The complicated history of Providence City Councilman Kevin Jackson

City Councilman Kevin Jackson

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Three minutes and 21 seconds into what could be the final extended interview he’ll give as an elected official, the longest-serving member of the Providence City Council is choking up.

Sitting behind a desk in the large third-floor office in City Hall that he chose after his colleagues made him their majority leader in 2015 – and that he kept even after he resigned the post the day after he was arrested last May – Kevin Jackson is reflecting on the things people are saying about him. Yes, he reads the comments.

He sees Facebook users – some from his neighborhood, some who don’t even live in Providence – warning that he may retaliate against his political enemies. Others say he’s corrupt, comparing him to his deceased friend, former Mayor Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci Jr.

“I gained nothing in 22 years,” Jackson, a Democrat who has represented Ward 3 since 1995, says as tears form in his eyes. “Not a job for a family member. Nothing.”

On Tuesday Jackson could become the first councilperson in Providence history to be recalled from office. A group of his constituents in Ward 3 on the city’s East Side launched the campaign to remove him after he was arrested last May on charges that he embezzled from the youth sports organization he co-founded in 1978 and misused his political campaign account.

And while he acknowledges he’s facing an “uphill battle” in the recall race – more than 2,000 residents signed a petition to force Tuesday’s election – Jackson is hoping there are enough voters in Ward 3 willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and keep him in City Hall.

“I’ve never denied what I’ve been charged with is serious, but the misconception of who I am is just hurtful,” Jackson says.

So who is Kevin Jackson?

A Warwick native, Jackson was 32 when he decided to run for City Council in 1990 as an independent in Ward 3, which stretches from the University Heights apartment complex off of North Main Street all the way north to the Pawtucket line. By then he had already made a name for himself as a coach who founded the Providence Cobras youth track-and-field team, along with Thomas Spann. He also worked at the local YMCA throughout college.

Jackson lost his first campaign, finishing a distant third behind independent Josh Fenton and incumbent Donald “Danny” Lopes, a Democrat. Fenton, who would go on to launch the news organization GoLocalProv, squeaked by Lopes to become the only member of the council who wasn’t a Democrat.

When Fenton chose not to seek reelection four years later, he supported Jackson to succeed him. Jackson ran as a Democrat, defeating Lopes in the primary. Jackson’s general election opponent, James Mulcahy, dropped out of the race because he didn’t want to give up his Massachusetts license plate – “1400” – according to an article in The Providence Journal at the time.

As a freshman on the council, Jackson quickly took up the issues that would come to define his career in city politics. He would pay special attention to his constituents in the Mount Hope section of Ward 3, the poorest neighborhood on the East Side.

Jackson became a vocal advocate for residency requirements for city workers, a position he still holds today. He pushed for the creation of a special committee to study tax-exempt nonprofit institutions, a challenge city officials have been discussing ever since. He also chaired a special committee that reviewed the management and operations of the city’s recreation department.

By 1997, Jackson was clashing with the police department, accusing officers of harassing black teenagers in his neighborhood, according to a Providence Journal report at the time. He complained that officers were stopping 14-year-old kids and asking for identification cards the kids didn’t have.

“I believe I may have called them racists even,” Jackson recalls. “But then they held a press conference with me.”

After he was reelected in 1998, new Council President John Lombardi – now a state representative – made Jackson the chairman of the Council Finance Committee. The increased control over budgetary matters allowed Jackson to steer more funding toward nonprofit organizations in his neighborhood.

But Jackson also remained vocal about the need to reform the police department. In 2000, after off-duty Sgt. Cornel Young Jr. was shot and killed by two fellow officers, Jackson sponsored a resolution calling the incident a “murder.” In a separate resolution, he called for the resignation of then-Police Chief Urbano Prignano Jr.

In the years that followed, Jackson became increasingly concerned about the lack of opportunity for many Providence residents. While he supported granting large tax breaks to projects like the GTECH headquarters in downtown, he raised questions about whether the deals would actually create jobs for people living in the city. It’s a fear he still has today.

“We talk about bringing in all these greats jobs,” Jackson says. “That doesn’t help the people who have been here for 20 years because they’re not going to be qualified for those great jobs.”

In 2006, Jackson joined the City Council in suing then-Mayor David Cicilline over the city’s failure to enforce the First Source ordinance, which requires organizations that receive tax breaks or funding from the city to consider hiring Providence residents. Former Superior Court Judge Stephen J. Fortunato Jr. sided with the council.

Jackson considers the First Source victory one his crowning achievements.

“At least for people where the door was always locked, at least it became open,” he recalls.

Jackson would be reelected in 2006, 2010 and 2014. He lost his chairmanship of the Finance Committee after 2006 and became part of a dissident group of councilors that often challenged then-Council President Michael Solomon between 2011 and 2014. He rose back to power as the majority leader in 2015, but resigned the position following his arrest last year. He has remained an active member of the council since being charged.

‘A man who has helped his community tremendously’

For Leah Williams Metts, Jackson is a hero.

She and her oldest brother ran track at Hope High School. Her niece and nephew ran track for the Cobras. She credits people like Jackson with keeping her family “focused on our goals and off the streets as teenagers.”

Williams Metts now works as a consultant at the Mount Hope Neighborhood Association, which provides support to low-income people in the community. She said Jackson is a frequent visitor.

“When I think about Kevin Jackson, I think it’s a man who has helped his community tremendously,” she said. “He spent years making sure children have recreational activities which save them from the streets.”

Karen McAninch, a business agent for the United Service and Allied Workers of Rhode Island and resident of Ward 3, said she has mixed feelings about Jackson. She said it was “distressing” to hear the accusations prosecutors have made against the councilman, but suggested he has been a strong advocate for the poor. She noted he has always supported the local library.

“Since Kevin Jackson was first elected to the City Council, I have respected his dedication to the issues I care about and to the less well-off members of our community,” she said.

Several of Jackson’s colleagues have also come to his defense. After the City Council scheduled the recall election, Council President Luis Aponte called Jackson’s situation “heartbreaking.” In a Facebook post last week, Councilwoman Mary Kay Harris recalled meeting him in 1999 at a time when she “had no idea how much he cared for the poor and the working poor and tried everything in his power to stand for the people without a voice, because they can’t pay big on political campaigns.”

“I don’t know what is going to happen on Tuesday,” she wrote. “But the community still needs your fighting spirit. I hope to serve and fight hard for everyone who [has] a need.”

Recall election is Tuesday

To be sure, the accusations against Jackson are severe, and the group leading the recall effort has been well-organized.

Prosecutors claim Jackson embezzled $127,153 from the Cobras youth track-and-field team, an organization that has received $67,000 in city funds since 2005. Investigators claim Jackson used the organization’s money to fund campaign-related expenses, including an advertisement in a local magazine during his 2014 reelection bid. It also says he spent the Cobras’ money on apparel, car repairs and monthly Netflix charges.

Jackson is also accused of using $12,000 in campaign funds on personal expenses, including apparel, health care, cash withdrawals and paying a fine to the Rhode Island Board of Elections. Jackson has a long history of failing to file campaign reports and still owed the board nearly $31,000 in fines for his past-due reports as of March.

Jackson has pleaded not guilty. His attorney, Artin Coloian, was scheduled to appear in front of Superior Court Judge Susan McGuirl last week. The next court date is unclear.

The recall effort was launched last September by Tricia Kammerer, a Warwick elementary school teacher who has lived on the East Side for more than 20 years. After obtaining 300 signatures from Ward 3 residents to begin the recall process, the group successfully turned in more than 2,000 signatures – 20% of registered voters in the ward – to force Tuesday’s vote.

The group has also survived an onslaught of legal challenges from Jackson’s attorneys – and Jackson says he doesn’t expect any last-minute appeals to be filed before the recall election. Kammerer’s group reported raising nearly $10,000 from 85 donors as of April 29, according an Eyewitness News review of financial disclosures filed with the Board of Elections.

Depending on the question, Jackson’s mood swings from defiant to hopeful.

He claims the recall would not have happened if he didn’t offend many of his constituents by supporting Cianci’s last bid to return as mayor in 2014, a decision that nearly cost him his council seat to a spirited write-in challenge from Marcus Mitchell. But he acknowledges he has done himself no favors by continually failing to file campaign finance reports and then facing criminal charges.

No matter what happens Tuesday, Jackson says he’s confident that his voting record isn’t the reason he may be removed from office. Calling himself “the most liberal member of the City Council,” Jackson says he’s proud of the work he’s done for 22 years. During a City Council meeting last week, he rose to thank his colleagues. Everyone clapped.

As for what’s next, Jackson says he’s taking a wait-and-see approach.

“I’ll continue to stay involved,” he suggests. “If people want me.”

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Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan