Lord knows you don’t have to be a mathematician to be president of the Providence City Council. But you do have to understand how to count to eight.
That’s something Councilwoman Rachel Miller learned when she moved to Rhode Island 20 years ago to work for Jobs with Justice, a nonprofit that fought for workers’ rights and often came before the council seeking change. And now she is becoming intimately familiar with the art of counting votes as she seeks to be president of the city’s 15-member legislative body when the new council is sworn in on Jan. 3.
Miller, 43, appears to have the inside track on the presidency after securing the signatures of nine of her current or future colleagues, assuming they all prevail in November (most of them are running unopposed or against candidates who have no shot of winning).
Those signatures aren’t necessarily worth the paper they’re written on, and it wouldn’t be above a politician or two to go back on their word if somebody proposes a more favorable arrangement. But no one else on the council has shown any sign that they can build a winning coalition.
Assuming she does hold onto her votes for the next three months, Miller will be handed the gavel at a pivotal moment in the city’s history. Seven new councilors are taking office, and Providence is poised to have its youngest, most diverse legislative branch in recent memory. A new mayor, Brett Smiley, is also set to be sworn in.
The 15 councilors and Smiley are all Democrats – Providence hasn’t elected a non-Democrat to any city office since David Segal won a council seat as a member of the Green Party in 2002 – but they run the gamut ideologically, from Miller, who self-identifies as a socialist, to Smiley, who, while still quite liberal, pitched himself as the potholes-and-police candidate to win a three-way primary earlier this month.
“I know it’s not popular right now, but diversity of opinion is great,” Miller told me over coffee Tuesday afternoon. “It makes us make better decisions, fundamentally.”
Besides, she joked, “if we only talk to people we agree with, we’re going to have really boring parties.”
City Council presidents don’t go through the same vetting process that candidates for higher offices face, but Miller sure sounds like the adult in the room that voters seem to be clamoring for. She’s not attacking her colleagues or vowing to block Smiley’s evil moderate agenda.
She just wants to get things done, and her decades-long background as a progressive organizer means she actually understands how to build coalitions. She also cares far more about policy than power, and she has the ability to give Smiley a run for his money when it comes to pragmatism.
But she’s a socialist.
Miller grew up in New York, graduated from Holy Cross, and was working as an organizer in Washington, D.C., when she landed a role leading Jobs with Justice in Providence nearly 20 years ago. She managed Segal’s first campaign for Congress in 2010, earned another bachelor’s degree from Rhode Island College, and has been working at Building Futures, one of the most important workforce development organizations in Rhode Island, for the last several years.
She never planned to run for office, and was originally helping her friend, Mike Araujo, run for the Ward 13 council seat in 2018. He dropped out and she stepped in, and won the race. Ward 13 includes Federal Hill and the West End, and has emerged over the past decade as the most politically progressive area in the city.
“I’m a committed leftist, but I don’t see that as something that divides us,” Miller said. “I think overwhelmingly that’s something that brings people together by talking about core values.”
The fear in certain circles in Providence is that she wants to abolish the police, but she has never backed that idea. She does support the steps that have already been taken by outgoing Mayor Jorge Elorza and Councilwoman Nirva LaFortune to try to redirect more police calls to social service agencies, and the world hasn’t ended.
In fact, Providence is on track to have some of its lowest violent crime totals on record this year, after a big spike in 2021.
Miller said she wants to work with her colleagues and residents across the city on the future of policing in the city, but change doesn’t mean elimination. Her message to anyone who is panicking over her ascending to the presidency: “I’m sorry to disappoint you, but it’s going to be boring.”
That’s not to say that she has any intention of abandoning her values.
She wants to improve the tax deals that are offered to developers in the city to ensure that local workers are hired and getting paid a decent wage. She’s going to use her influence to expand options for affordable housing in the city. And she wants to build better relationships with the General Assembly so that the folks at the State House start viewing City Hall as a partner, not an adversary.
Smiley is trying to avoid picking sides (and making enemies) before he takes office, but Miller has plenty of non-socialist backers on the council: Ward 2 Councilor Helen Anthony, who is likely to chair the Finance Committee, and Ward 8 Councilman James Taylor, a retired firefighter who expects to be the majority leader, aren’t exactly liberal lions.
You know who else vouches for her? State Representative John Lombardi, a former City Council president himself. When Miller was a new-on-the-scene organizer and Lombardi was running the council, she recalls him constantly yelling, “Can you count to eight?” when she would visit him with a request for a new ordinance or policy change.
“I would love her to be the council president,” Lombardi told me. “She’s the quintessential councilor now.”
Miller understands that while she may never win over some residents, most of the work done in the city has little to do with political identity. Mayor Elorza loves to say that there are three political parties in America: “Democrats, Republicans, and mayors.” Buddy Cianci, the former mayor, used to say that there is no Democrat or Republican way to fill potholes.
“The only way is the socialist way, in fact,” she declared with a smile.