Democrat Angel Taveras and independent Jonathan Scott kept the discourse civil Tuesday night during the first head-to-head mayoral debate of the general election campaign. Economic issues took center stage in MacMillan 117 as the candidates shared their plans for spurring employment, attracting businesses and closing Providence's budget shortfall.
Answering questions from moderator Marion Orr, director of the Taubman Center for Public Policy, the candidates struck a cordial tone, expressing broad agreement on the need to lift the city out of the economic doldrums and to improve the quality of its schools.
Taveras, a lawyer and former Providence Housing Court judge, bested three opponents to win nearly 50 percent of the vote in a hard-fought Democratic primary this September. His opponent, Scott, is the president of the political consulting and public relations firm Liftline Group. Scott ran unsuccessfully as a Republican challenger to Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., in 2006 and 2008.
Taveras stressed his "Head Start to Harvard" life story that took the son of a single mother from Providence's Classical High School to the Ivy League and then to law school.
"I believe in education because I would not be standing here as the Democratic candidate for mayor but for education," Taveras said.
Scott emphasized the difference between constructive action and unfulfilled campaign promises and vowed that he would address the city's problems upon taking office.
"What I'm going to tell you about tonight is action, and I want you to listen for the action because there are not very many new ideas in politics," Scott said.
Asked to cite a major economic challenge facing Providence, the candidates gave different answers but agreed on the fundamental need to jumpstart the city's economy.
"The number one problem facing the city is the massive debt," Scott said. Providence's unstable financial footing jeopardizes its ability to make progress in other areas like education, social services and economic growth, Scott said.
Taveras pointed to job creation as Providence's biggest challenge and highlighted his economic development plan, which focuses on making doing business in the city easier and more appealing to prospective companies.
Responding to a question asking the candidates to specify how they would bring economic development to the city's neighborhoods, Scott stressed the need for a viable transportation system that connects communities and links residents from their homes to their jobs.
Taveras advocated creating a "small loan revolving fund" to provide access to credit and capital for small businesses and establishing a real estate tax suspension to incentivize business property improvements.
The candidates expressed agreement on the unsustainable nature of Providence's $1.2 billion pension liability and the need to bring public sector unions to the bargaining table to reform how the city provides retirement benefits to its employees.
"In a lot of cases, the union leadership and the union rank-and-file are not in agreement," Scott said, adding that many union members are eager to reform the pension system to ensure that it maintains solvency for future retirees.
Taveras vowed to "work in good faith with the unions" to negotiate a reformed pension system that will set the city's "financial house in order," and expressed support for a hybrid pension system based on a federal program.
Both candidates expressed opposition to including in union contracts compounded cost-of-living adjustments that have strained the city's purse strings.
The candidates also discussed proposals for fixing Providence's failing schools. Scott highlighted the need for more after-school programs and jobs for students. Taveras expressed his desire to make the Harlem Children's Zone a model for Providence. He said he would focus on strengthening early childhood education, improving access to charter schools and establishing more rigorous standards for evaluating teachers.
Taveras and Scott diverged on whether to retain embattled Chief of Police Dean Esserman, who has presided over a police department plagued by scandal. Taveras said he would give the decision careful study on taking office, while Scott committed to replacing Esserman.
Both candidates also opposed the "head tax" on Providence college students attending private schools, proposed by current Mayor David Cicilline '83 to alleviate the city's budget deficit.
But Taveras and Scott disagreed on another issue important to the city's college students — 18-and-over clubs.
"There may be some 18-year-old Brown students in here. I hate to disappoint you," Scott said, adding that while he would like the drinking age to go back to 18, he is opposed to clubs that serve alcohol but admit those not yet old enough to drink.
Taveras said he opposed penalizing all clubs simply because some illegally allowed underage drinking.
Despite the candidates' divergence on some issues, the debate ended on a friendly note.
"I like Mr. Taveras, and we've become fairly friendly over the course of this race," Scott said in his closing statement, adding that while he differs from Taveras, he hoped to remain friends because "both of us have something to bring to the city."