Tuesday night I went to Summit Commons to take in my first ever candidates’ forum put on by the Summit Neighborhood Association (SNA). SNA has a long tradition of hosting these forums every year, and they’re well-attended by people from the neighborhood and by media as well. I grew up and currently live in the neighborhood, my father was president of SNA’s board for a period of time, but this was still the first forum I’d ever attended.
The forum was divided into two parts: the Democratic candidates for State Representative for District 4 and the Democratic candidates for Mayor of Providence, roughly an hour long for each part. The forum was moderated by Rhode Island College professor Thomas Schmeling.
The Democrats for Providence Mayor
Here’s my working theory about Chris Young: he’s from an alternate dimension where Providence is some sort of Mad Max/Sin City-type hellscape where politicians cackle evilly as they twirl their evil mustaches and secretly manipulate the whole of society. Also, 200+ years of U.S. contract law doesn’t exist. Only he can see this dimension, and so his pronouncements and drive to change it are admirable, but for the rest of us he just comes off as beyond the pale.
More seriously, I think Young is actually a one-man democracy-dampener, and I’m not sure why SNA decided to invite him. He’s a horrible man who says horrid things, with an occasional moment of lucidity thrown for some reason. The crowd tolerated him until he suggested that the majority of the audience didn’t live in the neighborhood and were mostly just campaign activists; that was clearly wrong, and many of the campaign activists do live in the neighborhood. He distracted from the other candidates who were actually dealing in reality and generally detracted from the debate. Remember, if at all possible, do not invite Chris Young to political events like this. It’s not like he lost votes here though, his vote totals are abysmally low in Summit.
Otherwise, this was a somewhat of a warm, fuzzy debate. Michael Solomon loves the city his family has lived in for over 100 years, Brett Smiley loves the city that he chose to live in, Jorge Elorza succeeded here despite an inauspicious start to his education.
To some extent, Solomon is leaning on the popularity of outgoing Mayor Angel Taveras, framing his time as City Council President as a partnership with Taveras. Elorza is also trying to build Taveras’ coalition, and has very much the same “Headstart to Harvard” narrative that Taveras uses. Smiley, interestingly enough, had some critiques of the Taveras administration on crime in the city. Both Elorza and Smiley had the implicit criticism that Taveras should have run for a second term as Mayor by pledging to stay on for two terms. Personally, I don’t find the two term pledge especially important, though your mileage may vary.
Each candidate somewhat summed up their vision in a decent soundbite: Elorza will build “One Providence,” Smiley will “leverage our assets,” and Solomon is about “education, jobs and neighborhoods.”
All of them held the line on not increasing taxes, which is fine, though I believe Solomon suggested we also needed to search for ways to bring in new revenues. On education, Smiley was critical of the constant restarts of the Providence Public School Department, and argued that we needed to attract and ensure great teachers. Solomon argued that we needed to invest in school infrastructure as well as increase autonomy in the schools. Elorza wanted a holistic school model that makes schools the center of neighborhoods.
All of them were careful to neither rule out helping the Industrial Trust Building with tax breaks, nor were they going to go all-in on keeping it standing. They all generally supported Providence rezoning, but Smiley stood out for this crowd by talking about the LA Fitness “mistake” (you can read more about that at Greater City Providence).
Come September what should we expect? Well, I expect all the campaigns will be relatively cocky, but I guess that this will end up as Elorza and Smiley country.
However, I am worried about whoever faces Buddy Cianci in the fall. Right now, these guys simply do not display the fire necessary to take on Cianci in a debate. None of them possess the oratory and rhetorical flourishes necessary to go head-to-head with Buddy, even with Buddy recycling pretty much everything he’s ever said before. They’ll either want to avoid a debate, or they have to use their personal campaigning skills to overcome the debate deficit. None of them made a convincing case that they were the best candidate to triumph over Cianci.