PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Democrat Brett Smiley on Monday kicked off what he called the “next phase” of his run for mayor, as the race to lead Providence takes shape.
Speaking to a crowd of more than 100 at the Wexford building on Dyer Street, Smiley said he wants to focus on “simple, quality of life issues” if elected mayor.
“Why is it that every year our streets and sidewalks only seem to get worse?” Smiley said in his speech. “Why is it that every time it snows, it’s as if it’s the first time we’ve ever plowed? It shouldn’t take days to do snow removal.”
Smiley, 42, has been running for mayor for more than a year, but said he decided to hold a formal kickoff now as many voters begin to pay closer attention to the race.
Three other Democrats — Gonzalo Cuervo, Nirva LaFortune and Michael Solomon — are running in the wide-open Sept. 13 primary to succeed Mayor Jorge Elorza, a Democrat who is term-limited.
Three members of the Providence City Council were in attendance at Smiley’s event — President John Igliozzi, Majority Leader James Taylor and Councilman Michael Correia — along with Providence state. Rep. Edith Ajello. Smiley’s campaign said he is also endorsed by Councilwoman Jo-Ann Ryan and state Rep. Nathan Biah. Labor leaders from the building trades and Providence Police union were also on hand.
Smiley — who served as director of administration and chief of staff to former Gov. Gina Raimondo — previously ran for mayor in 2014. But shortly before the primary Smiley dropped out and threw his support behind Elorza, who went on to win the Democratic nomination, then in November blocked a comeback bid by late former Mayor Vincent “Buddy” Cianci.
“Eight years ago, I made the hardest decision in my professional life when I stepped aside to help ensure that our city did not take a giant step backwards by re-electing Buddy Cianci,” Smiley said in his speech. “But I never stopped pursuing my vision for what I know Providence can be.”
While Smiley initially went to work for the Elorza administration for a year and a half, on Monday he criticized his former boss in his speech, arguing the city needs to “get back to basics.”
“We can no longer get distracted by shiny new initiatives that are better left to the state or federal government,” he said, without mentioning Elorza by name.
Speaking to reporters afterwards, Smiley confirmed one of the initiatives he was referring to was the guaranteed income pilot — also known as universal basic income — that Elorza launched last year. The pilot is using private donations to give monthly checks to a small number of Providence families.
“Even though it was privately funded, nobody heard that,” Smiley said. “All they thought was the city had so much money they were giving it to people to test how it would improve their economic outcomes. If everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.”
Smiley has raised the most money in the race thus far, with more than $500,000 in the bank as of the end of 2021, the most recent filing period, according to R.I. Board of Elections filings. (The current fundraising quarter ends this week, but candidates have another month to file their public reports.)
He’s also already faced controversy in his campaign, agreeing to pay a $4,500 ethics fine over his acceptance of campaign contributions by state vendors when he was still serving as Raimondo’s director of administration.
Cuervo, 47, announced his candidacy in 2020 but opened a new campaign headquarters over the weekend on Westminster Street in Olneyville. Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, his former boss and now a Democratic candidate for governor, endorsed Cuervo’s candidacy at the event.
In addition to Gorbea, Gonzalo has racked up endorsements from, among others, Providence state Sens. Maryellen Goodwin and Ana Quezada; state Reps. Grace Diaz, Jose Batista and Ramon Perez; City Councilors Rachel Miller and Kat Kerwin; and former Mayor Angel Taveras. (Cuervo previously worked in City Hall for the Taveras administration.)
Cuervo’s new campaign manager, Allan Reyes, said Monday this is a “very pivotal moment” in the campaign with the spring and summer ahead.
Cuervo had raised $216,000 as of the end of 2021, giving him the third-most cash on hand out of the candidates, and the second-most money raised from donors. (Solomon has mostly self-funded so far.) Reyes said in the first quarter of 2022 the campaign has surpassed its fundraising total from last quarter.
“This may be a people-powered campaign, but we have both the money necessary to compete and the people needed to win,” Reyes said.
LaFortune, the city councilwoman for Ward 3 on the East Side, kicked off her campaign in September, and has earned recent endorsements from Providence state Reps. Marcia Ranglin-Vassell and Rebecca Kislak.
In a new campaign video released early this month, the 39-year-old touted her identity as an immigrant and a single mother who grew up in Providence.
LaFortune has lagged behind her competitors in fundraising, with $171,000 on hand at the close of 2021. But her total number of contributions is high, at about 800 donations in 2021, compared to roughly 1,100 donations for Smiley and 688 for Cuervo.
“First-quarter fundraising is going well and we look forward to publicly releasing more information after the end of the quarter,” LaFortune campaign spokesperson Alisha Pina said Monday.
LaFortune also recently hired campaign manager Matt Rauschenbach.
“I am grateful and encouraged by the growing support received from residents in all neighborhoods throughout Providence, and beyond,” LaFortune said in a statement Monday. “The city that raised me does not need more of the same. To be a better Providence for all, we need boldness, experience, resilience, creativity and a clear, inclusive vision. That is me.”
Last week LaFortune, Cuervo and Smiley all took part in the first public forum of the campaign season, held by Rhode Island College students. Solomon did not participate, saying he was taking time off following the death of his father in February.
Solomon, 64, was president of the City Council when he ran for mayor in 2014, but he lost to Elorza in the primary after Smiley exited the race; Solomon later went on to work for Elorza at City Hall.
On Monday, Solomon told 12 News he plans to hold his own campaign kickoff next month.
“I’m in this race,” he said.
Solomon said he does not yet know if he’ll participate in the next forum, being hosted April 12 by the Jewelry District Association.
“We’ll be doing forums all summer … I don’t know why they started so early,” he said.
Solomon said he conducted a private poll on the race in December, but declined to release the results.
“I wouldn’t be in this race if I didn’t have a path to victory,” he said. Solomon said he has not done any fundraising this quarter, but plans to do some next quarter. His current $300,000 war chest is mostly personal loans he has made to his campaign.
All four candidates have started to hire paid staffers; Smiley has the most, at four full-time and two part-time, while Solomon has the least, at one paid staffer thus far. They are also recruiting campaign volunteers.
No Republicans or independents have joined the race yet. Dave Talan, the Providence Republican chairman, attended Smiley’s event Monday and said he’s impressed by both Smiley and Cuervo.
The candidate declaration period is in late June, so the field could change before it’s finalized.
Steph Machado (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Target 12 investigative reporter covering Providence, politics and more for 12 News. Connect with her on Twitter and on Facebook.