EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The three Democrats vying to become Providence’s next mayor met for their only live televised debate on Tuesday night, laying out how they would handle taxes, the state takeover of city schools and a deeply underfunded pension system.
Gonzalo Cuervo, Nirva LaFortune and Brett Smiley, all of whom have several years of experience working in city government, are seeking to replace the term-limited outgoing mayor, Democrat Jorge Elorza. No Republicans or independents have filed for mayor, so the winner of the Democratic primary is all but certain to become leader of the capital city in January.
During the one-hour live debate on 12 News, the trio took turns arguing why voters should pick them to lead the capital city, while also defending criticism tied to ethics, likeability and opportunism.
In one of the more contentious segments of the debate, Cuervo and LaFortune took aim at Smiley for violating the state’s code of ethics last year. At the time, he acknowledged accepting campaign contributions from state contractors while still holding a top cabinet position under then-Gov. Gina Raimondo.
The controversial donations were first reported by Target 12.
“He is an expert in campaign finance,” Cuervo said about Smiley, who spent several years running a private firm that specialized in campaign finance compliance.
“When he asked for guidance, he turned around and did exactly what he told the Rhode Island Ethics Commission he was not going to do,” added Cuervo, who most recently worked as deputy secretary of state under Nellie Gorbea.
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Smiley has established a sizable financial advantage in the race, with a campaign account four times the size of his opponents. He defended the ethics violation, saying he took full responsibility – which included paying a $4,500 fine. He also argued public servants should admit more often when they make a mistake.
“The minute I found out that I had received contributions from people I had no idea had contracts with the state, I promptly returned them and then I fully cooperated with the Ethics Commission,” Smiley said.
Smiley — who notably never went on offense against his two rivals during the debate — wasn’t the only one who ended up in the hot seat. Cuervo also faced criticism for admitting he moved out of Providence in 2013, living in Cranston for six years before returning to the capital city in the lead-up to the current mayoral contest. (He sold his Cranston home in 2020.)
“Moving back in 2019 just to run for office I think says a lot about you as a person,” LaFortune said.
Cuervo defended the moves, saying his family relocated to Cranston – 11 minutes away from his current home – because at the time he couldn’t afford any Providence homes within his price range that didn’t require major renovations.
LaFortune, who represents Ward 3 on the East Side on the City Council, moved to Providence from Haiti when she was three years old, attended public schools and was first elected to the council in 2017. But she so far has failed to raise as much money and political support as her rivals.
Asked specifically why only one of her 14 City Council colleagues have endorsed her for mayor, LaFortune pointed out a former councilor — state Sen. Sam Zurier — has also backed her and dismissed the lack of support from the others on the body.
She also argued she’s proven she can “compete with the guys,” and noted if elected she would become the first woman and woman of color to serve as mayor.
“I have worked hard as a City Council person, I’ve worked ethically while also being a parent, while working full time,” she said. “It’s hard for some people to accept something they haven’t seen before.”
One of the biggest issues facing Providence is education, as the state’s takeover of city schools beginning in 2019 has been marred with controversy and strife tied to personnel and the pandemic.
The Democratic candidates agreed over wanting to see the school district return to local control, but they differed slightly on how it should be done.
Smiley — who was Raimondo’s chief of staff when the state took over the Providence schools — argued the city should allow the state to get back on track with its turnaround plan.
Whenever that happens, Smiley said he’s committed to creating universal pre-K for every child whose family needs it by the end of his first term, calling child care the “great divide” between the rich and poor.
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LaFortune, who in 2019 declined to try and to block the state’s takeover of schools, also supported the city regaining control at some point. But she said there needs to be a plan created around performance benchmarks that would ensure the transition happens responsibility. She did not provide a timeline for when that might happen.
“We have deviated from the course on multiple occasions,” she said. “We have to stay the course.”
Cuervo, who previously served in prominent positions under former Providence mayors Angel Taveras and David Cicilline, said he supports the schools coming back to the city and he would prioritize spending more money on improving the district’s “ancient buildings” and crumbling infrastructure.
“We have an opportunity to make sure these dollars that are available right now will be used in an intelligent and thoughtful way,” he said.
Housing and pension woes
Other areas of governance where the candidates largely agreed there are problems, but offered different ideas about how to attack them, included housing and the city’s woefully underfunded pension system.
On the issue of housing, all three candidates said the city is facing an affordability crisis. Cuervo and LaFortune both supported some type of rent stabilization program that would limit how much landlords could raise rent prices on tenants each year. Cuervo has proposed capping annual rent increases at 4%; LaFortune declined to specify.
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Smiley argued a better approach would be to focus on building more affordable housing while also creating a new tier of benefits to help subsidize rent for people who make more than those who qualify for low-income subsidy programs. He said the state should pay for the cost of the new benefit.
On the issue of the Providence pension fund — which this year will require a roughly $100 million payment from city taxpayers — Smiley said he would advocate for the plan to join the state-run municipal pension system. The state has only accepted a couple locally controlled pension funds since its creation, and it’s unclear whether Providence’s locally controlled plan would even be accepted at its current funding level — about 23% — and lucrative benefit plans currently paid out to retirees.
LaFortune said she’d likewise support pushing for the local plan to join the state system, although she also argued the city needs to find new ways to generate more revenue to help pay for expenses that continue to rise at a 5% clip each year.
Cuervo argued the city should focus on growing its economy to help make up for the payment. He also said the city must focus on limiting future benefits compared to what was agreed to decades ago to make sure “we don’t fall into that trap again.”
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How well do you know the city?
During a rapid-fire and pop-quiz segment of the debate, candidates were asked for their positions on different issues, along with a series of questions about city governance.
Here are the rapid-fire results:
Would you vote yes or no on a hybrid city school board?
- LaFortune: Yes
- Cuervo: No
- Smiley: No
What letter grade would you give to the state takeover of the Providence schools?
- Smiley: Incomplete
- LaFortune: D, or a D-minus, or even a C
- Cuervo: D
Who was the best mayor over the last 50 years?
- Cuervo: No choice
- LaFortune: No choice
- Smiley: Mayor David Cicilline
Here are the pop-quiz results:
How much money was in the city’s pension investment account as of July?
- LaFortune: No answer
- Smiley: $300 million
- Cuervo: $300 million
- Answer: $325 million
What is the current residential property tax rate?
- Cuervo: $22 per $1,000 assessed value
- Smiley: Cuervo isn’t far off
- LaFortune: It’s a little over $22 per $1,000 assessed value
- Answer: $17.80 per $1,000 assessed value
What is the current police budget?
- Smiley: $100 million
- Cuervo: $100 million
- LaFortune: $100 million
- Answer: $100 million
Bonus question (for fun):
Where would you recommend someone propose to their significant other in Providence?
- Cuervo: The pedestrian bridge
- LaFortune: The rose garden at Roger Williams Park
- Smiley: Prospect Park
The candidates were asked a wide variety of other questions during the hour-long debate. Clips of those discussions can be found broken down by issue below.