Talking Politics: Smiley's pitch in Providence

Posted 4/1/21

Back in 2014, Providence mayoral candidate Brett Smiley wound up throwing his support to Jorge Elorza shortly after staging a news conference on one of his pet peeves - how utility companies repeatedly tear up the same stretch of road. Smiley's decision

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Talking Politics: Smiley's pitch in Providence


Back in 2014, Providence mayoral candidate Brett Smiley wound up throwing his support to Jorge Elorza shortly after staging a news conference on one of his pet peeves – how utility companies repeatedly tear up the same stretch of road. Smiley’s decision seemed to acknowledge political reality – he lacked a path to victory in the race to succeed Angel Taveras at City Hall.

Now, though, as he gears up for another run for mayor, Smiley frames the decision to end his 2014 campaign as a civic move. “2014 was a unique moment in the city's history, where we saw the reemergence of Buddy Cianci, and I was deeply concerned that the city would take a giant leap backwards were he to be returned to office. And so I did what a lot of politicians don't do, which is I put the city's interests above my own,” Smiley said on Political Roundtable at The Public’s Radio last week.

While there could still be additional mayoral candidates, Providence City Councilor Nirva LaFortune and former Nellie Gorbea Chief of Staff Gonzalo Cuervo, like Smiley, are off and running. Smiley has shown fundraising strength and he’s bulked up his resume by working in key staff roles for Elorza and former Gov. Gina Raimondo.

Asked whether his government experience is more valuable than the lived experience of rivals like LaFortune (the first member of her family to go to college) and Cuervo (a longtime Latino political activist and staffer), in a city where most of the residents are people of color, Smiley said in part, “…. I think my experience is substantively different than the other people who are considering running this year. And I’m the only person who's ever negotiated a labor contract, I’m the only person who's managed a budget or people at this scale. And that's really what it takes to run an effective government in City Hall.”

RI Dems move to the left

While Democrats have held super-majorities in the General Assembly for longer than anyone can remember, the Rhode Island Democratic Party has not been without its problems in recent years.

A case in point is how the RI GOP has out-messaged the RIDP on a string of issues. Why? Largely because of the oft-strained relationship between former House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and former Gov. Gina Raimondo. If there was a rhetorical attack on Mattiello, former Democratic Chairman William Lynch – an ace at communications – got deployed to respond. But when the same thing happened with Raimondo, the party responded with crickets.

Now, as The Public’s Radio first reported, longtime progressive activist Kate Coyne-McCoy has been hired to lead the RIDP through the 2022 election cycle, part of a move by House Speaker Joe Shekarchi to bring fresh talent into the mix.

This marks a move to the left for the party. As seen by how Coyne-McCoy helped years ago to recruit Raimondo, it jibes with a growing amount of political activity by Rhode Island women. And Coyne-McCoy’s fan club includes U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and U.S. Rep. David Cicilline, so that could strengthen ties between the congressional delegation and the RIDP.

Civility in climate politics

In an age of intense hyper-partisanship, give the Rhode Island House of Representatives credit for having a vigorous four-hour debate with sharply opposing views while remaining collegial and courteous.

The skirmish last week over the Act on Climate had a little bit of everything – impassioned arguments, calls for points of order, GOP Leader Blake Filippi’s concern about whether the legislation would one day affect his cattle, and so on.

But representatives were almost always polite and respectful with one another, even as they disagreed sharply ahead of the 53-22 vote.

It’s not every day when you see five committee chairs take a stance contrary to the speaker. At the same time, the move to put more teeth into an update of a 2014 law passed by a better than 2-to-1 margin.

Things seemed to be headed off the rails at a few points, with the madcap feeling of an extended budget debate, but that reflects how opponents had ample opportunity to express their views (even with Speaker Shekarchi’s leadership eventually moving to limit debate).

Supporters call the Act on Climate the most significant measure to win legislative approval in years. Critics contend it could cause significant costs for residents, although a fact check by the ProJo’s environmental reporter, Alex Kuffner, shows those concerns to be overstated.

Ahead of the vote, Gov. Dan McKee expressed skepticism about opponents’ views, and he expressed support for the intent of the legislation. He is all but certain to sign the bill, lest he toss an easy issue to such potential 2022 rivals as Seth Magaziner and Nellie Gorbea.

LG sweepstakes

Then there were five: Rep. Grace Diaz (D-Providence) impressed during an interview in the lieutenant governor sweepstakes, so she’s made it into the finalist round. The others still standing in this Ocean State version of “Survivor” are R.I. Democratic Party Treasurer Elizabeth Beretta-Perik; state Sen. Louis DiPalma (D-Middletown); former Central Falls Mayor James Diossa; and Providence City Council President Sabina Matos. Each candidate will receive an interview with Gov. Dan McKee.

What’s next for Pryor?

Stefan Pryor was one of the most high-profile cabinet members during the Gina Raimondo’s gubernatorial tenure, and the point person for a series of her economic-development efforts. What does the future hold for the R.I. Commerce secretary?

“Stay tuned. As it stands, I’m working very closely with Gov. McKee on his continuing transition,” Pryor told me a bit earlier this month, declining to elaborate.

Gov. Dan McKee, who has retained the overwhelming majority of his predecessor’s department directors, sounded a bit of a mixed message about Pryor’s direction. McKee tells me he expects Pryor to get offers to join the private sector, but that he hopes Pryor will remain as Commerce secretary for the duration of his inherited time as governor.

“We’re keeping our options open and my hope is that Stefan stays,” McKee said.

Location, location, location

That’s the mantra of real estate. But what if a property is associated with a notorious crime? Via my colleague Ben Berke: “In an era when true crime stories earn fortunes for news and entertainment companies, the unsolved Borden murders are driving real estate prices to new heights in Fall River. Lizzie Borden was 32 years old in 1892, the year police found her estranged father and stepmother hacked to death with a hatchet in the home they shared on Second Street. Following a trial that pitted strong circumstantial evidence against Victorian ideals of feminine innocence, Borden was acquitted. A buyer, Lance Zeal of Virginia, announced on Thursday he is adding the museum and bed-and-breakfast that opened in the Borden home in 1987 to his portfolio of ghost tour businesses across the U.S. The modest three-story home was listed for $2 million before the sale – nearly six times the average home price in Fall River ….”

Casual dress

Old friend Phil Marcelo, ex of the ProJo and now with the AP in Boston, dips back into Rhode Island for a look at how debates about legislative dress code are not limited to the Ocean State: “On the other side of the globe, a Maori lawmaker won his battle against wearing a tie in the New Zealand Parliament last month. He derided the tie as a ‘colonial noose’ and wore a traditional hei tiki pendant instead. Wearing unconventional clothing can be an effective ‘statement of resistance’ or solidarity in the political arena, but dress codes also play an important role in preserving decorum, said Rhonda Garelick, a dean at the Parsons School of Design in New York. ‘That is where the pushback comes from: We dress differently for a funeral from the way we do at a barbecue,’ she said. ‘Are there other ways to convey difference or resistance while still conveying respect or formality?’”

RhodeWorks’ long shadow

While Gina Raimondo’s focus has shifted to such things as semiconductors and trade with China, the truck tolls associated with RhodeWorks are still casting a shadow. “The basic premise of truck-only tolls, I think, is born out of what we saw in Rhode Island,” Lynch, an official with the American Trucking Association, told an industry publication. “That’s where the idea kind of really took hold and others, like Alabama, have kind of seized on that and are looking at it as a way to pay for infrastructure and not put a tax on their own people.” This also helps explain why the trucking association has fought such a vigorous court fight against truck-only tolls in R.I.

You can follow Ian Donnis on Twitter at

politics, Donnis


No comments on this story | Please log in to comment by clicking here
Please log in or register to add your comment