Grabbing Lunch with Mayor Jorge Elorza

Getting in deep over hot wieners and coffee milk


“Mm, mm, mm.”Mayor Jorge Elorza bites into a hot, juicy wiener. Mid-winter sunlight illuminates the circular edge of a glass containing creamy, ice-cold coffee milk. A plate of thick, golden fries sits in the communal space between myself and the newest manager of Rhode Island’s capital city.

It’s a chilly Friday afternoon in February, but the warmth inside Olneyville NY System on Plainfield Street is all-encompassing. As Elorza digs into one of their infamous all-the-way wieners, I begin to ask him about his first month as mayor of Providence, a month that, at least weather wise, can be summed up by a ridiculous mashup of words: snowmaggedon.

“We’ve had two major storms – somewhere around 26 inches in a span of eight days,” explains Elorza between bites. “That’s a lot of snow. And we’ve had below freezing temps virtually every day since then. The snow isn’t melting. Logistically it’s a challenge.”

A challenge that in its nature is difficult – but that was seemingly exacerbated by factors like faulty technology related to plow mechanisms on various trucks, and the use of contract workers who may not be familiar with Providence’s intricate (and often confusing) network of streets. Things that were set in motion before Elorza stepped in. But the mayor does not seem fazed.

“People have been working so hard, the operation that we have is really quite impressive... If you stay out ahead of [these storms] then you can make the main roads passable, especially the roads leading up to hospitals and all first responders. We’ve been working on the side streets, making sure that they are treated, making sure that we widen them as much as we can.”

Elorza seems to look at these snowy annoyances as a way for the city to collectively unify under a common goal. Just like his campaign slogan: “One Providence.”

“All I ask of people is if you see a neighbor who is in need or anyone in trouble please give them some help. That’s the spirit that is going to help us overcome any challenge, even a major storm,” he says. “Observing the parking ban, staying off the roads so that our plows can continue to move the snow, shoveling your own sidewalks so that people can walk to school, pedestrians can get from one place to another. It’s by everyone chipping in.”

Elorza remembers the snowfalls of his Rhode Island childhood – of slinging snowballs down Cranston Street with neighborhood kids on the West Side. Despite the ever-infallible Wikipedia, Jorge Elorza is not originally from Brooklyn. He was, in fact, born in the city he now he manages. “I’d spend all my time outside,” he says. “There were always so many kids around all the time. I have nothing but happy memories.”

Elorza suddenly gets thoughtful, and in a somewhat sad tone says: “I don’t see kids playing in the street as much as I used to. It worries me. But I think parents are probably more protective, concerned about having their kids outside. Safety is obviously a concern – and we want to make this city as safe as possible and make people feel safe.”

This seamless switch in tone – from honest conversation to rehearsed political platitude – is one of many instances during our conversation where Elorza seems to cut a thought off before he allows it to manifest fully. An age-old political self-preservation technique. Don’t say anything that might be considered controversial or that could be construed wrongly by a voter. For only four weeks on the job, Elorza seems to already have a fully equipped arsenal of expertly curated PR-friendly phrases.

But I digress.

As we all know by this point, Elorza is a product of Providence public schooling and, as was mentioned often during his mayoral campaign, he almost didn’t graduate high school. But graduate he did, and after taking courses at CCRI he transferred to URI where he was top of his accounting class. The recently graduated youth decided to take his numerical talents to Wall Street where he worked for consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers. But the world of high finance and personal profit proved to be dissatisfying, and this dissatisfaction, mixed with the tragic news that one of his childhood friends had been murdered, pushed Elorza to return home. “I knew it wasn’t the right fit for me,” he says. “I knew I wanted to do some kind of public interest work, so I left it, came back and I’ve never regretted it.”

Photo by James Jones

After attending Harvard Law and working at Rhode Island Legal Services, Elorza began teaching at Roger Williams Law School. He also ran the gavel as a housing court judge and forced international banking giants like Deutsche Bank and Bank of America to answer for certain Providence-based crimes.

“I never thought I’d go into politics,” Elorza says. “People would ask me if I would ever run and I would swear it off and say no chance. I had tenure at the university – you work so much to get tenure, you achieve your goal and then, just the way that I am, started asking what’s next? Around this time, when I’m trying to figure out what I’m going to do for the rest of my life, people from Angel’s office start telling me that he’s thinking of running for governor, and I should think about running for mayor. I started having some preliminary conversations, and then I jumped in. I knew that in this role, you can have a positive impact on people throughout the city. It all came together at the right time.”

It was a mayoral race for the history books – a competition that drew national interest (likely because of the participation of a twice-convicted former mayor) – and Elorza emerged victorious. One month down – and, if all goes according to plan – 47 more to go. “I’m so proud of the team at City Hall,” he says. “There are so many different issues coming at you, you need to know that you have great people around you that will do the job right, get it done, people who are going to advise you properly.”

Two of those people, Chief Operating Officer Brett Smiley and Chief of Staff Tony Simon, have very different political backgrounds, and one might wonder how well they will be able to work together to achieve a common goal. “You need to surround yourself with people who think differently, and people who are confident enough to challenge you when need be,” Elorza explains. “Both [Smiley and Simon] fit that to a T. We work very well together as a team. It’s nice to get different perspectives on similar issues.”

An alternative perspective is exactly what Elorza will get in his weekly meetings with newly appointed City Council leader Luis Aponte. Some issues that Elorza and Aponte are not fully in agreement on – at least for now – are Elorza’s campaign pledge to not raise taxes, the proposed downtown trolley project and the future utilization of the Port of Providence. But, just like a seasoned politician, Elorza does not delve into detail concerning the aforementioned.

“I understand the principles driving [Aponte’s] vision and he understands the principles driving mine. At that level, we’re not far off working through and communicating to make sure we get the particulars right. Just like everything else you have to look throughout the city to find areas of strategic opportunities, and then [we have to figure out] how to positively exploit them as best we can. That’s an approach that I’m committed to and that the City Council president is committed to.”

During his first month as mayor (besides dealing with frozen conditions that put Disney’s Queen Elsa to shame), Elorza reinstated the ethics commission and has explored alternative ways of reaching Providence residents by engaging on social media.

“Twitter actually allows for some really substantive conversations – it’s a good forum for getting down to some meaty issues,” says Elorza of his Twitter town hall experience. “We have something else scheduled – I’m going to be a guest tweeter - Is that right? Twitteror? Tweetor? For EdChatRI. I’m always looking for creative ways to engage with residents.”

Part of that citizen engagement comes with building trust, and one effective way is by utilizing the formerly defunct ethics commission. “It’s so important, especially with the history that Providence has had with ethics and transparency and open government. People pay a lot of taxes here in the city – there has to be a basic level of trust that your tax dollars are being used in the most efficient and effective way possible so that we’re minimizing waste. As a modern city, we need to have professional processes in place and we have to engage the citizenry as much as possible.”

On a personal note, it’s evident that Jorge Elorza is a thoughtful and curious individual. He’s traveled to over 17 countries, is an avid reader and seems to seek power through collaboration – not just with individuals in Providence, but with other mayors and political figures throughout the country. Elorza recently attended the United States Conference of Mayors in DC – where he made a light hearted super bowl bet with Seattle mayor Ed Murray – and has been influenced by Bruce Katz’s Metropolitan Revolution as well as Benjamin Barber’s Ted Talk titled “Why Mayors Should Rule the World.” The two latter examples explore the idea of cities – and the mayors of these communities – as being the true catalyst for pragmatic, positive change in any state or country.

When asked about influential individuals, Jorge discusses his political and personal role models: Benjamin Franklin for his renaissance man attributes, and author Gabriel García Márquez and Cuban artist Silvio Rodriguez for their expressive abilities. “Some people are able to express through poetry, or literature or song, what we all feel, but what we ourselves can’t express. I try and incorporate the way they express themselves into the way I communicate.”

The mayor loves music, and surprisingly, he names the Wu-Tang Clan and Jay Z as some of his favorite artists. Elorza also loves lighthearted humor and is particularly fond of the American Office. “There’s a line by Dwight Schrute [of The Office] – which I think is appropriate for what we’re trying to do with the city. He’s being interviewed and he says: ‘It’s like when you find out how sausage is made, and then all you want to do is stay home and make sausage all day.’ So that cracks me up. I love silly humor.”

Speaking of sausages... throughout our conversation at Olneyville NY System, various patrons pass by and a few congratulate Elorza on his win. But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows in the West Side restaurant. “Yeah, I’ve got some words to say to him,” exclaims a guest before Elorza had even entered the building. “In fact, I’ll grab some guys and we’ll all have something to say to him!”

“You want to know what that guy’s last name is?” jokes fourth generation NY System owner Greg Stevens. “Cianci.”

He’s not being serious – I don’t think – but the sentiments expressed by the heckler are a reality that Elorza will have to deal with, especially if he wants to prove to some skeptical Providence citizens that he possesses the cahones to get things done at City Hall.

Olneyville NY System, a James Beard award-winning Rhode Island institution that is currently celebrating a 70 year milestone – is a microcosm of society that is perfectly representative of Providence. The cozy establishment attracts everyone from business professionals, to parents and their kids, to celebrities (a picture of Gronk is proudly displayed on the wall). Our new mayor could learn a great deal about his city while sitting at the System’s lacquered counter among the regulars and first-timers. Whether he chooses to listen, of course, is completely up to him. One month down. 47 more to go.