Feature

City Leadership from the East Side

Why have no East Siders been the head of City Council?

Posted

If you want to be mayor of this city, you need the East Side’s support. The last three mayors combined – Jorge Elorza, Angel Taveras and David Cicilline – lost just one precinct in Wards 1, 2 and 3 between 2002 and 2014. Roughly 40 percent of the 20,000 votes Elorza won in the general election three years ago came from the East Side.

But on the third floor of City Hall, where the City Council president is chosen by 15 councilors from across the city, the East Side doesn’t have the same juice. Since Providence moved to a unicameral legislature in 1941, the president has never come from this part of the city, according to city archivist Caleb Horton.

When Ward 15 Councilwoman Sabina Matos ascended to acting president after Councilman Luis Aponte resigned the top spot in May, it meant that every other ward in the city had held the presidency at least once. Ward 5 (Mount Pleasant, Elmhurst) is the leader with five presidents. The East Side has always come up empty.

So why hasn’t someone from Fox Point or College Hill or Mount Hope ever grabbed control of the council?

Joe Paolino, who held the council presidency when he was a councilor from Ward 13 and was promoted to mayor following Buddy Cianci’s first resignation in 1984, says everything comes down to relationships. East Side councilors, he says, have often marched to their own drum, recalling that Ward 2 was long home to Rockefeller Republicans who weren’t going to wrestle the presidency away from the “Democratic machine.”

Although machine politics are largely a thing of the past, East Side councilors have long resisted falling in line with the rest of the council. Since 1986, only three non-Democrats have been elected to the council and they’ve all been from the East Side: the Green Party’s David Segal from Ward 1 in 2002, Republican Malcolm Farmer III from Ward 2 in 1986; and independent Joshua Fenton from Ward 3 in 1990. All 15 members of the council are Democrats now, but Ward 1 Councilman Seth Yurdin and Ward 2 Councilman Sam Zurier have mostly opposed the current leadership team.

“It’s an inside game,” Paolino says. “It comes down to personal politics. It’s who you like and who you dislike.”

John Lombardi understood the game better than most. Although he’s now a state representative, the Democrat from Federal Hill is one of the longest-serving council presidents in history, having won the office in 1999 and again in 2003. (Like Paolino, he became acting mayor following Cianci’s second resignation.) He says his support base was built from friendships he formed with future councilors when they were children.

Lombardi, who succeeded Paolino in Ward 13, says certain wards have long had “natural relationships,” like Wards 7 and 15, which share part of Silver Lake. In the northern part of the city, Wards 4, 5, 6 and 14 have historically elected Italian-Americans and the councilors have often voted as a bloc. The East Side councilors have not had as much in common with the lawmakers from the rest of the city, Lombardi says.

“This is a matter of counting to eight,” he says, referring to the number of votes needed to win the presidency. “Some of us played ball together. We knew each other.”

And the more votes you can secure through basic friendships, the easier it is to piece together the rest of the team. When you’re freed up to offer a committee chairmanship here and a majority leader spot there, suddenly you’re much closer to the presidency.

“I had four votes and nobody wanted anything,” Lombardi recalls.

Lombardi says the presidency becomes “a 24/7 job if you want to do it right,” suggesting the work cost him business at his private law firm over the years. But the grind can be gratifying. Aside from getting paid slightly more than the average councilor, the president is always one step away from the mayor’s office, as both Paolino and Lombardi learned. And while councilors tend to put the interests of their wards ahead of everything else, the presidency is the one job designed to account for the needs of the whole city.

To be sure, the East Side’s inability to win the presidency is not for lack of talent. In the 1980s, Ward 1 Councilwoman Carolyn Brassil was widely credited with saving the city from financial ruin as chair of the Council Finance Committee. She never sought the top spot, but Mayor Paolino eventually made her chair of the Democratic City Committee.

It’s not for lack of ambition either. Yurdin served as majority leader between 2011 and 2015, part of a leadership team that maintained strong relationships with Mayor Taveras at a time when the city’s dire financial picture demanded cooperation in City Hall. And while former Ward 3 Councilman Kevin Jackson was recalled in May, he did serve as majority leader in 2015 and part of 2016 until his arrest on charges that he embezzled from a youth sports team and misused campaign funds.

For now, the East Side appears to have little chance of picking up the presidency in the immediate future. Yurdin and Zurier will both be favorites to win re-election next year, but neither councilman has shown much interest in campaigning for president. Newcomer Nirva LaFortune from Ward 3 has been showered with praise since she comfortably won the special election to replace Jackson this summer, but it’s rare for freshman councilors to automatically jump into leadership posts.

For his part, Yurdin says he’s not concerned about the East Side’s presidential drought. He agrees that personal relationships play a central role in determining the leader of the council, but says the key to a successful legislative leadership team is maintaining a majority of the votes. Without having eight votes on every issue, the president is less effective.

“I don’t think the president is nearly as important as the people around the president,” Yurdin says.

Dan McGowan covers Providence for WPRI.com. He can be reached at dmcgowan@wpri.com.