and would give the city a realistic chance to pay for the mistakes made in the past.
When it comes to the port of Providence, he said the city “can do much better than scrap yards and salt piles,” and suggested that creating more wind energy jobs in the Allens Avenue area would help the entire state.
On public safety, he said he wants to improve community policing, but also find ways to come up with an equitable stream of funding for nonprofits that help with social services so they’re not always hurting for money.
The final takeaway: Providence voters deserve a more interesting, meaningful race.
Smiley has essentially been running for mayor for eight years, and Cuervo and LaFortune have been plotting their campaigns for several years, too. They aren’t new to this, and they shouldn’t be tightrope-walking their way through the race to avoid offending any potential supporters.
We’ve already lost one candidate in this race. Michael Solomon, the former City Council president, didn’t show the same enthusiasm this year that he had when he lost the Democratic primary to current Mayor Jorge Elorza in 2014. He dropped out in May, and endorsed Smiley.
Smiley, Cuervo, and LaFortune won’t be leaving this race, so it’s about time they start actually running to be the next mayor.
Dan McGowan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @danmcgowan.