PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Jorge Elorza, the former law professor and Housing Court judge whose first foray into city politics saw him defeat one of the most infamous politicians in Rhode Island history, was sworn in as Providence’s 38th mayor shortly after midnight Monday.
Keeping with city tradition, the 38-year-old Elorza took the oath of office at a private ceremony in his Silver Lake home. The oath was administered by Probate Court Judge John Martinelli. His public swearing-in took place on the steps of City Hall at 2 p.m.
With dozens of local leaders looking on, Elorza began his inauguration speech by thanking his family and speaking about his humble beginnings.
“Exactly four decades after my family arrived in this country in 1975 with little more than the shirts on their backs, we stand proudly as a family on the steps of City Hall as an example of what dedication, sacrifice, humility and industry can help us achieve,” Elorza said. “We have to build the New Providence, along with a new economy, a new identity, and a new purpose. I stand before you with great optimism that by coming together and capitalizing on the many wonderful opportunities that our city offers, we will build this New Providence.”
In November, Democrat Elorza defeated former six-time Providence Mayor Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci Jr. in a race that garnered national attention from reporters interested in covering the 73-year-old Cianci’s comeback bid after he twice resigned the office following felony convictions.
Elorza succeeded Democrat Angel Taveras, the city’s first Latino mayor, who left City Hall after one term following his loss in the gubernatorial primary. Taveras is widely credited with helping the city avoid bankruptcy in 2012 and laying the groundwork for improving educational outcomes for city children. Taveras endorsed Elorza’s candidacy.
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The son of Guatemalan immigrants, Elorza framed himself as a fresh face in a city long known for political corruption, preaching honesty and open government while promising to improve opportunities for all residents in a city where unemployment remains over 8%. His “One Providence” campaign theme centered around the idea that “we must all rise and succeed together,” he regularly told voters over the last year. It was a theme he carried into his inauguration speech.
“In order to build the New Providence, we must recognize what a charming and fantastic city this is. We must have concrete plans but that alone will not make us great; I firmly believe the future of our city depends, not just on bricks and mortar, but on the intangible element of building pride in Providence,” he said. “We all want to belong to something bigger than ourselves – a city, a team, a tribe – something that inspires us to be greater than what we thought we were capable of. I believe the New Providence depends on a shared sense of community, responsibility and potential.”
On the campaign trail, Elorza liked to explain that he nearly failed to graduate from Classical High School and was rejected from every college he applied to, but then turned his grades around at the Community College of Rhode Island and later graduated at the top his class at the University of Rhode Island. He worked on Wall Street for a short time before returning to Providence after a childhood friend was murdered. He later graduated from Harvard Law.
In recent years, Elorza taught at Roger Williams University Law School and was appointed to the city’s Housing Court by former Mayor David Cicilline. He made a name for himself on the bench by targeting banks that owned vacant and blighted properties across the city. In one instance, he fined Bank of NY Mellon $235,000 for no-showing court six times.
But the transition from Judge Elorza to candidate Elorza wasn’t always smooth.
He lacked the financial resources and high-profile endorsements of his Democratic primary opponent Michael Solomon and found himself competing with another candidate, Brett Smiley, for support on the vote-rich East Side. Elorza’s aides and top supporters would dismiss criticism by saying they were focused solely on connecting with city voters.
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And then Cianci entered the race. As it became more clear that the a popular talk-show host on WPRO-AM would be a formidable challenger as an independent in the general election, candidates Smiley and Lorne Adrain dropped out of the race. Smiley endorsed Elorza, delivering an overwhelming victory on the East Side. On primary night, one of Cianci’s top supporters told WPRI.com Elorza’s win was the “worst-case scenario.”
He was right.
After the primary, Democrats from across the state, including Rhode Island’s federal Congressional delegation, rallied behind Elorza, throwing him fundraisers, working on the campaign and of course, attacking Cianci.
Andrew Moore, one of Taveras’s top fundraisers during his run for governor, joined Elorza as the campaign’s deputy finance director. David Ortiz, Taveras’s City Hall spokesman, took the same job with Elorza. From U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse’s orbit came Tony Simon, one of the state’s top political minds, as a volunteer. Congressman David Cicilline loaned one of his aides, Andrew Gernt, to the effort.
Even Republican candidate Dr. Daniel Harrop chipped in, donating $1,000 – the maximum amount someone is allowed to contribute to an individual campaign in a calendar year – to Elorza’s campaign and later acknowledging that he voted for the Democrat.
The result was a close but convincing 52% to 45% victory on Nov. 4. Elorza won the East Side by approximately 5,200 votes and carried enough of the rest of the city to withstand Cianci’s strong support in the North End and on the South Side.
Now comes the hard part.
Elorza is inheriting a city that is in better financial condition than Taveras found it in 2011, but Providence’s budget still needs to be managed tightly. The city ended the 2013-14 fiscal year with a surplus of $1.1 million, but it isn’t scheduled to pay off an $8.6 cumulative deficit until 2017. Council members have warned that Elorza’s first budget – which will take effect July 1 – faces a gap of between $17 million and $24 million. A projection released last week by the Taveras administration suggests the potential deficit is roughly $10.5 million.
Elorza has pledged to keep schools open longer and provide more social services to students, an ambitious goal he has acknowledged will require both public and private-sector funds. He’s also promised to grow the city’s police force and create a citywide broadband network. He has said he’ll appoint members to the never-used city Ethics Commission within his first 30 days in office. He has promised to hold the line on property taxes in his first year in office.
Surrounding Elorza will be several familiar faces.
Smiley, once an opponent, will serve as the city’s chief operating officer. Tony Simon, from Sen. Whitehouse’s office, will be Elorza’s chief of staff. Ortiz, the mayor’s former communications director, will keep the same job. Marisa O’Gara, who managed Elorza’s campaign, will work as a deputy chief of staff. State Rep. Grace Diaz will be Elorza’s senior adviser on community relations.
After the public swearing-in ceremony, which Gov.-elect Gina Raimondo is scheduled to attend, Elorza will host an open house in City Hall at 3 p.m. At night, more than 1,000 supporters are expected to be at the Cranston Street Armory for an inauguration day celebration.Dan McGowan ( email@example.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan