Mayor Elorza mostly backing incumbents in primary races

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Two years ago, Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza’s decision to stay “neutral” in several key races where incumbent Democrats were facing primary challenges came with mixed results.

He steered clear of competitive races involving Sen. Juan Pichardo and Rep. Thomas Palangio, and they both lost their seats. He didn’t offer support for veteran Rep. Anastasia Williams and longtime Sen. Frank Ciccone, but they won. One lawmaker he fully backed – then-Majority Leader John DeSimone – was stunned by Marcia Ranglin-Vassell.

Now, as he faces his own re-election battle, the first-term Democrat is taking a more conventional approach, mostly offering support for incumbents who ask for his help while not publicly taking sides in races for open seats, like House District 4 or Wards 2 and 13 on the City Council.

David Allard, Elorza’s campaign manager, confirmed this week the mayor has knocked doors on behalf on Ward 4 Councilman Nick Narducci and Ward 5 Councilwoman Jo-Ann Ryan, who are facing credible challenges in the Sept. 12 primary. Allard said Elorza has also helped Reps. Grace Diaz and Ranglin-Vassell, as well as Sen. Maryellen Goodwin.

When it comes to other local races, Elorza was critical of the state Democratic Party after it initially backed Michael Earnheart over progressive Rep. Moira Walsh in House District 3, which includes the city’s North End. Earnheart is running in the Democratic primary, but has said he supported President Donald Trump in the 2016 election. The party ended up rescinding his endorsement.

“The Democratic Party supports a woman’s right to choose, improving public education, ensuring access to healthcare, and economic opportunity for all,” Elorza said in July. “I believe that our endorsed candidates should support those principles, just as Representative Walsh’s record does. I am proud to support her, and find it hard to believe that her opponent, someone who openly supports our President, would hold Democratic values in the same regard.”

Running for a second four-year term in City Hall, Elorza is facing a Democratic primary challenge from retired school administrator Robert DeRobbio and community advocate Kobi Dennis. The city’s major public employee unions – police, fire and teachers – have decided to not endorse a candidate, a sign they aren’t pleased with Elorza but understand his significant fundraising and organizational advantage make him the favorite.

The winner of the primary will face independent Dee Dee Witman and Jeff Lemire in the general election. Witman has been involved in Rhode Island politics for several decades, working as a fundraiser for former Providence Mayor Joe Paolino and most recently supporting Cranston Mayor Allan Fung for governor. She left Republican Fung’s campaign earlier this summer to run for mayor.

Even though he’s proven to be a strong fundraiser – he had $705,000 in his campaign account as of Aug. 14 – the politics still appears to be Elorza’s least favorite part about being mayor. He jokes that he’s not the chit-chatting type, and he’s never enjoyed gladhanding with other officials. When he has to attend political events, he typically works the room quickly and finds an exit.

When it comes to City Council politics, Elorza has mostly followed the advice of his predecessor, Angel Taveras, who cautioned him that by responding to criticism from the council, “you have just made a nonstory or small story, a bigger story.” The mayor did speak out against for former City Council President Luis Aponte and former Majority Leader Kevin Jackson when they were indicted at different points earlier in the term, but he has largely avoided clashing with the council over policy issues.

Elorza has not commented on Aponte’s decision to seek re-election in Ward 10 even though he is still facing felony charges for allegedly embezzling from his campaign account and his campaign maintains he is supporting incumbents. When asked specifically about Aponte, Allard said “we are not endorsing anyone but are happy to continue assisting incumbents throughout the city.”

As for the statewide races, Elorza participated in a phone banking event at the Providence firefighters’ union hall last week where participants were encouraged “to make calls to re-elect Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Governor Gina Raimondo, Mayor Jorge Elorza, and Democrats up and down the ballot,” according to an email Allard sent to Elorza supporters.

The lone exception to Elorza’s incumbent-only rule is his endorsement of state Rep. Aaron Regunberg for lieutenant governor. Regunberg is challenging incumbent Lt. Gov. Dan McKee in a Democratic, but he was one of Elorza’s earliest supporters in the 2014 mayoral race. The two have remained close since Elorza took office.

“Aaron has been a champion for our communities,” Elorza said when he endorsed Regunberg. “We have worked together for stronger schools, better jobs and a safer environment, and I’ve seen that he has the new energy and new ideas we need. I am proud to support Aaron’s campaign because he will fight each day to make sure our communities here in Providence, and across Rhode Island, are heard in the State House.”

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Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan

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