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Providence mayor race: Where candidates stand on big issues – The Providence Journal

Providence’s Democratic mayoral primary is just two weeks away, and with all three candidates on the Democratic ticket, Sept. 13 will effectively decide the race.
Who wants the help of Rhode Island State Police in cracking down on ATVs? Who believes that’s nothing but fear-mongering? Whose grandmother is their major influence? Who wants a fully-elected school board?
Gonzalo Cuervo, Nirva LaFortune and Brett Smiley were quizzed by The Providence Journal about the political, and the personal. Here’s what they have to say.
But first, a question about where it all began:
Cuervo: “I have a lifetime of commitment to the city of Providence,” said Cuervo, who has been campaigning full-time since December 2020, save for a one-month stint as a per diem substitute teacher at Mt. Pleasant High School. Cuervo pointed to his time as a South Side community organizer, a Broad Street small business owner, nonprofit work and experience under two former mayors, David Cicilline and Angel Taveras. He also served as Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea’s chief of staff.
“I love this city and I realize that all the issues that we face … there’s an underlying thread of economic opportunity,” Cuervo said.
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LaFortune: LaFortune, who serves as a city councilor representing Ward 3, is now on leave from her position as an administrator at Brown University to focus on her campaign, but she is the only candidate with a full-time job outside of politics. She spoke of being undocumented until her 20s after arriving in the U.S. from Haiti at age 3. LaFortune said it was after former President Donald Trump’s election that she brought her children to the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., and saw immense diversity within the crowd.
“I realized we need more people in these positions of power who can relate to the lived experience,” LaFortune said, adding, “We need more people who get it.”
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Smiley: A full-time candidate and former Gov. Gina Raimondo’s top aide, Smiley offered a message of positivity about his city.
“I love Providence,” Smiley said. “It’s my home. I think it still has unrealized potential, and I think I could do a good job. I believe fundamentally in the power, particularly, of local government to make a difference in peoples’ lives.”
Note for readers: Providence voters, city councilors and the General Assembly earlier this year approved a $515-million pension obligation bond that, if it worked, would help the city to better manage its pension payments, which are unsustainable as is. Now, with interest rates having risen, it doesn’t appear it’s the right time for the city to go to market. It has five years to find its window of opportunity, if it can.
Cuervo: Cuervo described the bond as a tool rather than a solution, contending that the city needs to grow its tax base through housing and economic development. Cuervo pointed to “several highly underdeveloped business and commercial districts in the city, beginning with downtown and going into the neighborhoods.”
Cuervo believes it “could be years before interest rates go back down,” allowing the city to move forward with the bond.
LaFortune: “It’s not going to completely solve the pension problem,” LaFortune said of the bond. “It’s a tool to help solve the pension problem.”
LaFortune said the city should consider moving into the state pension system, an approach the city’s Chief Financial Officer Larry Mancini said has already been considered and wouldn’t help.
“This is an opportunity to do a reassessment,” LaFortune said, adding that the city should also consider selling off some of its properties.
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Smiley: Smiley believes interest rates will likely rise within five years, and that it’s still worth considering a move to the state pension system.
Of Mancini’s opinion, Smiley said, “I don’t agree with his assessment, and in the last couple of years both Central Falls and West Warwick have negotiated their local fund into MERS, and there’s no reason that that path might not be available to us, and it’s a negotiation.
“It’s a negotiation between the state and the city.”
For added context: In an emailed statement, city spokeswoman Theresa Agonia said “91% of the pension liability is almost exclusively tied to future benefits owed to retirees and moving to the state system would do nothing to alleviate that liability.” She added that the city has already altered its pension structure and collectively bargained benefits for current employees “which are better for the city than the benefit structures that exist for any state collective bargaining units.”
“Lastly, the state pension system and the city pension system investment returns have been comparable over the past 20 years, so there is also no notable upside when considering fund performance,” Agonia said.
Note for readers: Mayor Jorge Elorza and city council leadership recently faced off over a proposal for a half-elected school board, which most of the council supports and the mayor rejects. Currently, the board is fully appointed by the mayor. The issue will now go to voters to decide.
Cuervo: Cuervo supports a fully-elected board, and called the hybrid version “nothing more than a political compromise.”
“An appointed school board is subject to those very same pressures,” Cuervo said, responding to Elorza’s concerns over pricey campaigns and special interests. “We could have a mayor who is entirely beholden to an ideology or a sector of donors or any other external influence and that mayor could appoint a school board without any checks and balances that would not have the students’ best interests at heart.”
LaFortune: LaFortune supports a hybrid model, but voted against sending the question to voters during the council’s last meeting on the matter.
“I just thought that it happened fairly quickly,” LaFortune said of the consideration of the hybrid model. “It wasn’t very inclusive. We didn’t do enough outreach.”
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Though the public was welcome to attend meetings on the issue, LaFortune feels the timing was wrong.
“People work,” she said. “People are dealing with childcare. We’re still navigating COVID and now monkeypox, and a whole bunch of other things.”
Smiley: Smiley raised criticisms of board elections.
“I have heard from parents who feel like they don’t have a voice in their child’s education, and I think that that’s a serious concern that should be taken into account,” Smiley said. “However, I am skeptical that infusing more politics into our school system is the solution.”
Smiley said he is concerned that the money and time required to campaign “will self-select certain individuals … that will not result in better representation.”
Instead, Smiley said seats should be given to certain stakeholders – a parent, a student, and people with financial and facilities experience.
Cuervo: Cuervo said consensus is needed for a long-term solution. The issues, he believes, are poverty, changing curriculums and political infighting.
“We need consistency and accountability, and I believe that we can create a process … that brings together all the parties and says, ‘Look, we’ve been pointing fingers at each other for generations’,” Cuervo said.
Cuervo also wants to organize to get the schools back from the state. If that fails, “our plan to reinvent the schools can be packaged as legislation,” he said. According to Cuervo, that would include a “look at best practices around the country on curriculum standards,” and more power to administrators.
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LaFortune: LaFortune, whose two children have attended public school, said the next governor could return control of the schools to the city. The councilwoman said the district needs to fix up its buildings; city and state leadership should be held accountable; practical learning should be encouraged; and quality before – and after –school programing should be offered. LaFortune also wants to create a teacher residency program.
Smiley: “The next governor and the next mayor need to work closely together, and it’s one of the reasons that I’ve been upfront about my neutrality in the governor’s race,” Smiley said, adding that the state should deliver on its promises.
Aside from city-state collaboration, Smiley said there is “a decade worth of school construction ahead of us.” He also wants to expand universal pre-K, but doesn’t yet know where the city would find funding. Smiley said he would consider the budget immediately if elected.
Cuervo: On Smiley’s contention that State Police should be asked to assist Providence Police in addressing the city’s ATVs, Cuervo is extremely resistant.
“People want responsive, accountable policing, and we can accomplish that without having to resort to fear-mongering and gimmicks,” Cuervo said.
Cuervo feels the city’s police force is “back up to a normal staffing level” and that State Police do not bring “any value other than theatrics.”
LaFortune: LaFortune wants to see the city embrace community policing by officers who reflect the community.
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“If you’re bringing in the State Police, they don’t work in those communities, and so that’s not a community policing model,” she said. LaFortune added that it’s important for local law enforcement to collaborate with other cities on ATVs.
Smiley: Smiley thinks the police force needs more officers in order to engage in community policing. 
To Smiley, that means “officers permanently assigned to a district so that they have a chance to build real relationships with neighbors, neighbors feel like they know their neighborhood police officer, the ability to actually have officers walking the beat, riding their bicycles, out of their cruisers, into the community.”
Cuervo: “I’m the only candidate that has decades of experience organizing people, bringing coalitions together — diverse coalitions — and affecting change at the street level, the community level, the city level and the state level,” Cuervo said.
LaFortune: “One, I’ve been doing the work,” LaFortune said.
She pointed to her involvement shaping the city’s behavioral health crisis response initiative — which allows social workers to field some 911 calls when appropriate — her work on the council’s education committee, and her lived experience as single mother of two children who at one point experienced homelessness.
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Smiley: “It really comes down to priorities, like what are you going to prioritize and get done,” Smiley, who also described his experience as a differentiator, said. “My priorities are very clear: Public safety, public schools … and better basic city services. And those are the most important priorities for me, and everything else will be a secondary priority.”
Cuervo: Cuervo cited his parents as his big influence. Both came to the U.S. from Colombia in the 1960s and found work in factories, leading lives of relative poverty.
“My mom was incredibly generous with strangers and my dad would go out of his way to help people and always be of service to people,” Cuervo said. “And they really ingrained that in me, and I’ve tried to live up to that ideal.”
LaFortune: Having grown up in a family of missionaries, LaFortune looks to the now departed elder women in her family for inspiration, including her grandmothers and great aunts, who were Haitian and Cuban.
“They would always say no matter how high you get, who you become, what titles you have, integrity is key,” LaFortune said. “If you don’t have integrity, no one will respect you.”
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Smiley: Smiley said his former boss, Raimondo, is his largest influence politically, and that they share similar views on policy questions.
Personally, Smiley said husband Jim DeRentis is his biggest influence, noting that he was “born and raised here, he lived through the [Buddy] Cianci years and saw the ups and the real downs in our city, and I’ve learned a lot from him and his experience in the city.”
Want to hear more from the candidates? See Cuervo’s platforms here, LaFortune’s  agenda here, and Smiley’s top issues here.

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