Mayoral candidates stay on the attack in final debate

Republican Daniel Harrop, independent Vincent "Buddy" Cianci and Democrat Jorge Elorza are the three candidates for mayor of Providence.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Keeping with the tone of the entire campaign, the three candidates for mayor of Providence didn’t lead with the issues during their final televised debate Wednesday evening.

Instead independent Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci Jr., Democrat Jorge Elorza and Republican Dr. Daniel Harrop used the hour-long debate at Rhode Island College to squawk about mail ballot fraud and defaced signs while hurling insults at one another. The debate was aired on WJAR-TV.

Cianci has taken to referring to Harrop as “Jorge Harrop” after the Republican donated $1,000 to Elorza earlier this month. Elorza said he’s “not buying” Cianci’s decision to apologize so close to Election Day for “mistakes” he made during his past two tenures as mayor. And Harrop said the monsignor at his church summed up his opponents best of all.

“You’re running against one guy who may not believe in God and another guy who thinks he is God,” Harrop said, quoting the monsignor.

On mail ballots, the three candidates agreed that Rhode Island must prevent campaigns from playing any role in the voting process, but none admitted to any wrongdoing after spending the week calling for State Police investigations. Last week, Cianci supporters were accused of aggressively soliciting absentee ballots in the Crossroads Rhode Island homeless shelter and on Sunday, an Elorza supporter was caught on video by a Cianci volunteer carrying what appeared to be someone else’s mail ballot.

Cianci and Elorza each grumbled that their campaign signs have been vandalized or stolen in recent months, complaints that are normally reserved for small-town elections, not the race for chief executive of a 178,000-resident capital city.

Asked about a management trait they’d most like to fix, Elorza said “you always evolve” and indicated he wants to surround himself with the right people. Harrop said he doesn’t handle failure well and Cianci said he is a “better listener and a little bit more mellow” nowadays.

When it came time to talk about Cianci’s past, the former mayor who was twice forced from office following felony convictions acknowledged that he “didn’t pay a lot of attention” to some of his aides, but “no one ever accused me of putting money in my pocket.” Elorza said the election comes down to whether “we believe Cianci is a changed man.” (Elorza said he does not.)

The debate wasn’t a total bickering session, however.

All three candidates agreed that Providence needs to change the way it handles car taxes. Elorza and Cianci support raising the car tax exemption – currently $1,000 – and working with the state to change the valuation process, but neither candidate has proposed a plan for accomplishing either goal. Harrop wants to abolish the car tax altogether, but said the city first must go through receivership to clear some of its debts.

The three men also agreed that city residents can’t afford to pay more taxes and that economic growth is the only solution for the city financial problems. Elorza touted his plan to double exports from the Port of Providence within five years, a strategy he says may create thousands of new jobs. All three said they support continuing to lease a section of the waterfront along Allens Avenue to ProvPort.

On schools, Elorza said he wants to keep schools open longer and during vacations, provide more social services to students and take resources away from the school department and invest them back in the classroom. Cianci said he likes all of Elorza’s ideas, but argued that the city first needs to solve some of its basic problems, like busing students to and from school. Harrop supports more school choice through charter schools, vouchers and home schooling.

The candidates again agreed on the need to put more police on the streets, but they each gave original ideas for other facets of public safety. Cianci pledged to appoint a civilian as commissioner of public safety. Elorza has said he’ll find ways to convince more officers to live in Providence. Harrop said he wants to create a civilian oversight board.

Harrop said the “fire department is bloated and must be cut” while pointing out that Providence spends more of firefighters than it does police. Elorza said he wants to cut costs by finding ways to avoid sending fire trucks to minor incidents that don’t involve fires. Cianci said the city has to pay more in insurance because its fire trucks are too old. He said he wants to make repairs to fire stations as well.

All of the candidates agreed they want nightclubs to stay off of Federal Hill. Harrop and Cianci blamed the current Zoning Board for some the altercations that have taken place on Atwells Avenue in recent years. Only Elorza said he would support blocking people under the age of 21 from city bars.

The election is Nov. 4.

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

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