Politics: Providence Mayoral Debate Review


Originally Appeared at Rhode Island's Future on 7/15/2010

Give perennial loser Christopher Young credit for one thing: The man provides fireworks superior to anything we saw over Fourth of July weekend. On a night where the candidates for Mayor of Providence delivered civil, prepared remarks with zero follow-up from the moderators, Young’s screaming diatribes made the Providence Mayoral Forum at Regency Plaza well worth the price of admission. (Full disclosure: It was free.)

For the most part, each candidate focused on jobs, city services and education. It’s only July, but it’s already clear that Steven Costantino is your guy if you want the city to be more fiscally responsible; John Lombardi is the pick if you want the Mayor to focus on trash pickup and graffiti cleanup; Angel Taveras will concentrate on education; and Young is the right choice for the conspiracy theory, tinfoil-helmet wearing crowd.

A couple notes:

Make no mistake about it. This was no debate. It was a trial run. The candidates were given mostly-generic questions ahead of time and managed to refine their mostly-generic answers down to the second of the time allotted to them. For that reason alone, I say the winners of the night were each candidate’s communications teams.

The line of the night came from a young, African-American John Lombardi supporter who I overheard while I was leaving the event. He pointed out that every candidate seems to want to one-up each other when it comes to how hard they had it when they were young. He’s right. I call this the Tupac-story (I’m from the gutter and I’m still here). Angel Taveras grew up in a single-parent household. Lombardi was an orphan. Young was an orphan. And once, Steven Costantino had to eat Ragu for dinner.

From the look of things, there weren’t many undecided voters in the room. I happen to be one of them. Most people were wearing stickers in support of one (or more) of the candidates and so it was difficult to get a feel for how people thought the forum actually went. Even Young had a fan or two. On to grading the realistic candidates…

Steven Costantino
Overall Grade: B+

Costantino comes off as a little bit more polished than the others with his business-first message and I think it resonates with voters. He said the city is facing a $50 million deficit and he’s the best candidate because he has proved that he is willing to make the tough decisions. He said the city will need to look into cutting department budgets across the board and that he will develop a rainy day fund. He was also the only candidate to mention regionalization: “Rhode Island is a 30 X 40 state that acts like it is Texas. It’s about time we look into consolidating services with other cities.”

He said that one of the city’s major challenges is attracting new businesses. “There isn’t a business out there that wants to invest with a city that can’t control it finances. “ He also pointed out that vacant spaces aren’t ready for new businesses to move in. He said we need to make those vacancies into smart spaces so new businesses actually want to fill the void.

On education, he said Superintendent Tom Brady is doing a great job, but the city is dealing with an infrastructure based on an enrollment that was much higher years ago. He emphasized again that he was willing to make the difficult choices and that it might mean closing some schools. He strongly defended the education funding formula because it was predictable and ensures that “every child in Providence will have a chance, at least the start.”

John Lombardi
Overall Grade: C

John Lombardi sounds tired. This wasn’t the first time I noticed this with him. It’s only July and it appears like he’s already exhausted from the campaign. At two different points, he was caught in a daze when it was his turn to answer a question. It’s too bad because he seems like the most likeable of the three serious candidates, but if he already appears down and out, how will he look in September?

He continued to harp on the delivery of city services and said the city has actually become a problem for businesses. He said businesses are closing because they can’t use their sidewalk or have delivery trucks park in front because they will be ticketed. He also complained about the graffiti problem and people defecating in the streets and pledged that the laws already in place will be enforced if he is elected Mayor.

When asked about the importance of downcity, he said “So goes downtown, so goes Providence, so goes the state of Rhode Island.” He said the city needs to figure out what to do with the Arcade and that the problem with the nightclubs is that the city needs to do a better job handling the traffic problems created when they close.

On education, Lombardi said “we need to hold teachers accountable, but we really need to hold parents accountable.” He said Providence can’t be one size fits all because of its diversity, but as one person pointed out to me, he makes it sound like families are to blame for failing children and even if that were true, it doesn’t actually help anyone. It’s just as bad as Bill Lynch accusing Providence children of being lost during the Congressional debate.

Angel Taveras
Overall Grade: B

Angel Taveras gets better every time I listen to him. He came off as awkward and unprepared early on, but has worked his way to sounding more confident and now delivers a clear, concise vision for the city. I have two pet peeves. 1) The Head Start to Harvard line now generates more eye rolls than smiles. 2) He has to stop telling people that he sees a bunch of little Angels in our children. Old, white Italian families do not want to hear that.

Taveras is best when he’s talking about education. It’s clearly the issue he cares most about and not surprisingly, he’s the only one with an actual plan on how to fix it. He wants to implement a Children’s Zone similar to the one Geoffrey Canada created in Harlem and “no one is going to tell me Providence can’t do it.” He believes in a wrap-around model for school services and said it starts with early childhood education and that we need to look into alternate pathways for students.

When it comes to jobs, he pointed out that while the city’s unemployment rate hovers around 15 percent, some neighborhoods are suffering from 25 percent unemployment. Similar to what Anthony Gemma said on Tuesday night, Taveras feels workforce development is a key issue. He said that while others are focusing on new businesses, he feels Providence needs to do a better a job retaining the current ones and helping them create more jobs.

Taveras mentioned that recovering from the current fiscal situation will take a “shared sacrifice” and that the city can’t just tax its way out. He promised to sit down with every union, the colleges and universities and every department to see what can be done about cutting the budget deficit.


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