Mayoral candidates want to hire minorities, fix schools

Providence mayoral candidates (photo by Dan McGowan/WPRI)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Five mayoral hopefuls outlined their vision for Rhode Island’s capital city Monday, promising to hire more minorities and women, improve the school system and build a more diverse police force during a candidate forum at the Ebenezer Baptist Church on Cranston Street.

The forum was moderated by Brown University political science professor Marion Orr and hosted by the Rhode Island Black Business Association, a 501(c)6 nonprofit founded in 2010. The candidates included Democrats City Council President Michael Solomon, former Housing Court Judge Jorge Elorza, former Water Supply Board Chairman Brett Smiley, East Side businessman Lorne Adrain and Republican Daniel Harrop.

Christopher Young, a Democrat who has said he plans to run for mayor but has not opened a campaign account with the R.I. Board of Elections, was not allowed to participate in the forum. He ran for mayor in 2006 and 2010.

The candidates largely agreed that the next mayor needs to tackle a city unemployment rate that has not fallen below 9.4% since May 2008 – it was 10.7% in February – while also reforming the poor-performing school system and addressing quality-of-life concerns.

Solomon, who has served on the City Council since 2007 and owns Wes’ Rib House in Olneyville, said his campaign will focus on “jobs, schools and neighborhoods.” The candidate has proposed borrowing $250 million over ten years to renovate Providence’s crumbling schools because students “can’t learn when water is dripping on their head.”

Elorza, who grew up just blocks from the church, pitched himself as the candidate who best understands the struggles of the working poor. The son of Guatemalan immigrants, Elorza said he nearly failed out of Classical High School before graduating first in his class from the University of Rhode Island, attending Harvard Law School and being appointed to the city’s Housing Court. He promised to “fight every day so that kids have the opportunity to succeed in this world.”

Smiley, who runs a campaign finance compliance firm downtown and has worked in politics since moving to Rhode Island in 2006, said the next mayor will have a “window of opportunity” to stimulate Providence’s economy and improve upon the work done by current Mayor Angel Taveras. He touted himself as a progressive leader who has fought against payday lending and led the campaign to pass a $25 million affordable housing bond in 2012.

Adrain, a former chairman of the Board of Governors for Higher Education who played a key role in approving in-state tuition for undocumented students in 2011, said he plans to focus on the “the economy and the effectiveness of City Hall” during his campaign. He promised to run a more inclusive city because “Providence will make great progress when everyone is mayor.”

Harrop, a Brown University graduate who works as psychiatrist on the East Side, painted a bleak picture of the city’s finances. He noted that Providence has the highest commercial tax rate of any large city in the country and said the next mayor will again need to discuss pension reform in the coming years. “This election is about numbers. It’s about the lousy numbers that are plaguing this city,” he said.

The candidates are vying for an open seat because Taveras is running in the Democratic primary for governor later this year against Treasurer Gina Raimondo and Clay Pell. Solomon, Elorza and Smiley have said they are supporting the mayor, while Adrain has said he will support the winner of the primary. Harrop is backing Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, a fellow Republican, for governor.

Monday’s event was the second in what will likely be more than a dozen candidate forums held across the city before the September primary. The first forum was held in January and focused on nonviolence. Aside from Young, state Rep. Ray Hull, who recently announced that he may run for mayor, was not in attendance.

Former Providence Mayor Vincent “Buddy” Cianci Jr. has said he won’t rule out entering the race, but did not attend the forum. The talk radio show host has been elected as a Republican and an independent in the past, but could seek the Democratic nomination this time around. He resigned from office in 1984 and again in 2002 and later served five years in federal prison after being convicted on a racketeering conspiracy.

Candidates want more diversity in City Hall, police dept

All of the candidates acknowledged that Providence needs to do a better job when it comes to awarding city contracts to minorities and women. Each candidate pledged to enforce a longtime city ordinance that requires 10% of each city contract to be given to a minority-owned business. The candidates also agreed to hire a director that will oversee the implementation of the ordinance.

“Until we get it right, until we start meeting our goals, this position will report to me as mayor,” Smiley said.

All of the Democrats in the race said they would require recipients of special tax stabilization agreements to hire Providence residents, while Harrop said he generally opposes having the government “pick winners and losers.” A review of city tax breaks last fall has prompted the City Council to begin analyzing each agreement to ensure recipients have complied with the terms of the deals.

The candidates promised to move contract bidding online and said they would speed up the process for paying city vendors. Solomon said the council will take up improving payout times later this year. Elorza said he wants to create a revolving fund so that businesses can borrow funds in order to make payroll while they wait to be paid by the city.

Although overall crime has dropped or remain stagnant each year since Taveras took office, the candidates promised to make changes in the city’s police department. Each said they want to hire more minority officers that better reflect the city they serve. More than 60% of the city’s 178,000 residents identified as a minority in 2010, according to the U.S. Census.

“I will make sure every police academy is the most diverse ever,” Elorza said.

Providence does not have a “stop and frisk” policy on the books, but both Elorza and Solomon said city police had used the tactic on them. The other candidates said they have never been stopped and frisked.

Most oppose testing, support decentralizing schools

On schools, all of the Democrats said they support the city’s current policy of having the school board appointed by the mayor. Harrop said he would like to have an elected school board. Adrain was the only candidate who said he would definitely retain Superintendent Dr. Susan Lusi, while the other candidates said they would make that decision after they were elected.

With the exception of Adrain, all of the candidates said they oppose so-called “high-stakes testing” that ties results on a standardized test to a high school diploma. As it stands now, more than 600 Providence students in the class of 2014 are at risk of not graduating because they haven’t earned a qualifying score on the math or English section of the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP).

Adrain said he supports testing, but wants to make sure students are prepared for standardized exams before they become part of the high school graduation requirements.

Each of the candidates said they support “decentralizing” the city’s schools and providing more autonomy for individual school principals, but Smiley said “we do not yet have strong and effective principals in every school.”

The Democratic primary is scheduled for Sept. 9. The winner will challenge Harrop in the general election Nov. 4.

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

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