East Side Democrat Brett Smiley enters Providence mayor’s race

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – After seven years playing a behind-the-scenes role in Rhode Island politics, Brett Smiley stepped out on his own Tuesday, formally launching his campaign to become the 38th mayor of Providence.

Declaring himself the progressive candidate in the race, the 34-year-old East Side Democrat pledged to be an “operations and management” mayor, focusing on partnerships with the city’s hospitals and universities while investing in the arts and culture sector to spur job creation in a city that hasn’t seen its unemployment rate dip below 10% since November 2008.

“As mayor, my barometer for economic success will not be how many luxury apartments get built downtown,” Smiley told dozens of supports gathered at the Mount Hope Neighborhood Association. “It will be whether we are generating broad-based growth and creating good jobs that actually provide enough for families to succeed.”

Smiley said he’ll start improving the city’s economic climate by streamlining its historically convoluted building and zoning processes and eliminating the “you need to know a guy to get something done” culture that has plagued City Hall for generations. He also called for an expansion of Providence’s port and promised to offer training programs along the waterfront to create jobs for city residents.

As mayor, Smiley said he’d support a supplemental sales tax on gun and ammunition sales to pay for anti-violence efforts in a city that “hasn’t felt very safe lately.” Records show Providence has seen a small uptick in robberies, aggravated assaults and weapons offenses in 2013, but overall crime is down slightly compared with the same point in 2012.

“We need to reinvest in community policing by bringing in outside resources to the department and focusing our policing efforts on crimes of violence and crimes against property,” Smiley said.

In addition to stimulating the economy and tackling crime, Smiley said he wants to make Providence more bike- and pedestrian-friendly. To improve the city’s struggling school system, he said he’d push for more collaboration from all stakeholders while “providing clear instruction, continuity and support to ensure our teachers aren’t getting whiplash from constantly changing direction.”

“Our schools need it all – more high-quality teachers, more strong and effective principals, better facilities, more arts and more sports,” Smiley said.

Smiley, who grew up outside of Chicago and earned his undergraduate and business degrees from DePaul University, became the second candidate to officially enter the race to succeed first-term incumbent Mayor Angel Taveras, who is running for governor. Former Providence Housing Court Judge Jorge Elorza, another Democrat, announced his candidacy last month.

Smiley and Elorza are expected to be joined in the Democratic primary by City Council President Michael Solomon and East Side businessman Lorne Adrain. State Rep. John Lombardi has said he’ll make a decision on whether he’ll run for mayor before the end of the year. East Side psychiatrist Daniel Harrop is the only Republican in the race. Taveras has said he has no plans to endorse a candidate in the race.

Although Smiley is not from Providence, he is hardly an outsider.

Smiley moved to Rhode Island in 2006 to run then-Lt. Gov. Charles Fogarty’s gubernatorial campaign after making a name for himself two years earlier when he helped Illinois Democrat Melissa Bean unseat Congressman Phil Crane, who had been the longest-serving Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives at the time.

Fogarty went on to lose the race to incumbent Republican Gov. Don Carcieri by fewer than 8,000 votes.

Smiley went on to launch a political consulting firm, helping former mayor and now Congressman David Cicilline as well as Taveras raise millions of dollars for their respective races. Last year, he chose to focus on the compliance side of political campaigns, assisting candidates with reporting requirements while also serving as a State House lobbyist for same-sex marriage and payday lending reform.

Under Taveras, Smiley was appointed chairman of the city’s powerful Water Supply Board, where he advocated for a regionalization bill that would have allowed the city to profit off its water supply for the first time, but likely would have forced rates to surge. He also earned $21,000 as a lobbyist for the city over the last two fiscal years, according to a WPRI.com review of data obtained through a public records request. He resigned from both posts over the summer.

Smiley’s husband, James DeRentis, is no stranger to local politics either. A former executive at Bank Rhode Island, DeRentis serves as chairman of the Providence Redevelopment Agency. DeRentis also managed Gov. Lincoln Chafee’s exploratory campaign in 2009.

That deep experience in local politics will likely be among Smiley’s biggest assets as he navigates a mayoral campaign for the first time.

He has already won the support of former state Sen. Myrth York, an East Side kingmaker who played a vital role in helping Taveras rack up nearly 73% of the vote in that part of the city in 2010. He raised more than $100,000 in his first fundraising quarter and had $97,317 cash on hand as of Sept. 30, according to a filing with the R.I. Board of Elections.

Solomon, an Elmhurst Democrat who owns Wes’ Rib House in Olneyville, has already loaned himself $250,000 and had $516,773 as of Sept. 30. Elorza was sitting on $82,405 at the end of the third quarter. Adrain is not required to file a campaign finance report until the end of the year. Lombardi has not begun fundraising. Harrop reported $106,110.88 in his account.

For his campaign, Smiley has already brought in communications specialist Rob Horowitz, media experts RSH Campaigns (which handled Gina Raimondo’s 2010 run for treasurer) and Connecticut-based Mission Control for direct mail. He has also hired D.C.-based pollster Jill Normington and Checkmate Consulting to assist with fundraising and special projects, according to Horowitz.

The Democratic primary is scheduled for Sept. 9, 2014.

Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Twitter: @danmcgowan

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