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Jencunas: Elorza’s Challenges and His Best Chance at Success

Thursday, January 08, 2015


Mayor Jorge Elorza

Providence citizens better hope Jorge Elorza is a fast learner. 

Elorza needs to quickly learn the politics of being mayor if he wants his ambitious agenda to become reality. Mayor is first and foremost a political job. 

Mayors don’t dream up a vision for a perfect city like a professor writing an urban planning textbook. Instead, a successful mayor needs to navigate different political factions, broker compromises with groups who want radically different things, and stay popular with the voters. A mayor who fails at these political tasks won’t succeed no matter what their policy proposals.

The politics of being mayor won’t be easy for Elorza. Most new mayors have political capital because they earn votes through their platform and come into office popular. That popularity helps them get other interests to go along with their ideas. Though he won the election, Elorza didn’t accumulate that kind of political capital because his campaign focused mainly on being the anti-Buddy Cianci candidate. 

That was a good campaign strategy, getting Elorza prominent endorsements and high turnout on the vote-rich East Side. As a governing strategy, it will haunt him because even his supporters aren’t committed to his specific ideas for the city. 

Additionally, Elorza was opposed by the teachers, police, and fire unions during the campaign. Hostile labor unions can derail a mayor with stalled contract negotiations, work stoppages, and public criticism.

None of these problems would be as harmful if Elorza was the mayor of a city like Boston, where the mayor has the final say on almost every issue. In Providence, Elorza will have to contend with a city council that views itself as the mayor’s equal and wields plenty of influence over the budget and many aspects of city policy. Elorza has no experience in that kind of political infighting – his only government experience was as a judge, where his word was literally law – while Council President Luis Aponte has seen mayors come and go. 

If Elorza isn’t careful, he’ll end up like Washington D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty, whose high-minded reforms collided with the reality of city politics and was defeated for reelection after only one term. 

Beyond the political challenges, Elorza will face serious policy problems when he’s sworn in as mayor. Providence suffers from budget deficits; schools the school department admits are neither warm, safe, nor dry; high taxes; and zoning rules that make it hard to attract businesses. 

Against this backdrop, it’s impossible for Elorza to implement the wide array of expensive policies he promised during the campaign. Instead, he’ll need to identify the two or three ideas that are the most cost-effective and focus entirely on those. If they’re successful, and the city’s fiscal situation improves, then Elorza can start his loftier plans. 

The new mayor’s biggest political advantage is his relationships with Rhode Island’s Senators and Governor Raimondo. Federal and state money would help him immeasurably. It eases the deficits; funds ambitious projects; and can be given to council members favored causes to win their support. 

If Elorza can use his political relationships, and forge new partnerships with civic leaders like Angus Davis, Leah Metts, and former mayor Joe Paolino, he’ll have valuable allies who can help with his political and policy challenges. 

Inexperienced mayors have been successful before. Denver’s John Hickenlooper, now Colorado’s governor, was a local brewpub owner turned mayor who eliminated the city’s $70 million deficit without major service cuts. 

Unfortunately, Hickenlooper is the exception, not the rule. Inexperienced mayors usually struggle in their first term, especially in cities that face serious challenges like Providence does. But Jorge Elorza has done difficult things before, and for Providence’s sake, I hope he can do so again.


Brian Jencunas works as a communications and media consultant. During the 2014 Providence mayoral election, he worked with the Cianci campaign, focusing on messaging and polling analysis.


Related Slideshow: Inauguration 2015: Ten Issues Elorza Can’t Hide From

Inauguration activities are underway for the new Mayor of Providence, Jorge Elorza.  

While the pomp, circumstance, and celebration take place of the next several days, here are the issues the new Mayor will have no choice but to soon have to deal with.  

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Staffing Costs

Elorza has announced a slew of hires to date -- including the position of Chief Operating Officer in addition to Chief of Staff, as well as two Deputy Chiefs of Staff.  Outgoing Mayor Taveras' former Director of Administration was the highest paid city official at $196,086 in total compensation before departing (but retaining a private contract with the city).  To date, Elorza has not responded to requests for salary information for his administration.  Once the budget is submitted he won't be able do hide.  

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One Time Fixes

The current Administration loaded up this current year's budget with one-time stop gap measures.  So while next year's budget gap is projected to be anywhere between $17 million and $24 million, Elorza's also got to factor in where the city will get the money -- roughly $7 million -- from the one time fixes in FY15 that won't be on the table in FY16.  

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Council Relations

When Elorza was elected, and announced his transition team, he didn't give likely council-President Luis Aponte heads up or prior notice. The council has two new faces in the way of Mary Kay Harris and Jo-Ann Ryan, but the remaining 13 seats are returning.  Will Elorza work in tandem with the council -- or will it be a more hands-off approach from the Mayor's office?  

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Body Camera Funding

Since Elorza was elected, the fallout from grand jury decisions Ferguson and New York has brought a new reality to cities -- both in protests and policing.  While law enforcement members said they would support the use of body cameras -- and some community members sided with them, while others did not -- the question of where the funding of both the technology, and manpower to oversee it would come from, given the current constraints of a force that is looking to get up to full complement. 

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195 Vision

Developments since election day have included the purchase and sales agreement for a dorm on 195 land -- and reaction from those who are opposed to tax breaks for such a project.  Will Elorza work in tandem with the 195 commission to articulate a vision for the future use of the land, or will it largely be dictated by outside interests?  And with minority contractors looking to be sure to be part of the process, there are more questions than answers at this point.  

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East Side Crime

East Side Crime:  In December, residents, and a City Councilman, flagged crime issues on the east side as and issue, and Elorza did not respond to request for comment.  Whether it was a seasonal aberration, or indicative of a long-term trend, the uptick of crime has residents concerned about the safety of the community.  

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Superman Building

Whether it be Citizens Bank or another bidder, the looming behemoth at 111 Westminster continues to need to be addressed.  High Rock Development failed in its attempts over the past two years to gain traction for apartments coupled with retails space.  Will Elorza play a driving role in determining the fate of the downtown anchor?  With the reconfiguring of Kennedy Plaza, whether or not the Superman building can find a tenant is an issue Elorza cannot hide from. 

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Blackstone Boulevard

The initial proposal for a sub-division of the Granofff property on Rochambeau and Blackstone Boulevard -- which faced vocal opposition from neighbors -- did not pass the City Planning Council.  But could the team of Granoff, Moses, and DeRentis, husband of Chief Operating Officer Brett Smiley, come back to the table for a new lot subdivision based on new lot allotments? If so, Elorza will have a major issue on his hand that he's been able to stay out of until now.  

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Labor Issues

Following an election that saw most of labor's support got to Cianci, labor issues -- including at teachers' contract -- is at the top of the list of things to deal with. "Right now one of my top priorities is to get a tentative agreement and subsequently a collective bargaining agreement that respects Providence teachers and the amazing work they do everyday," said Providence Teachers Union head Maribeth Calabro.  However, even labor leader Paul MacDonald said he sees bigger issues -- the council. "Can he get the support of the city council will be a bigger challenge for him than labor.  The big question for the Mayor is he willing to work with the Teachers, firefighters, hotel/bartenders and the big one the Laborers union 1033," said MacDonald in December. 

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Affordable Housing

During the campaign, Elorza's announcement that he would create a bonded $5 million revolving loan program to redevelop foreclosed and abandoned properties in Providence was met with questions from affordable housing advocates as to its impact both on the market, and neighborhood redevelopment.  

"There are lots of questions here.  I'm not sure it's been completely vetted for a long term strategy.  You can't just fix a house and sell it, and cross your fingers and hope it works," said SWAP's Carla DeStefano.  "What this program needs to do is work within the greater context of neighborhood revitalization, and incorporate best practices from other states, and our knowledge."  How Elorza will work with the affordable housing community to articulate his vision -- and succeed -- will be a major test. 


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