The countdown has officially begun for the September 13 Democratic Primary, and here in Providence the main event will be the mayoral race as the city tries to get back on its feet from the pandemic, which still isn’t over. Complicating matters, the new mayor will also have to manage a new City Council, almost half of whom are first-timers.
The three Democratic candidates, Gonzalo Cuervo, Nirva LaFortune, and Brett Smiley are all ideological Progressives, with Smiley and Cuervo adding “pragmatic” to the label. They all have worked in government, with Smiley and Cuervo serving in previous administrations as Chief of Staff while LaFortune, a five-year Councilwoman, has had a front row seat on how the city really works.
All three are competent, experienced, and seem totally committed to trying to make a change for their city. They also seem to be in agreement on the wide range of issues confronting the city: public safety and the police who have had their hands tied; the delivery of basic city services like snow plowing, roads, and garbage; the American Rescue Plan Act money windfall that is drying up; the ever-present structural deficit; the deplorable state of public education and the system’s future; the pressing need for affordable housing; uncertainty about the status of the pension bailout bond; for the city’s institutional non-profits to pay their fair share; and finally the need to repair relations with the State House. In short, it’s quite a laundry list of challenges.
Since their platforms and priorities are similar, there aren’t expected to be many real policy disputes, so the voters’ decision may come down to the fundamental question: “Who will make the best leader?”
While the candidates all respectfully dance around rating Mayor Jorge Elorza’s leadership and the overall state of the city, their campaigns clearly suggest they each feel they could do much, much better if they were given the chance.
Policy similarities notwithstanding, however, each of the candidates marches forward confident their particular skill set and experience makes them the most capable of leading the city onto better days.
Gonzalo Cuervo was born and raised here in Providence and became a community organizer on the Southside as a teenager. In 1999, he and his wife Francis Parra purchased and restored their first home in Washington Park where they raised their family.
Since Providence’s population is now represented by 70 percent people of color, Cuervo feels “we need a mayor who speaks from their own lived experience and understands that we can be a dynamic, safe, and clean city with a thriving middle class.” He feels his background as longtime community organizer and work experience as the communications director for David Cicilline, the Chief of Staff to Mayor Angel Taveras, and most recently as the Chief of Staff for Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea demonstrate he is a man who knows how to get things done.
Cuervo started a small business on Broad Street before becoming a community organizer for groups such as Quisqueya in Action, DARE, and Greater Elmwood Neighborhood Services. His wife is the executive artistic director for Teatro ECAS, New England’s leading Latino theater. He was the first candidate to declare to run for Mayor in 2021. A graduate with a BS in Human Services from Springfield College, Cuervo and his wife have two grown children and live on Mount Pleasant Avenue.
General Thoughts: Cuervo is cautiously optimistic about improving relations between the City and the State Legislature since its members are getting younger and becoming more flexible in how things are getting done rather than more of the same. Many are Brown graduates and understand how critical better and fairer relationships with Brown are. As a longtime advocate and lobbyist for the city, we need to do a better job of “selling” the importance of Providence to the legislature. “I know how to get people on our side.”
Public Safety: Cuervo wants to reallocate police resources. “With only 30 percent of the 430 officers actually on the street, public safety is being compromised. We need to build better relationships between department and civilian leadership and untie the hands of the police.” He hopes the successor to the current police chief is promoted from within rather than from the outside and feels we definitely need a fire chief.
Great Streets: Cuervo likes parts of the initiative (which aims to recast streets with the guiding principles of safety and inclusivity) but would like to see better planning, so people aren’t surprised by changes.
Structural Finance Issues: Cuervo believes we have an opportunity with the cash the City has in hand to invest in new ways to broaden our tax base, suggesting a program in which the underserved can be helped to convert their “side businesses” into real businesses by providing money to help them expand. Key to change here is simple: 1) efficient city infrastructure and 2) effective evaluation tools/performance reviews.
Port of Providence: Acknowledging it is locked in by Washington Park, Cuervo feels mixed usage is the way to go and sees opportunity for renewable energy projects or tie-ins with future remediation projects.
Economic Development: Commerce keeps giving the keys to large one-shot outside companies. The process needs to have more community engagement and be
decentralized. Cuervo believes in taxing more from institutional non-profits on their non-mission businesses as well and that excess hospital holdings might be more useful to the city if converted into taxable affordable housing.
Education: Massachusetts works with similar community investment since it picked a path 20 years ago and stays with it as opposed to RI, which changes staffing and leadership every few years. As a community activist, Cuervo adds his reality component: “It’s tough for a family dependent on two to three jobs to survive to make time to pressure their kid’s school.”
LaFortune’s family fled Haiti when she was three and moved to Providence, first to the Southside and then to Washington Park where her parents still live. After graduating Mount Pleasant High School, she began a tough patch in her life as a pregnant 19-year-old, temporarily homeless in Miami. She went on to Philadelphia where she graduated from Temple University, working at Drexel University as assistant director for the Centers for Public Policy & Science Technology & Society, before ultimately earning an MA in Urban Education Policy from Brown.
“I can talk about and understand the plight of the downtrodden because I’ve been there myself. I know what it’s like to suddenly have your rent raised by $300 and not have the money; I know about gun violence first hand because I lost my partner when I was 16. It has defined the shape of my life’s work.”
LaFortune is now the assistant director of the Curricular Resource Center at Brown and served as City Councilwoman for Ward 3, fighting for more resources in classrooms, affordable housing, an environmentally friendly city, and building community-police relationships. She is an avid runner and cyclist who joined us late for our interview for this article following a flat tire on her bike ride to work. Greeting us with a delightful, disarming smile, she joked: “I guess before I become a mayor, I should learn how to change a bike tire faster.”
Top Three Concerns: Gun violence (public safety), affordable housing, and education. More community policing is needed.
Public Safety: LaFortune’s biggest policy difference from opponents is over crime and public safety, as she is refusing to okay the city budget because police didn’t present a plan.
Great Streets: LaFortune is a big supporter for safety reasons.
Education: LaFortune notes she is the only Mayoral candidate who actually went to Providence Public Schools and has had (and still has) children in the school system. “So when I talk about the crumbling school buildings, I’ve seen them and been in there.” As a Mount Pleasant graduate, she wonders why the city can‘t partner more with Rhode Island College’s Teaching Academy nearby. LaFortune suggests the need to make public education both academic and aspirational. She believes there may be some merit to Gary Sasse’s recent op-ed (Providence Journal) suggesting creating a governing council to ease the upcoming transition from state to city control in two years but needs to learn more.
City Finances: LaFortune voted in support of the bonds and feels we need to make significant investments to lower costs. Get rid of dormant city buildings; we can learn from Yale’s PILOT project model. She believes it’s time non-profits be taxed on all their non-mission-driven projects and that local businesses deserve more attention. “They pay big dollars but don’t get the services.”
First Days in Office: LaFortune hasn’t proposed specific programs yet but is committed to studying the issues. Plans to soon release a plan of what her first 100 days in office would bring. When she was elected to the council, she
immediately used Sam Zurier (Rhode Island State Senator, representing District 3) as a mentor. “I admit I don’t have all the answers, but I believe in consulting those who do and hiring high quality experts to help.”
Legislative Successes: She is excited about the new planning progress for North Main Street and would like to see more inviting mixed-use projects and collaboration with Pawtucket that could take advantage of previous studies and proposals (possibly row houses) that looked pretty good.
Port of Providence: Concerned about climate justice, LaFortune worries about the high asthma rates around Allens Avenue, which can’t be ignored.
Brett Smiley argues that his extensive government and management experience make him ready on day one to be mayor. His shortened run for mayor eight years ago and his leadership roles in the city and at the State House during the pandemic under then-Governor Gina Raimondo gave him wide name recognition even before the race began. A policy wonk, he can rattle off an incredible array of statistics and metrics for almost every aspect of city government. He believes that “Providence can be the best-run city in the country by supporting quality schools, small business support, and safer streets for every neighborhood.”
Smiley grew up in a Chicago suburb and is a graduate of DePaul University, where he earned a finance degree and an MBA. He lives on the East Side with his husband Jim DeRentis, a real estate broker and former community banker. Both are avid runners and share a deep love of Providence. He has been involved with Planned Parenthood, providing strategic counsel and as a fundraiser. He has also been involved with Marriage Equality Rhode Island, Rhode Island Housing, Rhode Island Communities for Addiction Recovery Efforts, and the national Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund.
Public Safety: Of the candidates, Smiley is the most supportive of the police. With
regard to getting the ATVs off the road, he promises, “There will be an immediate mandate to shut them down and let the cops do their job.” He promises more community police officers and a fire chief.
Great Streets: He would like to see more transparency and direct input from residents who are directly impacted and a “look back” to see what’s actually working.
Education: Smiley feels a turnaround plan is still the way to go but any success will depend on the new governor. “Massachusetts developed a plan 20 years ago and stayed with it and showed success. We didn’t. We need to agree on the basics, develop a plan, set metrics and stick with it along with a consistent funding formula. We’ve failed the kids and the city for too long and I know that we can do better.”
City Finances: Smiley is convinced his experience and success working with the state and city budgets will allow him to produce a carefully managed budget that would allow the City to improve basic services like plowing, maintenance, and cleaning, while still providing police and fire support at levels that taxpayers have a right to expect.
PILOT Payment in Lieu of Taxes Program: Smiley emphasizes the importance of this program since non-profits make up 40 percent of the city’s taxable base. “The previous givebacks are off the table, and we will focus on taxing the ‘non-mission driven’ parts of these organizations, like non-academic property, medical office buildings, or land-banked property. Additionally, I would like to see a revenue split with the state as organizations in this program add new employees above established thresholds.“
Doing Business: Smiley cuts to the chase, “The answer should be easy and it’s not. There’s too much regulation and too many obstacles for new businesses. Period. And we’ll fix it.”
Affordable Housing: Smiley wants to work with both non-profit and for-profit developers to expand the options to create programs for the new affordable housing.
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