Feature

The Race For City Hall

Independent Dianne “Dee Dee” Witman challenges incumbent mayor Jorge Elorza

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After winning the Democratic primary with 57.5 percent of the vote over Kobi Dennis and Robert DeRobbio, and with over $600,000 in his campaign fund, it appeared Mayor Jorge Elorza’s reelection was assured. Until it wasn’t.

Enter Dianne “Dee Dee” Witman, a lifelong East Side resident with a long record of political involvement and fundraising experience behind her, along with a rising level of frustration at what she feels has been largely ineffective leadership, especially here on the East Side, over the past four years.

Running as an Independent, Witman was blunt about her reasons for running. “I believe Providence is a great city, with great diversity, culture, and livability sitting on a precipice. It is a fiscal mess, with major social issues, an adversarial labor situation, challenging crime issues, and, here in College Hill, an unwillingness to enforce zoning and code regulations.” The only answer, suggests Witman, is with a political outsider, beholden to no one or any groups, and who is willing to address these tough issues with “outside of the box” thinking while hiring experienced professionals who are committed to the city.

Witman started her career with a series of eclectic jobs in New York, from driving a cab to being a sportswear buyer for a multiple-store national retailer. Her knack for communications and passion for working with people led her to fundraising for causes close to her heart and then to a successful career in political fundraising for local and national candidates like Claiborne Pell, Joe Paolino, and Bill Clinton.

Witman has also accumulated some practical experience in dealing with city issues over the years. “This call to public service has always been a foundation of my life. I have served on many boards and city commissions, so I know how things run, including the Providence Public Building Authority (PPBA), the agency that is responsible for funding the financing costs and maintenance of all City buildings.”

She was also involved in IMAGINE: A Blueprint for Providence Schools, the pivotal, independent, community-wide assessment of Providence Public Schools sponsored by the Public Education Fund led by Ted Sizer. Most recently, she had been the primary caregiver for her husband Dr. Gary Witman: Six years ago, he was accidentally hit by a rogue wave in Narragansett and became a person with quadriplegia; he passed away a few months ago. “Attending to his needs was a full-time job, of course, probably more complex than anything I’d ever done given the magnitude of my responsibilities and logistics of his limitations,” says Witman. “But don’t feel sorry for me, because his spirit and never-give-up commitment continues to be an inspiration for me and encouraged me to make this effort to help my city.”

So does Witman really have a chance to win? Her response is what anyone who knows her would expect: “Damn straight I do, and I will.” Outspoken and always plain-talking, Witman goes on to express the opinion that the Mayor’s victory four years ago was not the result of his own efforts as much as people determined to vote against Buddy.

Witman’s plan is to build a true, citywide coalition. “In the primary last month, the Mayor won against two candidates who still captured almost half the vote. Both have now publicly announced they are supporting my candidacy. I have established some solid support in the Latino community as well and have already got an endorsement from the police union, Ray Rickman, and expect many more. In addition, I hope to do well on the East Side. Many of us here question how much interest the Mayor really has east of North Main Street.”

Mayor Jorge Elorza of course sees things quite differently. When asked if he’s worried about the election, he acknowledges that you can never take a nything in politics for granted and that as the incumbent you must be prepared to run on your record. On this basis, he expresses confidence about his accomplishments these past four years. In terms of financial performance, he’s especially proud that he hasn’t had to raise taxes once during his first term. “I’ve also improved short term cash flow and reestablished a rainy-day fund for the city,” Elorza notes.

Unfortunately, one big problem is the City’s pension system, which remains only 25 percent funded with a staggering shortfall hovering around a billion dollars. The Mayor has been advocating to sell the city’s water supply for $404.2 million, but the proposal has met serious resistance.

While he notes that previous mayors have “often just kicked the can down the road,” he is proud that his administration has at least made some progress in terms of long-term planning, specifically in terms of $48 million worth of infrastructure repair. Next will be a $160 million bond effort, assuming voter approval, for much needed improvement to the city’s public schools.

“I’m especially proud of the investment we have made in the children of Providence during my first term,” he says. Here Elorza points to his programs that have produced summer jobs, intern programs, and special camping opportunities for several thousand local kids. Additionally, he feels that new city services, both in terms of customer relations and actual performance, will likely have brought major benefits to residents throughout the city.

The Mayor disputes charges that crime is up and points to city figures that show a 30 percent decrease in shootings. And while acknowledging that the East Side has been rightly concerned about the conversion of multifamily houses into student housing, he promises that he is working on a plan with the City Council that will soon deal with the problem on a citywide basis.

But on a broad level, Elorza maintains that the city is booming right now. He points to the record-breaking number of new projects taking place around the city – property values that continue to rise, hotels that remain near maximum occupancy, a successful PVD Fest that is gaining national attention. And while he admits that some of this is being driven by the state, the fact remains that progress is happening in his city and under his administration, which bodes well for the future in terms of an expanding tax base.

The election will ultimately hinge on whose vision of Providence voters will buy into. There is no question the city is on a roll. Yes, there are indeed cranes in the air. But there are also many potholes in the street. And while the Mayor proudly touts his achievements, many voters question his role in them.

In College Hill in particular, residents continue to be frustrated by the lack of support they have received from the city’s law and enforcement departments. Sharon Steele, a well-known community advocate, suggests that this neglect of public services has become a citywide issue; rather than take a leadership role, the Mayor too often allows the neighborhoods to do battle by themselves.

Are the Elorza people overconfident? Is it too little, too late for Witman? All will be revealed November 6. And as been the case in the last few elections, it’s likely the East Side will play a significant role in the outcome.