PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Incumbent Jorge Elorza endorsed Gonzalo Cuervo on Wednesday to succeed him as mayor of Providence, three weeks before the primary election that will decide the winner of the race.

“Gonzalo is one of the sharpest, brightest people there are in politics, period,” Elorza said during a news conference at Dexter Field in the West End. “He’s an insightful observer on a range of issues including politics, and his experience working inside of government for the past decade-plus positions him to hit the ground running on day one.”

Former Mayor Angel Taveras, who was already backing Cuervo, also spoke at the event.

Elorza picked Cuervo over two other Democrats, City Councilwoman Nirva LaFortune and his own former top staffer, Brett Smiley, who endorsed Elorza in 2014 after dropping out of the mayoral race.

The outgoing mayor said he sat down with all three candidates before making a decision.

“They’re all smart, hardworking, honest people,” Elorza said. “Each one of them has really, really important qualities, but Gonzalo is just someone who stands out.”

Smiley has praised Elorza as an “ethical” mayor, but has been critical of some of his programs, calling them “shiny new initiatives” that are distracting from the basics of running a city.

Asked for Smiley’s thoughts on Elorza’s decision to endorse Gonzalo, a spokesperson for the Smiley campaign did not directly address the mayor’s endorsement.

“Brett has outlined a clear and achievable vision to make Providence the best-run city in America by getting back to basics – finally fixing our roads and sidewalks, restoring a sense of safety to our streets, spearheading robust economic development and affordable housing efforts, and delivering long-overdue results for our students,” said spokesperson Emily Crowell, who previously served as Elorza’s communications director.

LaFortune has also been allied with Elorza on city issues, and the two were together earlier Wednesday at a news conference about a new eviction defense program.

The candidates had not been actively seeking Elorza’s endorsement prior to July, when the mayor conducted his own poll on the race and indicated he might get more involved in the race. (Elorza, who is term-limited as mayor, had considered running for governor this year but opted out of that race.)

Elorza had previously said he might not endorse in the race, but said Wednesday he decided to publicly support Cuervo after discussing it with his wife, Stephanie Gonzalez.

“After various conversations that I had with my closest confidante, it just made more sense that if I believe that Gonzalo the right person and that’s who I’m going to vote for, then let it be known,” he said.

Elorza said he would help Cuervo’s campaign “however I can be helpful,” including by knocking on voters’ doors. Elorza has more than $1 million in his campaign account, while Cuervo has about $100,000 as of last week.

The three candidates met in the WPRI 12 studios on Tuesday night for a live televised debate.

Steph Machado (smachado@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter covering Providence, politics and more for 12 News. Connect with her on Twitter and on Facebook.