Metro

Jorge Elorza eyes City Hall

Mayoral frontrunner discusses path to politics, vision for city ahead of next week’s election

By
Contributing Writer
Tuesday, October 28, 2014

After learning about the death of a childhood friend, Jorge Elorza decided to move back to Providence and enter local politics, he said. “That night, I realized I wasn’t doing anything to support my own community.”

Rookie Democratic mayoral candidate Jorge Elorza countered chief rival and former mayor Vincent “Buddy” Cianci’s prominent role on the city’s political stage with a show of his own last Thursday. Budweiser cans and hipster glasses were more abundant than ties and suits at the historic Columbus Theatre for the 37-year-old Providence native’s benefit concert.

Local bands took the stage, including gritty folk band Death Vessel and f-bomb-dropping female rapper Medusah Black, whose creativity was fostered by AS220, a local arts nonprofit where Black now serves as a youth program leader. The music, and Elorza’s commentary between each act, brought both beanie-clad teens and well-seasoned grandparents to their feet.

“Are you a feminist?” local artist Roz Raskin asked Elorza before the theater’s large audience.

“Absolutely,” Elorza said, giving a nod to Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In” and his campaign manager Marisa O’Gara. “She’s the boss,” he said of O’Gara.

Elorza has garnered the support of more than Providence’s cool kids and cultured residents. On Monday, he received a formal endorsement from President Obama, an uncustomary move for a president. Providence residents favor Elorza over Cianci by about 10 percentage points, according to last week’s public opinion poll conducted by the Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions.

Despite these endorsements, critics still hound Elorza for his lack of experience. The mayoral campaign is his first time pursuing an elected position.

Elorza’s chief rival, Cianci, who boasts two felony convictions and a personality as large as his campaign billboards, has attracted the eye of the national media for his controversial presence, while Elorza, a first-time candidate, has had to focus on spreading his name in Providence.

With 22 years of mayoral experience under his belt and $477,347 more in campaign fundraising, Cianci boasts both more TV commercial time and better name recognition throughout the city. Cianci has also attacked Elorza’s criminal record ­— a shoplifting arrest when he was 18 ­­— and alleged that Elorza is an atheist.

Elorza told The Herald that his decision to devote his life to public service was far from carefully plotted. At 21, Elorza was beginning his career at a Wall Street accounting firm, when he receieved a late-night phone call from his father, who explained that one of Elorza’s best childhood friends had been murdered in the West End, the Providence neighborhood where Elorza grew up.

“I hung up (the phone), and for a while, I just cried for my friend,” Elorza said. “That night, I realized I wasn’t doing anything to support my own community.”

The tragedy motivated Elorza to move back to Providence and devote his life to public service.

Growing up in Providence, Elorza experienced firsthand the poverty and discrimination faced by the immigrant populations across the country, he said. Elorza’s parents are Guatemalan immigrants who worked in factories to keep the family afloat. As a child, Elorza said he helped his father prepare for his English and citizenship classes.

“All those lessons I’ve learned throughout my life, they’ve helped me not just understand what people are saying, but understand where they are coming from,” he added.

If he is elected he will strive to ensure that people feel safe and comfortable calling the police “regardless of whether they have documents or not,” he said. He is a supporter of driver’s licenses for immigrants and wants to continue to cultivate resources to help undocumented immigrants gain access to public universities.

Though he hasn’t held a position in elected office or managed a business the size of Providence, Elorza said he has the kind of experience that matters and offers “leadership that citizens throughout the city can identify with.”

Elorza’s first TV commercial aired last week, a late move by most campaign standards and in comparison to Cianci, whose face has occupied screentime since September. Elorza’s campaign focused on a community-oriented approach through outreach efforts like door-knocking and phone calls, Elorza said.

Elorza said he has been fortunate to experience both sides of society’s coin — the side belonging to the working class and the side of the university and business elite. After high school, Elorza pursued higher education at the Community College of Rhode Island, University of Rhode Island and eventually Harvard Law School. He has worked as an auditor on Wall Street, a lawyer and a Providence Housing Court judge, where he “fought all the biggest banks” to hold them accountable for abandoned properties, he said.

Elorza was also a law professor at Roger Williams University School of Law, where he co-founded the Latino Policy Institute — an organization that conducts research about Rhode Island’s minority communities.

A passion for teaching has motivated Elorza to prioritze fixing Providence Public Schools, he said, referring to the system he personally experienced.

“If I am remembered for one thing, I want to be remembered as the mayor who turned around the schools,” he added.

Elorza’s plans for education reform include bringing community organizations into school buildings to develop full-service community schools. English classes for parents run by these community organizations could take place in school buildings at night and be synchronized with the lessons children receive during the day, “so parents can help their children with their homework,” he said. He also hopes to give teachers more autonomy over their curriculum by eliminating roadblocks that limit their freedom, such as the lengthy procedures teachers must complete in order to switch textbooks, he added

After Elorza won the primary, he “got all of about three and a half hours of sleep and was right back into it the next day,” he said.

If he wins the general election, Elorza said he will celebrate with a much-deserved nap.

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