Council turnover leaves future leadership unclear

Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Nov. 7 election of five new members to the 15-person City Council shook up a legislative body that had been largely composed of long-term incumbents. At least two factors helped drive the influx of new blood: the intentions of Mayor David Cicilline ’83 to change the composition of the council and the burgeoning political influence of Providence’s Latino community.

Ward 13 Councilman John Lombardi, who is currently serving his eighth year as president of the city council, may not retain his position when the new council convenes in January because of the change in membership. Lombardi’s challenger for the council presidency, Ward 14 Councilman Peter Mancini, is not a novice – he has held a seat on the council since 1990 – and four of the five new councilmen support his candidacy. Mancini recently retired from a position in the state’s Department of Children, Youth and Families.

The only freshman councilman supporting Lombardi is Ward 1 Councilman-elect Seth Yurdin, whose opponent in the Democratic primary, Ethan Ris ’05, was a former Mayoral Fellow and was endorsed by Cicilline in the East Side Monthly.

Ward 15 Councilmember Josephine DiRuzzo will ultimately be the deciding vote in a council split equally in support of Lombardi and Mancini.

Cicilline has publicly declined to support either candidate vying for council president.

“The mayor has a responsibility to work in collaboration (with the council president) and looks forward to working with whoever the council will select,” said Karen Southern, Cicilline’s press secretary.

“When Councilman Mancini informed the mayor of his intention to run, he told (Mancini) he would make a great leader,” Southern said.

Lombardi said Cicilline is privately outspoken about his dislike for him.

“It no secret that (Cicilline is) ‘ABL’ – Anything But Lombardi,” he told The Herald.

Lombardi said he has butted heads with Cicilline because he believes the council should act as an equal body of government to check the mayor’s power. Cicilline won re-election Nov. 7 by a 67-point margin.

“This is about balance of power. The council plays a significant role. It should (not be) an extension of the mayor’s office,” Lombardi said.

If Lombardi loses the council presidency, he said, the council may very well become such an extension.

“(Cicilline’s unofficial endorsement of Mancini) is about power and control … but at the end of the day these are the people’s seats,” Lombardi said. “(Cicilline) would most certainly like to control (the council). He does deny it but he admits it in certain circles.”

Cicilline’s strained relationship with the council has been widely acknowledged, and pledges to work cooperatively with the mayor served as campaign centerpieces for most of the challengers who unseated incumbents.

Cliff Wood, former director of the city’s Department of Art, Culture and Tourism, defeated four-term incumbent Rita William to represent Ward 2 on the council. Wood said he quit his job with the city to run in the election.

“I am a fervent supporter of the mayor,” Wood said. “Does that mean I support everything he wants to do? I don’t know – not explicitly,” he said.

Like Wood, Ward 12 Councilman Terrence Hassett campaigned on a platform of easing the relationship between the council and Cicilline. Hassett was re-elected by a substantial margin and is poised to become the council’s majority leader if Mancini is elected council president.

Cicilline’s desire to reshape the council is obvious, according to Lombardi, from the number of Democratic primary challenges to councilmembers in support of his council presidency.

“Everybody who supported me had an opponent … except for (Ward 3 Councilman) Kevin Jackson and (Ward 6 Councilman) Joe DeLuca,” Lombardi said.

Despite not having the mayor’s support, the two current incumbent Latino councilmen, Ward 9 Councilman Miguel Luna and Ward 10 Councilman Luis Aponte, were re-elected. They will be joined by Ward 8 Councilman-elect Leon Tejada.

“In all three instances the mayor did not support those candidates and he actually had the (city’s Democratic Party) nomination taken away from them,” Lombardi said. “The voters are very astute and sent each of those back to their seat. I guess the message is ‘don’t take them for granted, executive branch.'”

With a population that has been on the rise for decades, Latinos now make up a substantial part of Providence.

In 2000, Latinos accounted for 30 percent of city residents and over 50 percent of the population in neighborhoods including Olneyville, Elmwood, Lower South Providence and the West End.

The total reported Latino population in Providence doubled between the 1990 and 2000 censuses.

But the political influence of this constituency has not always been appreciated. Only 5 percent of voters statewide identified as Latino in the Nov. 7 midterm election, according to an exit poll conducted by CNN.

The council is the branch of government most likely to reflect the influence of ethnic enclaves, said Matt Jerzyk ’99, founder of the liberal political blog Rhode Island’s Future.

Of the 11 Latinos who ran first-time campaigns for the council this fall, Tejada was the only one to win a seat. Jerzyk said the contentious re-election campaigns of incumbent councilmen Luna and Aponte drained the city of staffers to work on other Latino campaigns.

“(Aponte and Luna) really stuffed all of the Latino activists into their wards to save their candidacy,” Jerzyk said.

Jerzyk stressed a long-term approach to attaining a council seat.

“Both (Aponte and Luna) lost their first races – the real race is to see if (a candidate) can win the second time around and come back stronger in 2010,” Jerzyk said. “It’s really hard to beat incumbents.”

Many of the 11 first-time Latino candidates staged campaigns against each other.

The surge in Latino candidacy for the City Council is a sign of changing times for Providence, Jersyk said.

“I think it’s a testament that when you have so many candidates for many positions, (it’s) because it is the city breaking away from the machine politics,” he said. “The old Irish and Italian machine … has faded.”

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