Kobi Dennis mulling run for Providence mayor

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Kobi Dennis, a well-known community advocate and founder of Unified Solutions, confirmed Tuesday he is considering a challenge to Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza next year.

Dennis, 46, has not opened a campaign account with the R.I. Board of Elections to begin fundraising, but he told Eyewitness News he is eyeing dates to publicly announce his candidacy. He took to Facebook Monday evening to say he was “unofficially” campaigning at a city barbershop, a post that was “liked” by his friends more than 175 times.

Voting records show Dennis is a registered Democrat who lives in Ward 5, which includes the Elmhurst and Mount Pleasant neighborhoods.

Elorza, a first-term Democrat who has already said he plans to run for a second and final term for mayor next year, won a contentious primary against then-City Council President Michael Solomon, going on to defeat former Mayor Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci Jr. in the general election in 2014. (Solomon, who was considering challenging Elorza next year, now works as a senior advisor to the mayor.)

The city’s political chattering class has long identified Dennis as a potential challenger to Elorza and Dennis has repeatedly hinted that he is considering running for mayor. In a recent Facebook post, he suggested Elorza had little community support for the city’s midnight basketball program, an initiative Dennis led in recent years.

At other times, Dennis has heaped praised on Elorza as someone who is engaged in the community. In a 2016 Rhode Island Monthly profile on the mayor, Dennis said Elorza has “been the best listener of someone in his position that I’ve ever met.”

Dennis grew up on the South Side and served in the Navy between 1989 and 1993, according to a 2011 profile published by Providence Monthly. He is the founder of Project Night Vision, a nonprofit after-school program designed to support teenagers between 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. He has since founded Unified Solutions, a collaboration of community organizations that has a partnership with Roger Williams University.

Elorza appears to be heading into his re-election campaign as a favorite to win a second term.

While there has been no public polling on his job performance, an incumbent mayor has not lost in Providence since 1974, when then-Republican Cianci defeated Democratic Mayor Joe Doorley. Elorza will also start with a significant financial advantage over Dennis, having reported $484,000 in his campaign account as of June 30, according to filings with the R.I. Board of Elections.

Leading a city that hasn’t elected a Republican to any political office since 1992, Elorza has also been a loud voice of opposition against President Donald Trump, particularly when it comes to the president’s stance against illegal immigration. The mayor has repeatedly declared Providence a “sanctuary city,” while also maintaining the city complies with all federal immigration law.

But Elorza has struggled to build relationships with his colleagues in government, leaving his top legislative priorities at the State House with little support. Early in his tenure, he clashed with the Providence firefighters’ union in effort to reduce spending. The dispute was partially resolved with a new five-year contract for the union, but the two sides are still negotiating over how much the city owes firefighters in back pay for changes Elorza made to their work schedules in 2015.

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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