Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza is the guest this week on Political Roundtable. Joining me on the panel are URI emeritus professor of political science Maureen Moakley and Dan McGowan from The Boston Globe.



The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Donnis: Let's start with the issue of gun violence in America. The legislature is continuing to take testimony on a series of gun-related bills. Our guest, Mayor Elorza, testified in support of some of those this week, even as there continue to be mass shootings across America. How do you respond to the argument from people on the other side of the issue -- that criminals do not pay attention to laws, so that new measures designed to reduce gun violence are not going to have the intended effect?

Elorza: What stands out to me is that we in the United States are outliers when it comes to this level of violence. You know, we're not the only developed country in the world. We're not the only country in the world that has violence. But we are the only country in the world that has this level of violence and this level of mass shootings. And what sets us apart is that we just have too many guns out on the street. And we've been calling for common sense gun legislation. And I say common sense, because to most people, to most Americans, this idea of military-grade weapons of war designed to kill as many people in a short as time as possible -- it's common sense to us that they shouldn't be in civilian hands. And now we have an opportunity to be leaders in this space.

Donnis: Maureen, how do you see the analysis on this issue?

Moakley: Well, you know, I just don't quite understand the passionate resistance to [outlawing] something like assault weapons and large magazines. The subtext to this resistance is that many Rhode Islanders who live in stable communities, they pay their taxes, they don't require extensive social services. They see the main focus of our [state’s] agenda, and let me stress rightfully so, on affordable housing, extended social services, and policies to alleviate poverty and promote equity. I think there's a special resentment among this group when they see the state attempting to restrict what they regard as their prerogatives. It's not just about guns, they want a voice. And this creates a really difficult dilemma for solving this issue.

Donnis: Dan, you're a close observer of the city of Providence. How do you rate the effectiveness of the city's strategy and approach on gun violence?

McGowan: I think to Mayor Elorza’s credit, he's done a pretty good job of being pretty vocal and supportive of things like gun buyback programs, trying to get youth in general more engaged. I think those gun buyback programs are huge. The truth is there's a lot of guns out there right now in Providence that are legal but stolen or legal, but young people can have very easy access to them. We as a state probably need to get probably more serious about enforcing laws when it comes to when they're stolen, but more importantly, really emphasizing these gun buyback programs. This should be a statewide program that runs all year round, as opposed to every year when the mayor does this. He kind of gets criticized from some circles about these programs.

Donnis: Mayor Elorza, the city this week released a study of the issue of public safety and whether it might make sense to allocate more money away from the police and fire department to respond to some of the calls that are involved in mental health and things like that, in the future. The city has been unwilling to identify who paid for this study. Why is that?

Elorza: Over the past year, we've been we've been hit very hard in terms of, you know, the demand for services, at a time when our resources have been constrained. We've sought a lot of fundraising opportunities, many of them have been successful. And where the funders have chosen to be public, we publicize their name. Where they've asked us to remain private, we've protected their privacy, so long as it doesn't impact or affect the actual work that we're doing in any way.

In the case of the report that we put together, the funder asked us to remain to remain anonymous. And we told them, we will respect that. However, we want to make absolutely clear that the funder had no say whatsoever with the work being done, directing the work being done, who was chosen or what the work product was. We believe that the integrity of the data and the report that we have is legitimate, and it's enough for us to form as a basis for many of the changes and reforms that we want to make in public safety.

McGowan: I want to follow up just on the public safety report. In general, you've had in the last year some really big ideas come forward. This public safety report is a serious, extensive report. You've also pitched this idea of potentially reparations for some folks whose families were affected by slavery. You've also pitched universal income. And I think a lot of folks say, wow, these are big, bold ideas. But we've seen very little ability for you to be able to actually get them done within the timeframe of you know, your term-limited next year. So I'm curious, what do you say to people who say you've got great ideas, but there's no sign of them ever actually coming to fruition?

Elorza: You know, I would definitely push back. We're really excited about the guaranteed-income program. And we have an RFP live out there for the guaranteed-income program. We're hoping to launch that in the next couple of months. So that's a very, very near-term fix.

With respect to our truth-telling reconciliation and reparations process; Just a couple of weeks ago, we released our report on the truth-telling phase of this, this entire process. And we have an RFP out there for the reconciliation phase. And we're progressing with that. I do want to speak a little bit more on reparations. And I made this point on the very day that we were announcing the program. It was three phases, beginning with truth-telling. The very first question I received that press conference said, well, how are you going to do reparations -- there's this sort of almost a instinct to just jump to the very end.

But I think if you want to do this right, and we've been in touch with all of the cities that are exploring this as we speak, you really have to go through every step of the process. Each step is just as important as the other. And the magic is when you bring it all together. We are still on the same timeline, and still on track with the truth-telling reconciliation and reparations announcement that we made a while back. You know, what I'm also really excited about is we're about to receive, you know, some significant support from the federal government now, almost a once in a lifetime kind of opportunity for us to make investments that live on our values. And this presents yet another opportunity to bring to fruition many of these programs that we've been talking about with the community and also announcing as an administration.

Moakley: There's this concern that some of this money will be spent on short-term fixes or more money for more programs. As a mayor of the city and a possible candidate for statewide office, what are your big ideas about transformative change, particularly as it regards to federal funds that are coming down the road?

Elorza: I want to point out that we haven't received full guidance from the federal government on how exactly the funds can be used. But I'll give you a flavor of the kinds of kinds of things that we should be investing in. I agree with you, doctor, that more these investments should be on the structural side. And the big idea part of it. I'm really interested in exploring, how do we support many of our small businesses so that they're ready to compete in the post COVID economy? We saw when that when COVID hit and many, many places shut down, the ones that were able to make the most out of the situation were the ones that were already technologically savvy restaurants that already had online ordering online reservations, and small shops that already had, you know, some kind of technical capacity.

And, you know, it used to be the case that in the concrete world and the physical world, that government would be part of creating that infrastructure, those public marketplaces, where retail and commerce happened. More of that is going is going online, but those online marketplaces are owned by private entities, Amazon is making dollars hand over fist and squeezing out the little guys. How do we as a public, how do we create that public marketplace so that many of our small mom and pop shops can compete and keep more and more of the profits to themselves, rather than as we see it sort of aggregating up to Amazon? But what I also want to do is, you know, I want to take this a step further. And when I think when I think about structural changes, we've also seen the importance of childcare and daycare, and how that how important that is for our daily lives and for our economy. If we don't have a way to care for our kids, when they're outside of school, parents can't work. And parents can do all the other things that they need to. So I'm very interested in making sure that we get to to universal pre-K. And I'm certainly looking to make investments in facilities so that there's simply more spaces that can offer these kinds of services to parents. These are the kinds of things that we want to that we want to invest in.

Donnis: Will you be a candidate for governor next year?

Elorza: I don't know. You know, I've heard it said that there are decades when nothing happens. And there are weeks when decades happen. Already this year, we've had many weeks where it seems like decades have happened. So we'll just have to see how the next several months may be. I do want to say that if it is a step that I choose to take. You know, I think that we have a really strong track record of delivering results here in Providence.  But again that decision is for another day.

Donnis: Well, if you do run your opponents will point out how the state took over Providence schools. Little headway has been made on trying to improve Providence's underfunded pension, and virtually no major developments get done in Providence without a tax deal. What would you say in response to why, concerning those things, why you might be a good candidate for governor?

Elorza: Sure. So on the first piece on the school, there's no issue that's more important than the than the quality of our public schools. If you remember, going back about three years or four years ago, I had a very public dispute with the Providence Teachers Union over the over the contract. And I called for a transformational contract. And what I came to learn is that you can't do transformation through contract negotiations. The unions hold all of the leverage. Soon after the election was done, I sat down with Governor Raimondo. We had a conversation about education, she floated the idea to me of the state taking over maybe three middle schools, the way that the state had taken over hope High School in the early 90s. And I told her that I was only interested in going down this road if we did the whole shebang.

You know, I made the decision to make sure that if we were jumping into this, and we were going to do a state takeover that it was for the entire [system], so that we can, once and for all, reform this contract. You know, that's a really, really important conversation ongoing right now. I'm going to continue to push. I've been there, done that with the Teachers Union. I don't believe that they will ever concede or make concessions at the level that we need to transform our schools. And I believe that we need to press this issue and take it to court if we need to. But it's about time that we invoke the Crowley Act, and make the changes to the contract that our kids need. It is vital.

And it's urgent that when it comes to pension reform, you know, unfortunately, we had a Supreme Court opinion that said that once you do pension reform, it can never be done again. However, for active employees and future employees, we just signed a new contract with our police department that reached a historic level of pension reform. This is certainly a model, a template that we want to use for our negotiations with the other unions.

And then lastly, when it comes to development, you know, by the end of this year, we will have overseen $2 billion worth of new development projects in the city of Providence. I don't think there's ever been a time in the city where there has been more construction in this period of time. You know, these are in no small part due to changes that we've made both internally and externally. And I'm really excited about the economic development success that we've had here in Providence.

McGowan: Mayor, I know you're hesitant to say whether or not you're, you know, definitively going to run for governor. But can you clarify, is there any other office that you would run for or if you were running for office next year? Is it going to be governor?

Elorza: I can unequivocally say that there was no position at that I am interested in other than serving as an executive.