PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza kicked off his re-election campaign Sunday afternoon, pledging to build on the momentum that has led to a surge in development throughout Rhode Island’s capital city during his first four years in City Hall.
But as the Democratic mayor touted his efforts to make strategic investments in schools and neighborhoods while largely holding the line on taxes, more than 150 city teachers gathered outside Roger Williams Park Casino to remind him they have been working without a new contract since last August.
“Together, we have done so much,” Elorza told a standing-room crowd gathered on the second floor of the Casino. “Together, we will accomplish even more. And together, we will continue to move Providence forward.”
During his speech, the 41-year-old former Housing Court judge also called on his supporters to back many of the politicians who agreed to join his host committee for the event. The majority of those politicians did not attend the event, with many refusing to cross a picket line formed by the teachers.
“I understand politics, but they told us to not be political for [an education summit held in April],” Providence Teachers Union President Maribeth Calabro said as she walked with her members. “Well, this is a political event. That’s why we’re here.”
Asked if she believes elected officials who attended the mayor’s event were crossing a picket line, Calabro said she understands some politicians work for the mayor, but she expected others to show support for the union. She praised Senate Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin, who works in the city planning department and chairs the Providence Democratic City Committee, for agreeing not to attend.
Elorza’s campaign kickoff was held in the same week that Providence is expecting to welcome more than 75,000 visitors for PVDFest, the annual arts and cultural festival the mayor spearheaded when he took office. He called the event “perhaps the best representation of what makes our city truly special.”
The mayor also highlighted his plan to invest up to $400 million over 10 years to repair the city’s crumbling school buildings, while listing technology upgrades at schools, improvements in city services and a decision to offer low-cost camps to kids as his top accomplishments.
Elorza also took credit for a reduction in certain crimes – burglaries and shootings – under his watch. Overall, violent crime was down about 7% compared to the five-year average as of last week, while property crime was up 1%, according to figures published by the police department.
Although he did not mention President Trump during his speech, supporters of Elorza say he found his footing among progressives last year as one of the state’s most vocal critics of the new president. The son of Guatemalan immigrants, Elorza has repeatedly vowed to protect individuals in the country illegally if they have committed no other crimes. He currently serves as a co-chair of the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ Immigration Reform Task Force.
But Elorza has also faced constant labor strife throughout his first term in office, beginning with an attempt to reorganize clerical workers in the school department. He then entered into a long battle with the firefighters’ union that resulted in a reduction in minimum manning requirements, but also led to the retirement of more 100 firefighters and ultimately forced the city to pay members more $6 million to resolve multiple legal challenges. Elorza has also clashed with the police union over an anti-profiling ordinance known as the Providence Community-Police Relations Act.
The mayor’s latest dispute is with the city’s teachers, who have been working without a new contract since August and who claim he reneged on a proposal that would have guaranteed them small raises in a new union contract. More than 1,000 protesters packed City Hall in February to disrupt Elorza’s State of the City address, prompting the mayor to claim he is seeking a “transformational contract.”
Calabro said the two sides have made little progress on negotiations since January. They didn’t speak at all for several months, until Council President David Salvatore sat Calabro and Elorza down for lunch in May. But Calabro said talks remain stalled.
Elorza declined to answer questions about the status of negotiations, but said he understands why some politicians refused to cross the picket line.
Despite his disputes with the public employee unions, Elorza has no shortage of institutional support from powerful Democrats.
More than 120 individuals signed on to serve as members of Elorza’s host committee for the event, including U.S. Sens. Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse, Congressmen James Langevin and David Cicilline, Gov. Gina Raimondo, Attorney General Peter Kilmartin, Treasuruer Seth Magaziner and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio.
Eleven of Providence’s 15 City Council members were also on the committee, with only Councilors Luis Aponte, Carmen Castillo, Terry Hassett and Sabina Matos not listed a hosts. The council has largely backed Elorza’s priorities over the last four years, even though members haven’t always seen eye-to-eye with the mayor personally.
Councilman Michael Correia intended to attend Sunday’s event, be said he would not cross a picket line. He said “all city employees deserve a fair contract.”
Elorza has already begun staffing up for the campaign, hiring former state Senate candidate David Allard as his campaign manager in February. Allard has since brought in Andrew Barbero as the campaign’s field director, Alicia Nunez as director of outreach and Alexis Kievning as a field organizer. Elorza’s lead fundraisers continue to be Meg Clurman and Andrew Moore.
The mayor’s re-election campaign comes as he and his girlfriend Stephanie Gonzalez prepare to welcome their first child later this month. The couple has not disclosed whether they are having a girl or a boy.
Elorza starts the race a heavy favorite over his lesser-known primary challengers, community advocate Kobi Dennis and veteran educator Robert DeRobbio. Chris Young, a multi-time candidate, has also said he will run in the Democratic primary. The city’s Republican Party has not yet identified a candidate, according to Chairman William Ricci.
State Rep. John Lombardi, a Federal Hill Democrat who previously served as City Council president and acting mayor, has talked publicly about challenging Elorza, but he has said he will only run if he can raise enough money to mount a competitive campaign. Elorza reported $661,000 in his campaign account as of March 30, while Lombardi had $76,000. Dennis had $1,800 and DeRobbio isn’t required to file his first fundraising report until July 31.
The Democratic primary is scheduled for Sept. 12. The candidate declaration period this year is June 25 through June 27. The general election is Nov. 6.
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Dan McGowan (email@example.com) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan