PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Promising to require staffers to sign a contract that would prevent them from working as lobbyists until he leaves office, longtime educator Robert DeRobbio on Thursday formally announced his campaign for Providence mayor.
The 72-year-old former Providence School Board member and interim superintendent will challenge incumbent Mayor Jorge Elorza in a Democratic primary in September, joining community advocate Kobi Dennis and Chris Young in the race.
DeRobbio, who opened a campaign fundraising account earlier this week, held his kickoff event at the Old State House on Benefit Street in front of more than 20 friends and family members.
“Four years ago, the current administration promised to make us One Providence, but it’s been more like ‘A Tale of Two Cities,’” DeRobbio said. “Providence deserves a government where working at City Hall isn’t a two-year internship program for a career as a lobbyist; where budgets are about long-term sustainability instead of next year’s election; where labor relations are about working together to serve the city instead of scoring political points; and where we have safe schools as equipped for excellence as the students inside them.”
DeRobbio said education and ethics reform will be at the core of his campaign, although he also expressed opposition to the city’s controversial speed camera program and support for legalizing and taxing marijuana.
A graduate of Cranston High School East and the University of Rhode Island, DeRobbio started his career as a math teacher at South Kingstown Senior High School in 1968. He earned a master’s degree in school administration at URI and served as principal of Portsmouth High School between 1979 and 1990. He served on the Providence School Board between 1983 and 1990.
He was named assistant superintendent of Providence schools in 1990, but left to become superintendent in Lincoln in 1996. He returned to Providence schools as interim superintendent for 10 months in 1998 and remained with the district until 2001. DeRobbio was also a member of the R.I. Ethics Commission from 1994 until 1999, serving as chairman for the final two years of his term.
DeRobbio was critical of the city’s schools, which have struggled with low student proficiency rates for decades. In grades three through eight, no more than 26% of students in any grade reached proficiency in math or English language arts on the 2016-17 PARCC exam. The state started implementing a new standardized test this year.
“I refuse to believe Boston children are five times smarter than our students,” DeRobbio said. “If I learned one thing in my 38 years in public education, it’s that Providence students can compete with anyone if they have the tools to succeed.”
DeRobbio has already secured the endorsement of former Democratic state Rep. Ray Rickman, a frequent critic of Elorza. He said it’s time to “elect a mature person to be our next mayor.”
“Bob will be a morally serious and intellectually courageous, down-to-earth manager,” Rickman said. “As an advocate for children, my concerns are for quality education and recreational services for all of our young citizens. Bob DeRobbio is as committed to addressing these issues as anyone I know and will work towards securing an improved future for our youth.”
It’s unclear how DeRobbio would enforce a ban on becoming a lobbyist after working in his administration, but the proposal appears to be aimed at Tony Simon, a former chief of staff to Elorza who now represents the company that has a contract to oversee Providence’s speed camera program.
Simon still worked in City Hall when state lawmakers approved legislation allowing municipalities to implement speed cameras and became a State House lobbyist for Conduent State and Local Solutions, Inc. last May, according to filings with the secretary of state’s office. He is paid $5,000 a month by the company, which also has contracts with the state treasurer’s office and Department of Human Services.
Rhode Island already has a revolving door law that bans former government workers from lobbying their former employers for one year, but lobbying jobs remain common landing spots for ex-city and state employees. There is no restriction on sitting members of city boards and commissions from working as lobbyists.
Elorza, who has repeatedly said he intends to run for re-election, is starting the race with a significant financial edge on his competition. The mayor had $664,000 in his campaign account as of Dec. 31, and will file a new report for the first quarter of 2018 next week. DeRobbio said he has already loaned his campaign $50,000 and hopes to raise $400,000.
DeRobbio has never run for public office and has rarely donated to local political campaigns in recent years. In 2014, he contributed $525 to former Mayor Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci’s unsuccessful effort to return to City Hall and $275 to Keven McKenna’s unsuccessful state Senate campaign, according to filings with the R.I. Board of Elections.
DeRobbio said he will open a campaign headquarters at 95 Hathaway Street.
Fielding questions from reporters following his announcement, DeRobbio said he’d be willing to consider having speed cameras in the city, but would want to start the entire program over from scratch. He said he opposes the sale or lease of the city’s water supply, a proposal Elorza has been pushing for more than year. On education, he said he wants to empower the school board and superintendent while suggesting that he sees no reason to fire current head of schools Chris Maher.
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Dan McGowan (email@example.com) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan