At forum, Ward 3 candidates make case to be elected to City Council

From left to right, Daniel Chaika, Nirva LaFortune, Dave Lallier and Mark Santow. (Photo by Dan McGowan/WPRI 12)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Four candidates seeking to replace recalled Ward 3 City Councilman Kevin Jackson in Providence largely agreed on the East Side neighborhood’s most pressing issues Tuesday evening before an audience of nearly 200 constituents.

Democrats Nirva LaFortune, Mark Santow and Daniel Chaika as well as Republican Dave Lallier Jr. spent two hours answering questions from WPRI 12’s Ted Nesi and members of the crowd during the forum at the Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School on Camp Street. A fifth candidate, independent Chris Reynolds, did not attend the event.

The Democratic primary is scheduled for July 12 and the general election is set for Aug. 16.

All four candidates agreed Providence needs to improve educational outcomes for students and create more opportunities for all city residents, while also raising questions about the city’s use of subsidies to support economic development.

LaFortune, a Brown University employee who leads the way in fundraising among the candidates so far, painted herself as an active and engaged member of the community who is involved with several neighborhood organizations. She said the top issue facing Ward 3 is “division within our community” and argued she is best positioned to “bridge the gap.”

Santow, a member of the Providence School Board, said he started thinking about running for office following the election of President Donald Trump. He said the number one issue in Ward 3 is one the entire city faces: “unequal opportunity.” He noted the lack of affordable housing and living wage jobs as two examples.

Chaika, an attorney who specializes in family law, made the case that his ability to negotiate makes him the best candidate to bring diverse agendas together. He said the city’s tax burden is the neighborhood’s most pressing issue for both homeowners and renters. (Providence’s owner-occupied property tax rate is currently $18.80 per $1,000 of assessed value. The non-owner-occupied rate is $31.96 per $1,000.)

Lallier, who works as a truck driver, said he’s a candidate who knows what it’s like to live paycheck to paycheck. He called the educational system the ward’s top issue, arguing “our school system is failing and our students are falling behind.”

The candidates are running to replace Jackson, a longtime Democratic councilman who was overwhelmingly recalled by Ward 3 voters May 2. The recall was organized after Jackson was arrested and indicted last year on charges that he embezzled from a youth sports organization he founded in 1978. Jackson is also accused of using his campaign fund to cover personal expenses. He has pleaded not guilty.

Ward 3 stretches from the University Heights apartment complex off of North Main Street all the way north to the Pawtucket line. The district in unique because it is home to some of the wealthiest residents in the city as well the Mount Hope neighborhood, where incomes tend to be lower.

When asked about which of the last four mayors – current Mayor Jorge Elorza, Angel Taveras, now-Congressman David Cicilline and Vincent A. Cianci Jr. – was best for the city, Santow and Chaika each named Elorza. Lallier said Cianci. LaFortune punted on the question, arguing all of them had “certain strengths.”

On the city’s pension challenges, none of the candidates said they would support reducing the benefits of current retirees, but all acknowledged leaders have difficult decisions to make. They each said the city should consider multiple options, but were hesitant to deliver more substantive answers.

All of the candidates raised questions about the way the city currently handles tax subsidies. Chaika said he’s not opposed to subsidies, but he wants funds “to be made more accessible” to small businesses. Santow said “cities are not going to lift themselves up through the right combination of tax giveaways.” LaFortune and Lallier each said they have concerns about tax deals.

Pressed on crime, Santow and LaFortune each said the city should reopen a substation on Camp Street that has been closed for several years. Lallier said he wants to bring the community together to donate to a ward fund that might support the youth. Chaika said the police department needs to staff up, arguing the city is operating with force that is much smaller than it was a decade ago.

Each of the three Democrats in the race have picked up a key endorsement. Chaika is supported by the building trade union. LaFortune was endorsed by the Rhode Island chapter of the National Organization for Women. Santow is backed by the Providence Teachers’ Union.

Tuesday’s forum was sponsored by the Mount Hope Neighborhood Association and the Summit Neighborhood Association. The groups also held a forum where the candidates listened to neighbors’ concerns earlier this month.

Another candidate forum will be held at the Rochambeau Library on July 6 at 6:30 p.m.

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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