Solomon, Elorza battle in heated mayoral debate

Democratic candidates for Providence mayor Jorge Elorza, left, and Michael Solomon listen during a debate on WPRI 12's Newsmakers in August 2014.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The leading Democratic candidates for mayor of Providence lobbed criticism at one another throughout a contentious debate Friday, while each made the case that the city can’t afford to elect independent candidate Buddy Cianci in the November election.

City Council President Michael Solomon and former Housing Court Judge Jorge Elorza focused on recent campaign blunders for much of the hour-long debate on WPRI 12’s Newsmakers, but the two candidates promised to support the winner of the Sept 9. primary.

The mayor’s office is open because incumbent Angel Taveras is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor. The winner of the primary between Solomon, Elorza and Chris Young will take on Cianci, the former mayor, and Republican Daniel Harrop in the general election.

Solomon, a lifelong city resident who has represented the Elmhurst neighborhood on the City Council since 2007, made the case that Providence doesn’t “have time for on the job training,” arguing that he is the candidate best equipped to move the city forward. He touted his experience helping the city close a $110-million structural deficit in 2011 as an example of his ability to “make tough decisions.”

Elorza, a Harvard-educated son of Guatemalan immigrants, said he wants to “create economic opportunity in every neighborhood” while changing the culture in City Hall. He called himself a “forward thinking” candidate with plans for schools and getting more out of the port of Providence while painting Solomon as someone who represents the “politics of the past.”

Elorza also said he did not know that the language he used in a letter to 7,000 city voters to admit that he was arrested for shoplifting as a teenager was copied from a similar letter sent in 2012 by Central Falls Mayor James Diossa. He blamed an advisor who “is no longer working for me” for copying the letter, but refused to identify the person. He said he considers the matter is “distraction.”

Solomon meanwhile is the subject of a state Ethics Commission investigation after a Republican City Council candidate filed a complaint accusing him of more than two dozen reporting violations on his annual financial disclosure forms. Solomon said he is working with the commission to correct what he called “clerical errors.”

Elorza also accused Solomon of failing to repay a “sweetheart” taxpayer-backed loan that he and a group of partners received in 1987. Solomon said the loan, which helped redevelop the Conrad building on Westminster Street, was one of the first projects to help revitalize downtown. He said he and his partners are current on the loan and has pledged to not sit on the board that provides city economic development loans.

On the issues, the two Democrats rarely found themselves disagreeing with one another.

Both candidates said they believe it will take years to improve the status of the city’s pension system, which is currently just 31% funded and still facing an official $832-million shortfall. Solomon said he has worked to pass an ordinance that requires the city to make its annual required contribution to the pension system, something it didn’t always do under administrations of former Mayors Cianci and David Cicilline. Elorza pledged to be a “fiscally responsible” mayor who will grow the tax base in order to improve the city’s finances. Both candidates agreed that bankruptcy is not an option for Providence.

Elorza and Solomon each declined to rule out the possibility of raising taxes if they’re elected mayor, but each said they consider that option “a last resort.” Elorza said he believes his plan to double exports from the port of Providence in five years will create thousands of jobs for the city. Elorza also said he likes the idea of a municipal income tax, but indicated he doesn’t believe it’s right for Providence. Solomon said his goal is to continue with a plan of freezing commercial tax rates as long as the tax base is expanding.

On the car tax, Elorza pledged to create a plan that would change the way motor vehicles are valued, but acknowledged that it would have to be phased in over time so Providence could absorb the lost tax dollars that would come with it. Solomon said he would raise the car tax exemption from $1,000 to $2,000 by asking state lawmakers to approve legislation that would grant Providence 33% of new income taxes collected at tax-exempt institutions. He said would lobby the legislature to win passage.

Both candidates said they support allowing undocumented residents to obtain driver’s licenses as well as Allens Avenue being used for industrial purposes and oppose the legalization of marijuana. Solomon said Taveras deserves an “A” letter grade for his performance as mayor while Elorza gave him an “I for incomplete.” Each refused to say whether they retain Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare.

Solomon said he believes Providence is getting enough payments in lieu of taxes from the city’s nonprofit colleges and hospitals, but Elorza said he wants to find “creative ways so they can make even more” contributions. On charter schools, Elorza said he would be open to adding more schools “on a case-by-case basis,” but indicated he wants to import the work they do into traditional public schools. Solomon said he does not support more charter schools.

On other school issues, Solomon said his top priority is investing $250 million over 10 years to help rebuild the city’s crumbling schools. For education policy, he said he wants to provide more autonomy for principals and teachers and take middle-management money out of the school district’s central office and put it back in the classroom. Elorza said he has a plan to implement full-service community schools that would keep building open longer and during vacations and provide more social services to Providence students.

“If I’m remembered for one thing, I want to be the mayor who fixed our schools,” Elorza said.

When asked to give their pitch on why they are a better candidate than Cianci, Elorza, cited the city’s demographic changes, arguing that he is building a coalition that would make it “extremely difficult, if not impossible,” for Cianci to win. Solomon said his experience makes him the best candidate, noting that he has been “cleaning up Buddy Cianci’s mess for the last four years.” Both candidates refused to say something nice about the former mayor.

With several high-profile violent incidents occurring on Federal Hill in recent months, both candidates said they want to return the neighborhood to the family-friendly destination it has become known for. Solomon said he would consider requiring all establishments in that neighborhood to close by midnight in order to limit violence.

Both candidates acknowledged that more needs to be done to improve the city’s roads. Solomon said the $40 million the city borrowed to repave 60 miles of roads in recent years was only “25% of what we need to get done” He said the council has passed an ordinance that will prevent utility companies from tearing up roads and failing to repave them. Elorza said he will bring in a permanent director of public works for the first time in several years and said he wants to implement a program where residents can report potholes in real time.

Solomon and Elorza are supporting Taveras for governor.

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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