Jorge Elorza this afternoon will be inaugurated Providence’s mayor. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay parses the challenges the new mayor faces.
After impressive primary and general election victories, law professor Elorza takes over the spacious second-floor office in the capital city’s Beaux-Arts City Hall. Since his election he has wisely reached out to the city’s warring political and ethnic tribes as he prepares to govern a 21st Century ancient New England port that had its beginnings in the 17th Century.
Elorza’s `One Providence’ theme is an uplifting, unifying message that resonates with his campaign pledge to run an inclusive administration. Yet this is more slogan than policy.
Providence city government’s challenges break into both short term imperatives and the more existential, longer run issues that have dogged our state’s largest city and most others like it in the northeast.
Rhode Island’s capital has a lot going for it. Elorza takes over from the largely successful administration of Angel Taveras. Taveras leaves behind a city government in much better shape than the one he inherited from David Cicclline four short years ago. The river of red ink that flooded the city’s finances has largely been dammed up. The city’s independent audit shows a slight surplus of about $1 million for the last financial year.
Yet, Providence still faces huge legacy public employee pension costs, a precariously balanced budget, high property taxes, especially for business owners, and regressive car taxes that are a nettlesome relic of the failed administration of former Gov. Donald Carcieri.
Much of the city’s charm and beauty is also its bane. All those colleges and non-profit hospitals provide good-paying jobs but do not contribute property taxes in the same manner as the old economy anchored to trade and manufacturing.
While the East Side is among the most livable urban neighborhoods between Boston and Georgetown, it is rare to find a home or business owner in the 02906 zip code who doesn’t grouse about taxes. And the recession has wreaked havoc with the struggling neighborhoods of the West End and the South Side. City schools are in need of serious repairs and student achievement should be much better.
But there are more immediate topics Elorza must confront head on. First is trying to forge a working relationship with a city council that too often is too often more concerned with parochial neighborhood issues and petty patronage at the expense of a city-wide vision.
Despite rounds of intense behind the scenes political jockeying, the Democrats who control the 15-member council have yet to elect a council president, even though South Side councilman Luis Aponte likely remains the favorite. Elorza won’t be able to change much unless he can deal effectively with the city’s legislative body.
``It is a difficult council, that’s for sure,’’ says outgoing Council President Michael Solomon, who lost to Elorza in the mayoral primary.
The new mayor ought to take a page from Taveras, who was able to rescue the city from bankruptcy because of his relationship with Solomon. Solomon and Taveras spoke regularly and united for the common good. They never tried to one-up each other or grandstand.
There was never a day when Solomon woke up and was surprised by a media account of a major Taveras move that hadn’t been run by Solomon. ``Things like that just never happened,’’ said Solomon.
So far, Elorza has made some stellar appointments, particularly in public safety where he has retained Steve Pare, the commissioner, and Hugh Clements, the police chief. But the new mayor’s internal staff lacks a veteran hand who understands the rough inside game that is Providence politics.
Tony Simon, a bright young political operative from Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse’s staff, may turn out to be a fine chief of staff. And Brett Smiley may do well as chief operating officer, but he is more policy wonk than politician. Elorza so far has no veterans, such as Vinny Pallozzi was for former mayor Joe Paolino or that John Simmons served for Cicilline. (One has to wonder why Solomon, who was the ultimate good soldier after his primary loss, hasn’t been brought into Elorza’s inner circle).
Then there is the need for Elorza to make peace with the unions representing the city’s police, teachers and firefighters, all of whom endorsed Buddy Cianci for mayor. Since the end of residency requirements for city workers, these unions no longer have the electoral clout they once did. Still, they can make life miserable for a new mayor with scant administrative experience who needs to show early on that he can deliver basic city services.
And Elorza, the second Providence mayor of Latino ancestry, must quickly forge productive relations with Gov. Gina Raimondo and the Democratic General Assembly leaders. Providence cannot fix crumbling schools and infrastructure without state financial help. What helps Elorza here is that Raimondo, a Providence resident, owes her election statewide to the whopping victory she won in Providence. A Rhodes Scholar, Raimondo surely knows how to count. (Without Raimondo’s huge win in Providence and the ample Bob Healey protest vote, Cranston Mayor Allan Fung would be taking the oath of office tomorrow on the south steps of the Statehouse).
This we do know: Whatever you think of Elorza, whether you voted for him or not, Providence residents must wish him all the best as he begins his tenure in City Hall. To paraphrase native son H.P. Lovecraft, Elorza is, indeed, now Providence.
Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:50 and 8:50 and at 5:50 on All Things Considered. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at the `On Politics’ blog at RIPR.org