Providence’s Missing Black Mayor
Friday, March 07, 2014
"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.
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.
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.
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
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