The room was overcrowded. The air conditioning under performed. But neither deterred the 200 or so people who jammed into the auditorium at the Summit Medical Center on Hillside Avenue for the first of two scheduled political debates among candidates in the upcoming September 9 primary. And while the tone was generally civil…except for one minor dust up with Mayoral candidate Chris Young over a microphone…there were still enough sparks to leaven the proceedings.
The preliminary featured the three Democratic contenders to fill the State Representative seat being vacated by former Speaker of the House Gordon Fox: Aaron Regunberg, a 24 year old activist and Brown alum, Miriam Ross, an attorney, adjunct law professor and small business advocate and Heather Tow-Yick, the head and founder of the state’s Teach for America program and former teacher herself.
The event was moderated by Tom Schmeling, a RIC political science professor and SNA Board Member, who lobbed the candidates a bunch of softball questions which all three proceeded to hit solidly into the same liberal/progressive part of the ballpark. They then made their own pitches about why their passions and/or experience made them worthy of our support come September.
The real fireworks took place during the main event of the evening as four Democrats, former housing judge Jorge Elorza, political adviser and former Water Board head Brett Smiley, City Council president Mike Solomon and perennial candidate Chris Young made their respective cases to be the next Mayor of Providence.
Moderator Schmeling fortunately toughened up his questions for this one which helped produce some clear differences among the candidates. Elorza stressed the concept of “One Providence” and suggested for our City to succeed, all parts of the City need to be improved…the “rising tide raises all boats” approach if you will. He cited his own success rising from poverty as why he’s “ the only candidate who is as comfortable speaking in South Providence as he is in the boardroom of the Rhode Island Foundation,”
Brett Smiley talked about some of the plans he has already put forward in education, job creation and crime and talked about how he represents the new face of Providence, newcomers who could live anywhere but have chosen Providence as their home. “I’m proud to admit I have a love affair with Providence,” he said. He also reiterated how he is the one candidate who has been outspoken in his belief that whoever wins in the primary must be able to rally the residents to resist a return of Buddy Cianci and what he calls “the failed politics of the past.”
Michael Solomon pointed to his lifelong commitment to the city, the jobs he has created as a successful businessman here and the work he has achieved as City Council President in partnership with Mayor Taveras in overcoming the $110 million structural deficit that threatened the solvency of the city. At the cornerstone of his candidacy is a plan to invest $250 million over ten years to rebuild our deteriorating public school structure that will produce over 2000 new jobs. Staring out defiantly at the audience, he promised that “You won’t find anyone who will work harder than I will if I’m elected as your Mayor.”
And finally there was Chris Young. Surprisingly mellow, perhaps because his wife and new baby were in attendance, he emphasized the differences between himself and the other three candidates. He maintained that the only way to lower taxes in Providence, particularly the auto tax, is to go after Brown University that “owns ten billion dollars worth of real estate (by his estimates) and yet pays next to nothing for it even after the recent adjustments.” He repeatedly challenged his opponents to prove him wrong.
All four candidates eschewed the tradition of calmly sitting behind the table to present their positions and rose in turn when making their statements. Like the groundhog on February 2, they each cast their shadows on the table, which tells us there are six more weeks of hard campaigning before the September primary is over. The winner will then be charged with the unenviable task of uniting the party to face off against Republican Dan Harrop and a former Mayor named Cianci.
Meanwhile the SNA is planning their second primary debate on Wednesday, July 30 again at the Summit Nursing Home. This one will feature the five major gubernatorial candidates, three Democrats and two Republicans. The event is open to everyone and will begin at 7PM.