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Providence’s Missing Black Mayor

Friday, March 07, 2014


Not only has Providence never elected a black mayor, experts say voters have never had a strong candidate for the job.

"Rhode Island has a centuries-long history of the politics of self-interest, going back to the 19th Century and efforts by the Yankee WASP elite to prevent Catholic immigrants from voting," said Tom Frank, a reporter at USA Today who covered Providence for the Providence Journal in the early and mid-1990s.

"The Catholic immigrants (Italians and Irish) got the vote, took power and did as their predecessors did – used public office for private gain. That has prevented the next ascendant generation – blacks – from truly ascending."

Underrepresented in City Council

Frank covered city politics before the explosive growth of the Hispanic community that began around 2000 and continues to rise. He said the 1990s saw a slight underrepresentation of blacks on the city council compared to the overall number of blacks living in the city.

"A council candidate need appeal only to voters in his or her ward instead of across the city. As a result, city council members rarely had city-wide recognition," Frank said.

"Bottom line is I would say that blacks were politically marginalized because of the parochial help-your-own-people mentality of Providence politics."

Refusing to accept marginalization

One leader in the city's black community refuses to accept such marginalization. Ray Rickman's bio is long and storied, but the shorthand is that he's president of The Rickman Group and a former State Representative. He has fought for fair redistricting in what he calls the "Jane Jacobs" model. (Jacobs, a journalist and urban studies activist, was known for her grassroots battles to protect city neighborhoods from being cut up for the political or financial gain of outsiders.)

"The whole thing with black folks is that this is a discriminatory environment. I'm not sure the people in power are racist but they're trying to hold onto power," Rickman said.






Gerrymandering lawsuit

Rickman was a plaintiff in a 1980s lawsuit in which redistricting aimed to cut up communities for political gain – splitting voting blocks to diminish the power of the voters.

"They used to go to the middle of South Providence and cut it up like slices of a pie. They do what they need to do so that the incumbent holds on longer than they should. The trouble is black folks live in 20 different places now. Everyplace you go you think is black is now Latino. You have all kinds of people, not just black folks – Italians, Irish – all trying to hold on."

However, Rickman said a black candidate also faces the same hurdles as any candidate for office. They need money. They need to be popular. And they need an opening.

David Cicilline became the first openly gay mayor in the country

"If you run against an incumbent who got 60 or 80 percent last time you’re wasting your time. The reason people were able to run against Buddy is because half of the population disliked him and the other half loved him. Of his five races he only cleaned up one time."

Cianci held office from 1975 to 1984 and again from 1991 to 2002. Despite close races, Cianci was seen by the voters and the political community as a political powerhouse. Rickman said this gave the impression that the big seat in City Hall wasn't an option for the black community.

"During that period the office wasn’t perceived as being that open. Until about 2000, black people--I don’t believe--had equal access to running for mayor."

Equating race with votes

Regarding the rise of the Latino population in relation to the shrinking black population, one should be wary of equating race with votes. Perhaps in the Ellis Island days people voted for their own, Rickman said, but the two-term presidency of Barack Obama negates the math.

"Angel got to be mayor because Myrth York and other East Siders decided he was the one. I don’t think he was elected because he's Latino. A bunch of white liberals and the Latino community elected him," Rickman said.

"Black people would vote for a quality black person but would probably vote for a white person just as well. White people are willing to listen and pay attention to a person of color more than ever in our history. I think all the racial barriers have been lowered."

Just how low those barriers are is hard to quantify. Voters may say one thing to a pollster and do something different at the moment of truth. Jim Vincent, President of the RI Chapter of the NAACP, believes the barriers are definitely down in his community.

"A qualified candidate has a shot of winning. People do not vote ethnicity and race the way they did in the past. They look at what's best for them, they look at the issues," he said.

Vincent went so far as to suggest that black voters would likely vote for Mitt Romney over Clarence Thomas in a hypothetical scenario. It's not that Vincent would stump for Romney, but he had a point to make.

"An example could be a person like Clarence Thomas running against a Mitt Romney. I would submit to you Mitt Romney would have won the African American community [in that scenario]. He's a person who is closer to the issues of African Americas. Clarence Thomas is an anathema to the African American community – on the issues of equal opportunity, inclusion. People have their own philosophy regardless of race."

In his 20 years in Rhode Island, Vincent said he hasn't seen someone in the black community willing to step up for the Mayor's Office. He said it could be the lack of a strong political base in the city, but he pointed to Deval Patrick and Cory Booker as examples of black candidates winning in areas without a strong base.

"You can’t win if you don’t run," Vincent said.

Buddy Cianci became Providence's 1st Italian-American mayor in 1975

Habit of making history

Providence mayors have a habit of making history. Current Mayor Angel Taveras is the city’s first Hispanic mayor. Former Mayor David Cicilline was the first openly gay mayor in the country. And longtime Mayor Vincent A "Buddy" Cianci lays claim to being the city's first Italian-American mayor, its longest serving mayor, and one of the longest serving big city mayors in the country.

Meanwhile, the black community has been under represented on the city council and other platforms for launching mayoral candidates.

And you can't run if you can't even start.

"Providence has not had a strong African-American candidate for mayor. There doesn’t seem to be much of a launching pad from the City Council, General Assembly, or business community. That is where possible candidates could come from but it hasn’t really happened," said Darrell M. West of the Brookings Institution.

"There has been strong population growth among Latinos and that helped propel the first Hispanic mayor. With the rising political clout of Latinos, it may be difficult for an African-American candidate to do well. It will take someone with great organizational skills and fundraising ability to win the mayor’s seat."


Related Slideshow: Large American Cities With Black Mayors

Using data from BlackDemographics.com and 2010 Census data, GoLocal compiled the 20 American cities with a population of 100,000 or more that currently have black mayors

Prev Next

Wichita, KS

Carl Brewer

Population: 382,368
Percent Black: 11.50%
Mayor Since: 2007
Prev Next

Sacramento, CA

Kevin Johnson

Population: 466,488
Percent Black: 14.60%
Mayor Since: 2008
Prev Next

Alexandria, VA

William D. Eullie

Population: 139,966
Percent Black: 21.80%
Mayor Since: 2003
Prev Next

Columbus, OH

Michael B. Coleman

Population: 787,033
Percent Black: 28.00%
Mayor Since: 2000
Prev Next

Jacksonville, FL

Alvin Brown

Population: 821,784
Percent Black: 30.70%
Mayor Since: 2011
Prev Next

Tallahassee, FL

John Marks

Population: 181,376
Percent Black: 35.00%
Mayor Since: 2003
Prev Next

Buffalo, NY

Byron W. Brown

Population: 261,310
Percent Black: 38.60%
Mayor Since: 2005
Prev Next

Durham, NC

William V. Bell

Population: 228,330
Percent Black: 41.00%
Mayor Since: 2001
Prev Next

Inglewood, CA

James T. Butts

Population: 109,376
Percent Black: 42.90%
Mayor Since: 2011
Prev Next

Philadelphia, PA

Michael A. Nutter

Population: 1,526,006
Percent Black: 43.40%
Mayor Since: 2008
Prev Next

Richmond, VA

Dwight C. Jones

Population: 204,214
Percent Black: 50.60%
Mayor Since: 2009
Prev Next

Washington, DC

Vincent C. Gray

Population: 601,723
Percent Black: 50.70%
Mayor Since: 2011
Prev Next

Cleveland, OH

Frank Jackson

Population: 396,815

Percent Black: 53.3%

Mayor Since: 2005

Prev Next

Atlanta, GA

Kasim Reed

Population: 420,003 
Percent Black: 54.00%
Mayor Since: 2010
Prev Next

Baton Rouge, LA

Melvin "Kip" Holden

Population: 229,493
Percent Black: 54.50%
Mayor Since: 2005
Prev Next

Shreveport, LA

Cedric B. Glover

Population: 199,311
Percent Black: 54.70%
Mayor Since: 2006
Prev Next

Savannah, GA

Edna Jackson

Population: 136,286
Percent Black: 55.40%
Mayor Since: 2012
Prev Next

Memphis, TN

A.C. Wharton, Jr.

Population: 646,889
Percent Black: 63.30%
Mayor Since: 2009
Prev Next

Baltimore, MD

Stephanie Rowlings-Blake

Population: 620,961
Percent Black: 63.70%
Mayor Since: 2010
Prev Next

Birmingham, AL

William A. Bell, Sr.

Population: 212,237
Percent Black: 73.40%
Mayor Since: 2010

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And your point is???????????????

Ridiculous article, as usual.

Comment #1 by pearl fanch on 2014 03 07

The fact that you point out the CIty of Providence never had a "black" mayor is about as relevent as the fact that it has never had a purple one. DO you the "wizards of smart" not get the fact that this absurd obsession with race is destroying the brilliant and wonderful melting pot that was the "United" States of America? We've now had a "black" preseident in the White House as the "leader of the free world" now going on 6 years and in his second term. Does that not already satisfied your "white guilt" about the pre-Civil War failings in American history? Apparently not, you , the "most enlightened" among us must continually remind everyone that "yes" America once had a past we ought not to be very proud of ad nauseam. But do you not see that your so called "celebration of diversity" and this obssessive yard stick of how many "back" mayors (or anything for that matter) we have had hold power in various cities, serves not to advance America but rather advance racial division? MLK is someone we rightfully admire for all of the teachings he espoused and all of the right reasons because he was truely a great inspiration for America. But have you forgotten what he really stood for? Let me remind you. Dr. Martin Luther King Junior prayed for a color bliind America, one that is united in spirit under God and one that provides "equal opportunity" NOT guarantee equal "outcome" regardless of race, creed or ethnicity. He had a dream that one day we would all be judged by the content of our character and NOT by the color of our skin! Remember that? Clearly, you do not. I for one am sick and tired of where so many of our political leaders and our ignorant "wizards of smart" are taking our great nation. Articles like this are the antithesis of everything Dr. King had wanted for America: not a black America or a white America but a United States of America. Shame on you.

Comment #2 by Dexter Liu on 2014 03 07

Run Big Papi he will win in a landslide---never mind he is not eligible=== we have people who have been dead for 25 years still voting

Comment #3 by Howard Miller on 2014 03 07

Dont forget Solomon voted for the redistricting, that took parts of the west end and gave it to the east side!

Comment #4 by anthony sionni on 2014 03 07

Dexter, I don't know what color you are, what Race you are, how old you are and I could care less - if you ran for office, I would vote for you!

So maybe, for the sake of diversity, we should just go ahead and elect the next mayor solely on the basis of his skin color: education, background, experience be damned. Let's seal all his records so no one can check out his past (just in case they may have the gall to try to find out more about the man before they choose him to be trusted with their future). Yeah, because that has worked out so darn well for this country so far, right?

In my opinion, when you point anyone out, solely based on their skin color, or ethnic background, good or bad, it's racism! I am sick and tired it! Skin color shouldn't and DOESN'T make someone any better or worse than everyone else in the room. It doesn't make them smarter or dumber. Neither does gender or sexual orientation! Pointing any of these facts out when speaking of a person's JOB performance is especially prejudiced. What are you actually saying or celebrating? All I hear is that someone broke the barrier of YOUR bigoted stereotype! Wow! What a proud moment for you!

I agree with Dexter: SHAME ON YOU!

Comment #5 by C B11 on 2014 03 07

You forgot Buddy's other history making achievement. The only mayor forced to end his tenure in disgrace due to felony charges. TWICE!

Comment #6 by Ed Venture on 2014 03 07

Has anyone looked at the ACI?

Comment #7 by bill bentley on 2014 03 07

Poor Mr. Rickman; still trying to be relevant in a city where race has not been an issue for many years. He is reflective of the transplants who came to Providence years looking to be big fishes in a small pond.

The biggest question left unanswered is; why Latino's, who have only had a significant presence in Providence in recent years, have blown right by blacks to the point where there is a Latino Mayor and several on the City Council?

Comment #8 by Walter Miller on 2014 03 07

What pearl fanch, Dexter Liu, C B11 and Walter Miller said.

Comment #9 by Wuggly Ump on 2014 03 08

Don't confuse them with reality, Walter. Given the workings of "AA" upwardly mobile blacks find better opportunities in places other than the rats nest of Providence politics. Can't blame them. It IS ironic, though, in a state controlled from top to bottom by the EVAH' so "innnnnnnnclusive" democrats one of their most loyal, knee jerk, "support groups" don't git nowhere. Throw them a coupla judgeships and the head of, maybe, the ill fated "EDC" and that's that.

Comment #10 by G Godot on 2014 03 08

It is interesting, however, when an obvious little "failing" of the "party of innnnnnnnnnncluuuuuusion" is pointed out, the party stooges give us the Hillary line in response: "What does it matter, anyway?" Unless they could blame the GOP for it.
So long as blacks march right in and pull the master lever regardless of how the dumbos treat them where the rubber meets the road, it's not going to change.

Comment #11 by G Godot on 2014 03 08

Racial barriers are down in the last 50 years but Barack Obama has done absolutely ZERO for African Americans.

I would say blacks, more so than other americans, are worse off now than 5 years ago. financially, socially, etc. its a shame.

it's what keeps msnbc alive.

Comment #12 by john paycheck on 2014 03 08

The stupidity is now increasing geometrically. Words fail me.

Why don't we have a red & white checkerboard mayor? Or one who is yellow and black striped?

Why no chartresuse mayors? Clearly, waythizm is at work here.

Comment #13 by paul zecchino on 2014 03 09

PS - 'chartresuse', above, should read 'chartreuse'.

Comment #14 by paul zecchino on 2014 03 09

Do any of those who are objecting realize that Mr. Baskin's improvements can only increase their own wealth because they benefit the entire neighborhood and raise all surrounding property values, without these complainers even having to get outa bed?

In our neighborhood, anytime the ghouls get upset because someone builds a beautiful new home or renovates an old one, the rest of us rejoice. We just became wealthier and our own properties became more valuable and marketable without us having to lift a finger.

It could be much worse. When the spaghetti hits the fan as it seems likely to do, someone's home improvement dreams will seem trifling by comparison.

Comment #15 by paul zecchino on 2014 03 10

This idiotic-what Providence needs is a good mayor.Right now we have no outstanding choices.
The Governor's race is interesting-you have Gina promoted as the first female and Angel Taveras as the first Latino-blah,blah.As if those factors are meaningful.Allan Fung isn't promoted as the first potential Governor of Asian descent.I wonder why?maybe because he doesn't encourage that BS and is going to run on his record as Mayor of Cranston.
Ray Rickman is an irrelevant whiner.

Comment #16 by Joseph Bernstein on 2014 03 10

And the crackers just keep on coming.

Comment #17 by bill bentley on 2014 03 11

I don't like Ray Rickman because he is a douchebag and that makes me a "cracker'?Go piss in your hat.

Comment #18 by Joseph Bernstein on 2014 03 12

Cracker ad hominem arguments are an obfuscation; it doesn't matter what you think of Ray, the issue is whether his arguments carry water. Peckerwood.

Comment #19 by bill bentley on 2014 03 13

You're a racist scumbag-and I'm surprised racial epithets are allowed on this site.I guess it depends who makes them.

Comment #20 by Joseph Bernstein on 2014 03 13

Was it Cracker or Peckerwood?

Comment #21 by bill bentley on 2014 03 13

Either one-but basically it's your ignorance that stands out.

Comment #22 by Joseph Bernstein on 2014 03 14

Well my, I assume Hebrew brother, the Israeli track record with the Palestinians speaks to your understanding of race, I imagine. When a significant percentage of the City's 16-40 population is school drop-out/academically unsuccessful, a single parent, poor, at the RITS/ACI, and/or dead a serious societal problem exists.

Comment #23 by bill bentley on 2014 03 14

"Assume"is your problem-I'm not your brother,and your can shove that "Hebrew'crap where the Sun don't shine since my religious beliefs are non of your damn business.And the same for the "Israeli/Palestinian"remark since I am an American,not an Israeli.I could care less what goes on over there since this is the only country I care about and served in a war.You really have shown your bigotry here.My"understanding"of race may come from being inter-racially married for 43 years to an Hispanic lady who isn't White and the fact that two of my three grand daughters are Black.So I guess"ignorant" describes your attitude pretty well.There have been no Black mayoral candidates in the 30 years I've lived in RI because none ran that I can think of.I think you actually have to run for office to have a chance.In any event,I didn't make a blanket statement about a whole group of people like you did.So who's got a "race"problem here?I don't care for Ray Rickman for a bunch of reasons,none of whioh concern his race.I know your tactic is to put people on the defensive,but it isn't going to work with me.

Comment #24 by Joseph Bernstein on 2014 03 14

Im not putting you on the defensive, my point was it doesn't matter what you think of Ray, what matters is the content of his speech. And to say, "I won't respond to what he says because I don't like him personally" is a logical fallacy. My real point is that RI and Providence specifically has been locking up Black boys and men for a long time to make jobs for White men. And Black girls have been getting pregnant and moving to welfare since the late 60s. The consequence of this, is a vacuum of leaders in the Black community.

Comment #25 by bill bentley on 2014 03 14

OK-if you want to have a normal dialogue that's good-if you go to states where there aren't many Black people,the prisons are filled with White people,Hispanics,and Native Americans-running afoul of the criminal justice system is more a lack of color than a color itself-the lack being of "green".People with access to money can buy the representation they need no matter who they are.
That said,the pregnancy problem compounded with the slide into welfare dependency is something caused by a paternalistic attitude on the part of liberals.
I can't speak to the lack of leaders in the Black community-I know my grand daughters will get what they need in terms of guidance from their parents and extended family-that's much more important than "community" leaders who all too often are interested in what they can get out of the process for themselves.
My state rep is Black and probably would be a good mayoral candidate but since he is a city employee he can't run without retiring and he's relatively young,so why would he do that?He can continue to serve in the GA without a problem.
I really resent the idea of some squirt like Brett Smiley traipsing in here from the super rich suburbs of Chicago and becoming a pet of Myrth York and turning that into a totally undeserved stint as Chairman of the PWSB and now a mayoral candidate is laughable,or would be if it weren't a serious issue.The you have Jorge Elorza,who seems not ready for prime time;Lorne Adrain who has no name recognition;Daniel Harrop,who can't win as a Republican;and Michael Solomon who owes a LOT of money on a 23 year old PEDP loan.There is no candidate right now who is likely to do a good job that can actually be elected.

Comment #26 by Joseph Bernstein on 2014 03 14

Their called missionaries. And although bad parenting is an issue, the drastic overrepresentation of Black males incarcerated in RI is staggering; the welfare system should be an income supplement system that rewards people for work. To ignore the inequities in society is to turn a blind eye. We have problems and need real solutions. And maybe the Feds were taking Solomon's records so that might work itself out. And don't dismiss a Cianci run.

Comment #27 by bill bentley on 2014 03 14

Cianci probably makes more with WPRO then he can as Mayor and he doesn't have the hassle of being accountable to anyone but whoever owns the station.His health challenge might also be a factor.That said,if he ran,he could win.Like him or not,he had a very strong vision for the city and didn't leave the kind of mess David Cicilline did.Taveras has been playing catch up with Cicilline's mismanagement for 3 + years now-small wonder he is running for Governor instead of a second term.

Comment #28 by Joseph Bernstein on 2014 03 15

Yeah, he's trying to get out of Dodge before the Level 5 Hurricane hits, as he so eloquently put it 3 years ago.

Comment #29 by bill bentley on 2014 03 15

There's now talk of Ray Hull throwing his hat in the ring-that would be great-he is a good state rep(I live in his district) and an even better man personally-honest,hardworking,invested in Providence as a lifelong resident.and always involved in positive community activities.
It's time to get rid of the Myrth York upper crust East Side cabal anointing the leadership of the city since the disastrous election of David Cicilline.Then she gave us Taveras and now this slimebag Smiley who just lately dropped into RI is her latest protege.
Ray is no Donald Trump or Bloomberg-he earns his money the hard way-by physically protecting the citizens of the city-something NO other candidate would do for 2 minutes.That said,we ordinary citizens will have to give what we can to get a good,honest man in City Hall.

Comment #30 by Joseph Bernstein on 2014 03 18

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