PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The three candidates for Providence mayor faced off in WPRI 12’s studios for their only live TV debate of the race on Tuesday night, sharing their plans for improving Providence schools, addressing the housing crisis and improving policing.
The Democratic primary is on Sept. 13, with voters choosing between former City Hall staffer and deputy secretary of state Gonzalo Cuervo, Ward 3 City Councilwoman Nirva LaFortune, and former City Hall and top Raimondo staffer Brett Smiley. Voters can watch the full debate online here.
Here are five takeaways from the 12 News debate.
The gloves are starting to come off
The mayoral forums and debates thus far have had little back-and-forth between the candidates, sometimes making it difficult to differentiate between three Democrats who agree on most major issues. But on Tuesday night the candidates came ready with some attacks.
When Smiley responded to a question from co-moderator Ted Nesi about the $4,500 ethics fine he had to pay after accepting donations from state vendors when he was in charge of state contracts, both LaFortune and Cuervo jumped on him about the violation. LaFortune also criticized Cuervo for living in Cranston for six years before returning to Providence in 2019 when he was considering running for mayor. And LaFortune herself faced a question about her lack of support from City Council colleagues.
Smiley was the only candidate who didn’t go after his rivals, instead sticking to his message that he made a mistake and refunded the donations.
Rent control emerges as a hot campaign topic
All three candidates have been saying for months that Providence needs to build more affordable housing amid skyrocketing rental prices. But a clear difference on housing emerged in the past week after Cuervo announced a multi-point housing plan that would limit landlords from raising rent by more than 4% each year.
Smiley strongly opposes rent control, arguing it hurts local landlords and leads to poorly maintained buildings; when asked during the debate for his alternative plan to address soaring rents in the short term, he proposed a new state-funded subsidy for middle-income renters.
LaFortune said she does support limiting rent increases, but wouldn’t give a number for how much she would cap the price hikes.
Pension problems are not going away
All three candidates supported the $515 million pension bond approved by Providence voters in June, but rising interest rates may prevent the money from being borrowed, thanks to guardrails put into place by the General Assembly to limit risk. So with the city’s annual payment into the ailing fund hitting $100 million a year, what’s their “plan B”?
Cuervo suggested taxing large nonprofits like universities and hospitals more, while Smiley said he would seek to negotiate his way into the state pension system, saving the city money on transaction fees, consultants and investment advisors. LaFortune said she would look to sell city assets like unused fire stations and tax “non-mission” properties owned by the large nonprofits.
None of the candidates said they would try to change the benefits being paid out to existing retirees.
Keep an eye on the future of the Providence Place mall
There’s little doubt that the owners of the Providence Place mall will seek a new tax treaty with the city before their current 30-year tax break deal expires in 2028, and the next mayor will likely be the one to tackle the question of whether the mall should have to start paying its full property tax bill.
While Mayor Elorza has warned hitting the mall with a multimillion-dollar tax bill could “knock them out of business,” none of the candidates committed to giving the mall a new deal on Tuesday night.
“I think the mall should start paying its full tax bill,” LaFortune said, though she suggested she’d be open to negotiating if the mall owners create a mixed-use development with a community college component.
“I want to know what the future of the mall is,” Smiley said, pointing out that the mall is no longer the big draw for people to visit Providence that it once was.
Cuervo said “the mall model has been dying in America,” yet praised Providence Place’s owners for keeping the facility relatively vibrant. He said they would probably “cry and scream” to avoid being sent their full tax bill, and said he would need to have a conversation about reinventing the mall building to have more uses.
The candidates have some studying to do
The candidates were given a pop quiz on some key facts and figures that will be important to know if they wind up running the city of Providence.
While voters might pay close attention to their tax bills, none of the candidates knew what the current residential property tax rate is in the city: $17.80 per $1,000 of home value.
After discussing the severely underfunded pension fund at length earlier in the debate, Tim White asked how much money is in the city’s investment account as of July; LaFortune couldn’t come up with a number, while both Smiley and Cuervo were in the ballpark with $300 million. (The answer was $325 million.)
On the plus side, all three candidates knew that the city’s police budget is about $100 million — an amount that has increased from $86 million in 2020 despite calls by some in 2020 for the city to “defund police.”
Watch the full Providence mayoral debate to hear how the candidates answered questions about Providence schools, license plate cameras, school resource officers and more.