For mayoral candidates, repetition is everything

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – When Buddy Cianci gets upset with Jorge Elorza during a mayoral forum, he likes to say, “This isn’t your classroom, professor.”

Elorza always has the same response. “This isn’t your talk show, Buddy.”

With under three weeks to go before the Nov. 4 election, the professor, the talk show host and Republican Dr. Daniel Harrop have perfected their acts, repeating the same talking points for new crowds as they travel across the city making the case for why one of them should be elected Providence’s next mayor.

When all is said and done, Elorza and Harrop will have participated in more than 30 debates and forums that started in January with a discussion on public safety, continued in April with a student-led event on schools and more recently has evolved into hour-long daily bickering sessions. Cianci, who entered the race in June and didn’t participate in any forums until after the Sept. 9 primary, has balanced a busy local debate circuit with a wave of national attention for his unexpected return to politics.

So what do the three remaining candidates want you to know about them?

Elorza is the 37-year-old son of Guatemalan immigrants “who worked hard and played by the rules” to help their family succeed in the United States. Once an honor roll student in middle school, Elorza likes to tell voters that he barely graduated from high school – he joked at a recent Brown University debate that he definitely wasn’t accepted into the Ivy League – before turning his life around and eventually earning his law degree from Harvard and becoming a Housing Court judge in Providence. He says he’ll bring “honest leadership for a new direction” to City Hall while touting a plan for “broad-based economic growth” in every neighborhood.

Cianci, the 73-year-old former mayor who was twice forced to resign from City Hall following felony convictions, always has a joke up his sleeve. When a debate moderator asked him how he’ll help ex-convicts find work in the city, he said, “elect them as mayor.” He also employs a tactic where he lists off several key accomplishments during his previous tenures as mayor – moving the rivers and building the Providence Place Mall are staples – before saying he believes his greatest achievement is “raising the self-esteem of the people of Providence to levels they never thought they could achieve.” He paints himself as the only candidate with the experience to move the city forward after what he calls “12 years of decline.”

Harrop, 60, acknowledges he won’t win the race and takes a more carefree, if still scripted, approach when talking to voters. He draws laughs when he compares Providence to the “little old man in January sitting in his apartment with a thermostat he sets to 60 degrees with three sweaters eating cat food and having chest pains because he can’t pay his bills for his heart pills” when making the case that the city needs to enter receivership. He says he wants to serve as mayor for only four years to “reset” public employee pensions before handing the job off to “hopefully another Republican, but maybe Jorge Elorza.”

While Harrop is usually trailed by one or two aides, Elorza and Cianci surround themselves with a mix of supporters who have two completely different views of the city. Elorza has a close circle of progressive Democrats – his campaign manager and spokesman are former aides to Mayor Angel Taveras – who jumped behind his candidacy when he was still considered an underdog in the primary, coupled with prominent older supporters like former Common Cause executive director Phil West and M. Charles Bakst, a former political columnist for the Providence Journal. The day-to-day faces around Cianci are largely dissident Democrats who have clashed with Mayors Taveras and David Cicilline over the last 12 years. Cianci also has a fiercely loyal group of campaign aides such as campaign treasurer Charles Mansolillo, who has been with him since he won his first election in 1974.

A WPRI 12/Providence Journal poll released last month showed Cianci clinging to a slight lead over Elorza, but with 21% of city voters saying they were still undecided, neither campaign expressed much joy or concern over the survey. Cianci’s campaign used it to try to win endorsements, or at least encourage some Democrats to avoid publicly backing their party’s standard-bearer. Elorza’s campaign used his underdog status to drive up fundraising, sending an email to supporters that said the poll results “show us gaining ground, but we’re not there yet.”

Although the race has largely devolved into a campaign of wit and personality, the candidates rarely disagree on the issues facing Providence. They all want to put more cops on the street, improve public schools and create jobs in a city that has seen an unemployment rate above 9% for 77 consecutive months.

One key area of disagreement between the candidates: how to utilize the waterfront land along Allens Avenue.

Elorza routinely says the current waterfront is “so underutilized that it’s as if we built the Iway and used it only as a bike lane” when making the case for heavy industrial zoning. He has pledged to double exports from the Port of Providence within five years if he’s elected. Cianci used a new TV commercial to reinforce his criticism that the waterfront needs to move away from “strip clubs and scrapyards” to a mixed-use development that could include a new hotel, marina and recreation facilities. Harrop says they’re both wrong, and argues that the “free market” should decide how best to develop the area.

Now as the campaign enters the homestretch and the candidates make their final pitch to voters, there’s one message they’ll all be repeating.

The election is Nov. 4.

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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