If you run into Emily Crowell in downtown Providence, she’ll almost certainly be carrying two packs of Marlboro Lights, a pocket knife, and a cell phone that vibrates with text messages and calls from the time she wakes up before 6 each morning until … well, they never really stop.
Neither does she, unless it’s to add to a growing collection of tattoos all over her body. She’s got 29 now, including one across her right bicep with the same words that are inscribed on H.P. Lovecraft’s gravestone in Swan Point Cemetery: “I am Providence.”
So you’ll be forgiven if it doesn’t immediately leap to mind that Crowell is one of the most effective political operatives in Rhode Island.
No one’s stock in state politics has risen more than Crowell’s over the past decade, when she jumped from a junior staffer’s role in US Senator Jack Reed’s office to become a top aide for Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza and then state Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green.
After stints handling communications for Elorza and as chief of staff to Infante-Green as the state was taking over Providence’s struggling school system, no one would have blamed Crowell, 34, for jumping into a better paying job outside of government that involved less smoking, fewer headaches, and the occasional vacation.
She did try a gig for a public relations firm here in the city, but she couldn’t stop herself from pursuing a passion project: Getting Brett Smiley elected mayor of Providence.
Smiley won a three-way Democratic primary last Tuesday night, and he faces no opponent in the general election. He’ll be sworn in as Elorza’s successor in January.
There’s a primary night picture of Smiley that perfectly encapsulates the do-everything role Crowell played on the campaign. As Smiley is delivering his victory speech, some powerful men in suits are in the front row, almost definitely congratulating themselves for helping elect the new mayor.
Here’s to always looking up to this guy. So incredibly proud of you @brettpsmiley. pic.twitter.com/wfWrtQazIu— emily ward (@malee_ward) September 15, 2022
And then there’s Crowell, wearing a blue blazer, doing the actual work, kneeling in front of everyone and praying to God that Smiley won’t kick over the glass of water she placed under the podium about 18 inches from several large speakers, which would have cost campaign a few thousand bucks and more importantly, ruined the moment.
Crowell was far more than a water-watcher on Smiley’s campaign, but her attention to detail and fierce loyalty to Smiley has her in line for just about any job she wants in City Hall. That will most likely be chief of staff, but a better title might be director of getting stuff done.
“I trust that he cares about the issues as much as I do,” Crowell told me when I asked why she was so convinced that Smiley was the right choice for mayor. They had no agreement in place before the election about a job after the election, but Smiley knows he needs her just as much as she needs him.
Crowell grew up in Cranston, the daughter of a dental hygienist and a father who dabbled in local politics. During her wedding reception, her father joked that Crowell was infatuated with Buddy Cianci as a kid, awkwardly apologizing to Elorza, who officiated the wedding. Crowell graduated from Bay View Academy and the University of Rhode Island, briefly considering a career as a tattoo artist before landing a job in Reed’s office.
There’s no precise way to tell what makes a good political staffer, but it’s the people who are heavy on work ethic and light on their own ego who tend to go the furthest.
Crowell works annoyingly hard. She once blamed me for ruining a date she was on because I was texting her with questions, and she kept cursing me by name. “Should I be worried about this guy?” her date asked. They didn’t last as a couple.
She’s had her share of dramatic moments.
A few years ago, Crowell had a seizure in her office during Elorza’s state of the city address, just as a thousand teachers were flooding the City Council chamber and screaming at the mayor. She refused to go to a hospital, and by the end of the night was attempting to do damage control about the protest with the press.
And then there’s the knife she always carries because of the time in 2016 she got mugged outside of City Hall while taking a cigarette break. She helped police identify her assailant, and then marched right back into the building and got back to work.
She has also proven to be reliable in the most tragic moments, like when a high school student was shot and killed on the second day of school in 2018. She helped the administration keep its cool, preparing Elorza’s remarks and coordinating with the police department to provide accurate information to the public.
Crowell also knows that the most important part of overseeing any staff is actually paying attention to the staff.
That’s why she tries to spot top talent, especially women of color, at every turn. Having run the Rhode Island chapter of the National Organization for Women, Crowell calls herself a feminist whose primary goal is to pave the way for more women to rise through the ranks in politics, whether it’s as a candidate or behind the scenes.
“I didn’t really have that, so I had to act like a dude,” Crowell says, reflecting on her early years working in politics.
Patricia Socarras, a former Elorza aide who now oversees communications for Democrat Seth Magaziner’s campaign for Congress, jokes that Crowell is versatile enough to win people over with kindness or scare them into submission.
The summer before the state took control of Providence schools, Governor Gina Raimondo’s office and the Department of Education promised to make several repairs to various school buildings in the city, but officials weren’t living up to their end of the bargain. Crowell marched into the State House and put everyone in their place, securing a pledge for even more repairs.
A few months later, Infante-Green hired Crowell away from Elorza, and quickly made her the chief of staff at the education department.
“Emily is so loyal, and cedes no ground,” Socarras said. “She does it so confidently that everyone believes her, and 99 percent of the time, she gets what she’s going after.”
Full disclosure: Crowell and I have become friendly in recent years. We practically grew up together in city politics, often with her telling me that she’d rather “take a bath” with some old man in city politics than give me whatever scoop I was looking for. The bath line is her favorite way of expressing opposition to an idea, several former staffers say.
Assuming she does join Smiley’s staff in City Hall, Crowell also understands that the most important part of her job might be to tell the mayor when he can’t, or shouldn’t, make a decision. I asked her how she’ll handle it if Smiley doesn’t turn out to be a great mayor.
“I’ve been let down by my bosses before,” she jokes. “I’ll be okay.”
When I asked if she has any plans for more tattoos, she told me that “as you get older, you run out of good space,” but she plans to get a “39″ somewhere on her arm to signify that Smiley will be the 39th mayor of Providence.
Now that’s loyalty.
Dan McGowan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @danmcgowan.