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Providence Mayor Elorza is a lot more popular than you think

Outgoing Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza.Matthew Healey for The Boston Globe

When Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza announced last September that he wasn’t planning to run for governor this year, the conventional wisdom around Rhode Island politics was that he was saving himself from performing so poorly in a Democratic primary that former mayors Buddy Cianci, Joe Paolino, and Angel Taveras would look like they ran flawless campaigns for statewide office, even though they all lost, too.

At the time, Elorza was facing brutal political headwinds.

He was coming off a bizarre confrontation over the teachers’ contract with Governor Dan McKee, also a Democrat, that required a state trooper to intervene. He also had virtually no chance of winning support from any of the public employee unions in the state, and even though he views himself as a progressive, the ultra-liberals across Rhode Island weren’t begging him to jump in the race.

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So that was it. Elorza was supposed to finish out his final year as mayor, and return to teaching at a college or run some think tank where he’d urge mayors across the country to think differently. And because he has $1 million in his campaign account, his name would always linger in political circles – like for the open attorney general’s seat in 2026 or governor down the line.

But something strange has happened over the last seven months: To very little fanfare, Elorza has quietly moved the ball forward on almost every one of his top priorities.

That includes convincing state lawmakers to allow Providence to borrow more than $500 million for the city’s pension system (rising interest rates may put the idea on hold, but the city now has state authorization), establishing a pilot program to provide a guaranteed income of $500 a month to more than 100 residents for a year, and setting aside $10 million in federal American Rescue Plan money to support a reparations program for people of color in Providence.

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And guess what? The voters in this city are taking notice.

Elorza paid for private polling on his job performance recently, and we sat down for two hours Monday to discuss the results. He acknowledged that he probably wouldn’t have asked to chat if he found out the voters hated him, but they don’t.

They like him. They really like him.

Of 400 likely Democratic primary voters in Providence surveyed between July 12 and July 17, a whopping 60 percent said they strongly approve or somewhat approve of the job he’s doing as mayor. Only 28 percent disapproved.

60! At this point, it’s not clear that 60 percent of White House employees approve of the job President Joe Biden is doing. A recent poll in New York City showed only 29 percent of voters think Mayor Eric Adams is doing a good job, and he’s supposed to represent the future of the Democratic Party.

When asked about specific issues, voters were even more emphatic about their support for Elorza: 80 percent think he’s improved the condition of city parks, 72 percent said they think he has run an ethical administration, and 70 percent said they like the expansion of bike lanes.

As I reviewed Elorza’s numbers, I have to admit that I wondered whether his pollster camped out at Julian’s on Broadway for a week and talked only to the progressive hipsters and gentrifiers who have always enjoyed having a mayor whose favorite adjective is “dope,” loves Wu-Tang, and rides his bike all over the city.

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But if Elorza was simply tapping his base, how do you explain that 61 percent of the Democrats polled in Providence approve of the job the police department is doing, or that 54 percent approve of McKee?

As Elorza sees it, reporters like me have a tendency to rule out the possibility that voters could have a positive view of both him and the police department because we pay too close attention to the ALL-CAPS on Facebook crowd, and assume that everyone else is following the same narrative.

Besides, he said, by the end of this year, he’ll have hired more new police officers than any mayor in recent history. How’s that for a guy who the police union has voted “no confidence” in?

When I asked what he’d say to anyone who doesn’t believe his poll, his answer was casual but swift: “Do your own poll.”

I, for one, am convinced that Elorza is more popular than I’ve given him credit for in the past, but our reasoning is different.

He maintains that his administration functions a little like a Silicon Valley tech company that likes to fail fast, and adjust on the fly. He’s had some big misses, like a campaign proposal to provide universal Wi-Fi or the orange donation meters that generate less than $2 a day. But the voters appreciate that the parks have noticeably improved, the police department is more diverse than ever, and PVD Fest is pretty great.

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Yes, the mayor has struggled to execute on many of his bold ideas. But I believe his popularity has nonetheless grown during his final year in office because with no immediate political future to worry about and no opponents to pour cold water on his ideas, he has become more focused on his top priorities.

No matter what you think of the pension obligation bond, his plan went from dead on arrival in 2021 to being overwhelmingly approved by the General Assembly and signed by McKee this year. All of the candidates for mayor have said they support his universal income pilot program, and the reparations program will continue in some way after he leaves office.

That’s not to say Elorza agrees with everything the voters think.

His poll showed that 40 percent say they approve of Providence public schools, and 43 percent disapprove. He thinks those numbers ought to be much worse because of the current sorry state of the school system. And he doesn’t see much room for improvement, even though he plans to send his four-year-old son to those schools.

With his limited time left in office, Elorza said he intends to be more vocal about the challenges of the school system in hopes that the next mayor and the next governor can make more progress.

Speaking of the next mayor, Elorza’s upcoming exit from politics doesn’t mean he’s not interested in who he’ll be handing the keys to January. So he did ask voters who they’re supporting.

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The results: Brett Smiley was at 31 percent, Gonzalo Cuervo was at 26 percent, and Councilwoman Nirva LaFortune was at 20 percent.

Elorza hasn’t yet made up his mind on who he’ll vote for, but judging by those poll results, his endorsement could make all the difference.


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