How Mayor Elorza dominated his competition to win re-election

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – On a Monday evening a few weeks before Election Day, members of Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza’s inner circle gathered to review the results of a new poll the campaign had just completed. Something surprised them.

They expected Elorza to be leading independent challenger Dianne “Dee Dee” Witman, but the survey of 500 city voters conducted by Myers Research showed the mayor holding such a commanding advantage that campaign manager David Allard asked the polling firm to contact more voters just to be sure the numbers were accurate.

Allard was sold after calls to 200 more Providence residents again showed Elorza winning by a wide margin. Democrats were sticking with the first-term mayor and there was virtually nothing the little-known but well-funded Witman could do in the final weeks of the race to overcome Elorza’s edge.

Tuesday’s results confirmed the accuracy of the campaign’s internal polling, as Elorza captured 64% of the vote to cruise to victory over Witman and independent Jeffrey Lemire.

By winning 75 of 78 precincts throughout the city, the mayor sent a clear message to some of his colleagues in government and political insiders who have at times grumbled about his unconventional approach to politics: the voters are with him.

“We've worked our tail off over the past four years,” Elorza said Tuesday evening. “We've seen so much progress. We're happy, but we're not satisfied. There's so much more work left to do. So with another four years, I'm going to work just as hard. And I know that Providence, by the time we're done, is going to be known as the best mid-sized city in the entire United States of America.”

So how did Elorza transform from a politician some claimed was “vulnerable” in a re-election fight to one who nearly grabbed two-thirds of the vote in the general election?

As he sipped a dragon-fruit-flavored Vitamin Water outside of the Butcher Shop on Elmgrove Avenue a day after the election, Allard offered a candid assessment of Elorza’s successful re-election bid. He pushed back against criticism that Elorza wasn’t as visible on the trail – “TV ads don’t win local elections” – while admitting that Witman’s entrance into the race caught the campaign off guard.

When he was announced as Elorza’s campaign manager in February, Allard, who ran unsuccessfully for state Senate in Newport last year, knew the mayor would have a Democratic primary challenge. Community advocate Kobi Dennis had already tossed his hat in the ring, but other names – like state Rep. John Lombardi – were still flirting with jumping in the race. At one point, Lombardi said his focus group of city voters told him they were “looking for a person with [former Mayor] Buddy Cianci's way of doing the governance of the city of Providence who is honest.”

Another poll, commissioned by former Mayor Joe Paolino, tested the favorability ratings of Elorza, Dennis, Lombardi and Paolino as well as state Sen. Maryellen Goodwin, state Rep. Ray Hull, City Councilors Sabina Matos and David Salvatore, former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Myrth York, former mayoral candidate Brett Smiley and former City Council President Michael Solomon. While the downtown real estate mogul always maintained he had no interest in running for his old job, he wasn’t shy about his willingness to search for a viable alternative to Elorza.

In the end, only Dennis and retired school administrator Robert DeRobbio emerged to run against Elorza in the primary, but the two first-time candidates were not seen as significant threats to the mayor. Dennis had enthusiastic supporters, but lacked the financial resources to expand his base. DeRobbio had more money, but his campaign lacked the energy required to unseat an incumbent.

Still, Allard and his small staff spent much of the spring trying to secure as many “ones and twos” for Elorza as possible, which is campaign-speak for identifying supporters. If you’re a one, it means you are committed to voting for Elorza. A two would be leaning toward Elorza. By Election Day, the campaign had the names, phone numbers and addresses of more than 10,000 of those voters.

“I’m trained to know that all that matters is IDs and getting the voters you’ve identified to the polls,” Allard said.

Allard’s plan was to manage Elorza though the primary and then focus on electing Democrats up and down the ticket throughout Rhode Island. A former aide to Gov. Gina Raimondo, he especially wanted to work on her re-election campaign.

Witman’s last-minute decision to enter the race changed everything for Allard, in part because she came off as such a wild card. When she announced she would dump $500,000 of her own money into the campaign, it became clear that she was at least going to have the funding to run a credible campaign.

She would also benefit from the outside support of a super PAC funded in part by former Hasbro CEO Alan Hassenfeld that paid for three negative TV and digital ads on Elorza, as well as robocalls and text messages to voters and a mail piece that implied Gov. Gina Raimondo and Congressman David Cicilline were supporting Witman, which wasn’t the case.

Aside from paid advertising, Witman sought to gain traction by focusing on what she considered Elorza’s mistakes, including labor disputes with Providence’s teachers, firefighters and police officers. She also made the case that the mayor mishandled an 11-day bus driver strike and attacked him for a botched rollout of the city’s school-zone speed cameras.

But the mayor’s detractors mostly missed some of the key traits that got Elorza elected in the first place, according to Marisa O'Gara, who ran Elorza’s campaign for mayor four years ago and worked in City Hall until leaving to attend Cornell Law School.

O’Gara said voters view Elorza as honest, ethical and in politics for the right reasons, attributes that likely pushed him over the top in 2014 against Cianci, the former mayor who twice left office in disgrace following felony charges.

“On every poll we’ve had, that has been something that has always resonated,” O’Gara said.

O’Gara also said Elorza, who was educated at both the Community College of Rhode Island and Harvard, is comfortable communicating with residents in every part of the city, from the wealthy East Side where many of his donors live to the South Side where he speaks Spanish and understands the struggles of the working poor.

“He can go to any neighborhood in the city and talk to people and they see some part of themselves,” O’Gara said.

Allard saw Elorza’s biggest strength as the connection he makes with residents while knocking doors. Although The Providence Journal’s endorsement of Elorza began by suggesting “no one could ever accuse Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza of having too much charisma,” Allard said he constantly saw Elorza win people over when he showed up at their homes.

Another key tactic, Allard said, was surrounding Elorza with popular elected officials.

On the East Side, that meant knocking doors with Sen. Gayle Goldin, who attends the same synagogue as Witman. Elorza would also walk the East Side with Councilwoman-elect Helen Anthony and state Representative-elect Rebecca Kislak, two newcomers who rolled to victory in their Democratic primaries. In other parts of the city, Elorza walked with Rep. Grace Diaz and Senator Goodwin, who also chairs the Providence Democratic City Committee.

“I don’t care about endorsements,” Allard said. “I care about walking. I want voters to see they’re with him.”

To bolster Elorza’s progressive credentials, the campaign had outgoing state Rep. Aaron Regunberg send an email to his own supporters reminding them that the mayor has taken “difficult, principled stances that other politicians avoid,” including that Congress should abolish U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Regunberg also reminded them that Elorza was one of the only high-ranking elected officials in Rhode Island to support his bid for lieutenant governor against incumbent Dan McKee.

“What matters is not that he endorsed me - what I appreciate is that he was willing to buck the establishment and take the punches that come with supporting a challenge to the machine,” Regunberg wrote.

Other strategies also paid off the campaign.

Angel Subervi, a savvy young political operative, took a leave of absence from his city job to oversee Elorza’s South Side operation. When the campaign wanted to go negative, it sent targeted mailers to the East Side connecting Witman to Cianci. A nearly-identical mailer went to the South Side, except Cianci’s picture was replaced by Republican gubernatorial nominee Allan Fung. (Witman was a campaign fundraiser for Cianci in 2014 and Fung this year.)

But even though Allard was confident Elorza would win the race, he acknowledged Election Day can be nerve-racking.

Witman had an army of supporters working nearly every polling precinct in the city – far more than Elorza – and those close to her believed she would prevail. The campaign was so confident it would win that it hatched a plan to have Witman leave her watch party at Patrick’s Pub on Smith Street to stand in solidarity with the Democrats, whose party was at The Biltmore downtown. The Witman campaign declined to comment on the record for this report.

The day also got off to a difficult start. Elorza’s first stop was at the The DaVinci Center in the North End, one of only three precincts in the city he would go on to lose. Allard said he didn’t expect to win there, but he is superstitious. They followed the same schedule they had on the day of the Democratic primary.

“I said, we’re going to Nathan Bishop,” Allard said, referring to the middle school on the East Side where Elorza would beat Witman 1,259 votes to 571.

Once the polls closed, it didn’t take long for Allard to start seeing the congratulatory text messages flow in. By 8:16 p.m., Elorza was guaranteed another four-year term.

So what’s next for Elorza, who Allard predicted would still have more than $500,000 in his campaign account by the end of the year?

Allard stopped short of discussing the mayor’s future, although he acknowledged Elorza plans to continue fundraising “as needed” even though he is term-limited. Some of that will be for his inauguration party and other city initiatives, but political fundraising is also expected continue.

O’Gara, the former campaign manager and aide to the mayor, said Elorza loves running the city, but she believes he has a bright future in politics.

“The sky is the limit for him,” O’Gara said.

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Dan McGowan ( covers politics, education and the city of Providence for Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan

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