On the eve of a hurricane last Thursday, the four Democratic candidates for mayor — state Rep. Steven Costantino, D-Providence; City Councilman John Lombardi; former Housing Court judge Angel Taveras; and returning candidate Chris Young — stood onstage at the Rhode Island School of Design to debate their ideas for fixing Providence.
Hurricane Earl would muster little more than a rainstorm, but the city's considerable challenges and the question of which Democrat will face Independent Jonathan Scott in the November general election loomed large after the debate, one of the final chances for voters to compare candidates before a decisive Democratic primary.
A three-way race
Three Democrats — Costantino, Lombardi and Taveras — are "without question" the top contenders in the mayoral race, according to Victor Profughi, Rhode Island College professor emeritus of political science and head of the polling firm Quest Research.
Costantino, the candidate endorsed by the city Democratic Committee, has served as chair of the House Finance Committee since 2004, a position that garnered him a central role in crafting state budgets and the recently adopted state education funding formula, which will appropriate nearly $30 million in additional funds to Providence schools starting in 2012.
Lombardi has served on the Providence City Council for 26 years, a stint punctuated by two terms as council president and a brief tenure as mayor in 2002 following the resignation of former Mayor Vincent "Buddy" Cianci Jr. in the wake of federal corruption charges.
Taveras, who touts a "Head Start to Harvard" life story that took him from Providence's South Side to the Ivy League, has a resume that includes private legal practice, an unsuccessful run for Congress and an associate judgeship on the Providence Housing Court after his 2007 appointment by Mayor David Cicilline '83.
Also in the running for the Democratic nomination is Young, a three-time candidate for mayor and an eccentric staple of local politics. Young made national news recently by proposing to Kara Russo during an Aug. 24 mayoral debate and for serenading a news anchor on a local morning show. Russo, his girlfriend and campaign manager, is running for lieutenant governor and the 1st Congressional District seat. Young was banned from Brown's campus last November after throwing an anti-abortion video at Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., during a University health care forum.
The winner of the Sept. 14 Democratic primary will square off against Jonathan Scott, the president of a political consulting and public relations firm and a former Republican candidate for Congress.
Fiscal woes and electoral foes
"There's no question that anywhere you go in Rhode Island, including the city of Providence, the number-one issue is the economy and jobs," Profughi said.
With the city's deficit for its 2011-12 fiscal year projected at $52 million and its unfunded pension liability nearing $1 billion, the next Providence mayor faces a dire financial outlook that could strain the city's schools and its ability to provide crucial services.
The next top city official will also shape Providence redevelopment efforts following the relocation of Interstate 195, which freed nearly 30 acres of prime real estate and, as the candidates' proposals envision, will promote critical economic growth.
Each candidate argues that he is uniquely positioned to address the issues facing the city.
Costantino points to his experience trimming state budgets as crucial for combating Providence's debt problems. He has unveiled a plan for the development of the I-195 corridor that would establish a Corridor Development Corporation to attract businesses and oversee the area's new construction.
Lombardi credits his extensive city government experience for making him "the man who can come in on day one and know what to do," according to press secretary Julie Ruditzky. Lombardi has proposed the Providence Main Street Business Exchange, a plan to provide "access to capital and a more streamlined licensing process" for the city's businesses, Ruditzky said.
Taveras said his humble beginnings and strong educational background would inform his actions as mayor.
"What I bring is a fresh perspective and a lifetime of overcoming obstacles," Taveras said. Taveras said he would focus on bringing labor unions to the table to solve the city's pension problem, cutting red tape for businesses and making Providence and its buildings more environmentally sustainable.
The other two candidates in the race, Young and Scott, both cite their status as political outsiders as freeing them from being beholden to entrenched interests.
Young told the Herald he would bring a farmers' market and a public park to Providence's waterfront area and would use the city's leverage to prevent home foreclosures.
Scott said he would reform the city's tax code and use taxpayer funds to create "transitional housing" and provide services for the homeless.
Battling for demographics
While public polling data on the race is limited, Profughi sees the contest as a battle for a plurality of votes among the three leading Democrats.
"You have two candidates — Lombardi and Costantino — who have the propensity to draw support from a somewhat similar constituency," Profughi said, citing the two candidates' particular strength in Federal Hill, where both have roots, and with "traditional Democratic votes."
Strong support on the East Side and with the South Side's Hispanic population gives Taveras the best position at this point in the race, he said.
Yet this favorable scenario for Taveras could fail to materialize. The race's unpredictability hinges on the strength of Taveras' turnout on the South Side, whether Federal Hill voters unite behind the stronger of the two candidates favored in that area and whether Lombardi and Costantino make inroads on the East Side, pollster and WPRI News commentator Joe Fleming told The Herald.
Fleming said the winner of the Democratic primary is "the overwhelming favorite" to win in November.
"The big factor's going to be turnout on primary day," Fleming said, pointing to a strong get-out-the-vote effort and campaign funds as key to gaining voters' support.
Recent campaign finance reports show Lombardi with a slight edge in fundraising, while Taveras and Costantino are second and third, respectively, in the race for the campaign cash that is vital for bankrolling television and radio advertisements aimed at swaying voters.
"I still think there's a very high undecided vote in Providence," Fleming said. "The message these candidates get out in the next week and a half will probably determine who's the next mayor of Providence."