The 2022 race for mayor of Providence shifted into a new gear Wednesday as three of the four Democrats seeking to succeed Jorge Elorza outlined their views during a forum organized by students at Rhode Island College.

The forum marked one of the first opportunities for voters to hear from the candidates.

On a number of key issues, there was little disagreement. Each candidate decried the state of the Providence schools and said a mix of approaches is needed to improve the outlook for the city’s pension plan, which has less than a quarter of the money needed to meet its long-term obligations.

Yet there were also differences, as Gonzalo Cuervo, Nirva LaFortune and Brett Smiley participated in a virtual forum and answered questions asked by RIC students Raymond Baccari and Mackenzie Raimond. A fourth candidate, former City Council President Michael Solomon, told organizers he would not take part due to the recent death of his father.

Voters in Providence will effectively pick a new mayor during the Democratic primary on September 13, since term limits prevent the current mayor, Jorge Elorza -- first elected in 2014 -- from trying to retain his post at City Hall.

On the pension, Cuervo, a one-time chief of staff for Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea and former Mayor Angel Taveras, called for careful stewardship. Like Smiley, a top former city and state official, LaFortune -- who represents Ward 3 on the City Council -- said Elorza’s plan for borrowing up to $515 million through a pension obligation bond -- slated for a non-binding vote in Providence on June 7 -- could be part of the solution.

“To take advantage of this pension obligation bond, it would bring us up over 50% funded,” she said.

One difference came in how the candidates made their cases for why they are the best choice to lead Providence.

Cuervo said he’s worked in small business and in high-level jobs in city and state government. He said the people of Providence can offer answers on how to move the city forward.

“Everywhere I go, I listen to people complain about issues with the city,” Cuervo said. “But as soon as you scratch beneath the surface, you realize that people have a profound love for Providence, and part of that anger and part of that frustration that they feel is because they understand what an amazing place this is and how much potential we have and how great we can be.”

Smiley said his government experience sets him apart.

“I was Providence’s first chief operating officer,” he said. “I was Governor Raimondo’s chief of staff, the state’s director of administration. I’m the only candidate who’s ever managed budgets or personnel at this scale. I’m the only candidate who’s ever negotiated a labor contract.”

LaFortune also cited her experience -- as a parent, city councilor, an administrator managing higher education grants and also her humble roots.

“My first job was in the hospital, was in the kitchen of Rhode Island Hospital, washing dishes,” she said. “Most of our residents have service jobs. We need a person who gets them, because, remember, there have been a lot of people who’ve always been at the top and who have made decisions -- it has only hurt our community -- think about No Child Left Behind.”

Another difference came on a question about the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, described by critics as an obstacle to effective internal discipline of police officers. Smiley said he favors reforming LEOBOR, while Cuervo and LaFortune say they support repealing it.

All three candidates declined to assign a letter grade for Mayor Elorza’s performance over two terms at City Hall. They praised Elorza for ethical leadership, but agreed that Rhode Island’s capital city faces a lot of unfinished business.

Ian Donnis can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @IanDon. Sign up here for his free weekly RI politics newsletter.