Win or lose, Kobi Dennis sees mayoral campaign as ‘teachable moment’ for Providence

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Kobi Dennis has spent his career working in the community, creating opportunities for young people that weren’t always available when he was a teenager growing up on the South Side of Providence.

Now he’s hoping the community will have his back as he makes his first run for public office.

Dennis took to Facebook Live Sunday to declare he is challenging incumbent Mayor Jorge Elorza in next September’s Democratic primary. Although he has acknowledged he was considering jumping in the race for more than a year, he said he lost sleep over the decision in the days leading up to the announcement.

“I think the people of Providence are ready for change,” Dennis told his viewers before urging them to stick with him over the next year as he builds his campaign.

With his announcement out of the way, Dennis knows the hard work is just beginning.

During a wide-ranging interview at LaSalle Bakery on Monday evening, the 46-year-old told Eyewitness News he believes he needs to raise between $250,000 and $300,000 to run a competitive race against Elorza, who is expected to be sitting on more than $500,000 in campaign money when he files a quarterly report with the R.I. Board of Elections later this month.

Dennis, a parent of three who lives on River Avenue in Ward 5, acknowledged he doesn’t have the financial resources to self-fund a campaign. He said he will continue to hold his day job as a program director for Princes to Kings, a successful mentorship program that works with young men of color in the city. (He is also the founder of Unified Solutions, a collaboration of community organizations that has a partnership with Roger Williams University. He has scheduled his first campaign fundraiser for Oct. 25 at the Hilton Garden Inn in Fox Point.

Dennis said he sees his base as people between the ages of 18 and 24, a notoriously difficult demographic to engage when it comes to local politics. But he maintains those are the people who know him best because of the summer and after-school programming – including Project Night Vision and midnight basketball – he helped create over the last decade.

“Those are my kids,” Dennis said.

Asked why he decided to challenge Elorza, Dennis rattled off several familiar critiques of the first-term mayor. He said the mayor’s attempt to generate more revenue through additional parking meters has been frustrating. He suggested a restructuring of the fire department was a mistake. And he thought the city’s decision to create a one-way traffic pattern in Roger Williams Park didn’t make sense.

But more than anything, Dennis claims Elorza hasn’t lived up to his campaign promise to create “One Providence” by bringing the community together. Dennis, who supported Elorza’s campaign in 2014 and remained friendly with the mayor during the early part of the current term, said Elorza hasn’t listened to the community.

“That One Providence thing burns me up because I still haven’t seen that,” Dennis said. “I want them to show me what One Providence means.”

A spokesperson for Elorza’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday. The mayor’s City Hall staff is not handling campaign questions, but top aides have repeatedly pointed to public forums Elorza has held on improving schools, Kennedy Plaza and the proposed changes to Route 6/10 Connector as evidence his key decisions have come with community input.

When it comes to policy proposals, Dennis’s campaign website includes a list a “future initiatives” that he admits haven’t been fully fleshed out. He said he wants to take more time to learn about the city before taking sides on the charter school debate or diving into the long-term financial challenges Providence faces.

But Dennis does have ideas.

One of the most controversial proposals he has floated is an attempt to restore a residency requirement for city employees, a plan that would require the General Assembly to change a state law that prohibits municipalities from forcing their employees to live where they work. Dennis’s website said he would give city employees the option to purchase foreclosed or abandoned properties, but it doesn’t explain how the city would navigate the complicated process of seizing those homes.

During his campaign in 2014, Elorza also said he wanted more city employees to live in the city, but he didn’t say he would attempt to change the state law. Earlier this year, Eyewitness News reported that only 17% of police officers, 19% of firefighters and 22% of teachers who work in Providence actually live in the city.

“It’s hard to run a city with a bunch of people that are not from the city,” Dennis said.

On education, Dennis was blunt when it comes to the need to improve Providence’s schools, particularly for students between sixth and eighth grade.

“I will panhandle before I send my kids to Providence middle schools,” Dennis said.

He expressed strong support for teachers, but stressed that many of the middle schools are in poor condition. He also said his oldest son, now a student at the University of Rhode Island, did not have a good experience attending public middle school in Providence. His oldest daughter now attends a private school and his younger daughter is enrolled in a public elementary school in the city.

Dennis said he wants to find ways to open school buildings at night to provide programming for city residents. Elorza made a similar pledge during his campaign in 2014, but the proposal hasn’t come to fruition.

As he lays the groundwork for the campaign, Dennis said he knows he’s going to have to win over people who might currently dislike him. He said he’s specifically looking forward to talking with Providence police officers so he can discuss his public criticism of the department’s gun task force following a 2015 incident involving his son and two friends. Members of the task force were briefly placed on administrative leave.

“I think I acted too much like a dad and less like a community leader,” Dennis said, suggesting that he should have handled the matter privately.

But Dennis maintains he can win support from the law enforcement community, pointing to his close friendships with former Rhode Island State Police Cols. Brendan Doherty and Steven O’Donnell. Dennis said Doherty’s unsuccessful campaign for Congress – as a Republican – in 2012 is the only political campaign he has ever worked on. Reminded that Doherty is now a registered Democrat, Dennis joked, “he was a Democrat then too.”

Win or lose, Dennis said he’s looking forward to staying in the race for the long run and intends to release a documentary film on his campaign. He said he believes the campaign can be a “teachable moment for so many.”

“That would be my ultimate victory,” Dennis said. “To say I’m that guy who can pass this on.”

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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