Major city unions won’t endorse mayoral candidate before primary

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The four major public employee unions in Rhode Island’s capital city are unlikely to endorse a candidate for mayor before next month’s Democratic primary, a sign they are willing to give independent Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci Jr. a second look before making a decision.

The heads of the Providence Fraternal Order of Police, firefighters union Local 799, Providence Teachers Union and Local 1033 of the Laborers’ International Union all told WPRI.com last week they don’t expect their members to throw their support behind Michael Solomon, Jorge Elorza or Brett Smiley before primary voters head to the polls Sept. 9.

While none of the union leaders cited Cianci, the former mayor, as the reason they haven’t formally backed a candidate, his presence in the race guarantees that Providence will have a meaningful general election for mayor for the first time in 20 years. (Cianci ran unopposed in 1998 and Democrats won with more than 80% of the vote in 2002, ’06 and ‘10.)

“If we wanted to endorse someone, we would have,” Paul Doughty, president of the firefighters union, said. “We still have a lot to look at.” Doughty’s union has endorsed outgoing Mayor Angel Taveras for governor and several candidates for City Council, but he said his members met with every candidate for mayor (including Cianci) and decided not to endorse yet.

Taft Manzotti, who heads up the police union, said his members have historically waited until after the primary to pick a candidate and this year would be no different. He said “I am not guessing” when asked if the union would consider Cianci. Teachers union president Maribeth Reynolds-Calabro said she is focusing on negotiating a new contract with the city, but confirmed the union will wait until after the primary to endorse a candidate. They are expected to endorse candidates for City Council before Sept. 9.

In an email, Local 1033 business manager Ron Coia also confirmed that his union has not picked a candidate in the race.

All of the unions have a deep history with Cianci, who served as mayor for parts of four decades between 1975 and 2002.

In 1990, when Cianci ran as an independent against Democrat Andrew Annaldo and independent Fred Lippitt, he picked up a unanimous endorsement from the Providence Central Federated Labor Council, which included delegates from nearly every city union. He also won the endorsement of the police officers. During his first year back in office, Cianci authorized a consent decree that gave a class of fire union retirees 5% and 6% compounded annual cost-of-living adjustments, or COLAs.

The political influence of Providence’s public employee unions has dwindled since state lawmakers repealed municipal residency laws for teachers in 2000 and for police officers and firefighters in 2004. But the groups still have the financial resources and organizing power to help local candidates win elections.

All of the unions, for example, operate political action committees that can donate directly to candidates and send mailers on their behalf. In that regard, the firefighters tend to be the most active. The group recently hired lawyer Mathew Jerzyk, one of the masterminds behind Taveras’s ascent to political power, as a political and communications consultant.

If the major unions do not endorse a candidate in the race, WPRI 12 political analyst Joe Fleming said it can only help Cianci.

“By them staying out, Cianci benefits,” Fleming said.

Among other unions who do business in the city, Solomon has picked up the support of Unite Here 217, which represents hotel workers; the Painters and Allied Trades District Council 11; the Rhode Island Building and Construction Trades Council; and the local Theatrical Stage Employees union. Smiley won the support of the United Food and Commercial Workers union.

The winner of the primary between Solomon, Smiley, Elorza and Chris Young will take on Cianci and Republican Daniel Harrop in the general election.

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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