This isn’t Brett Smiley’s first campaign for mayor — after running in 2014 and ultimately withdrawing to support the current mayor Jorge Elorza, Smiley didn’t run for office again for several years and instead went to work in city and state government, he told The Herald.
“I was proud of the campaign that I ran in 2014. Ultimately, I made a decision in what I thought was in the best interest of the city,” Smiley said. He was appointed as the chief operating officer for the city by Elorza, and later served as chief of staff for former Gov. Gina Raimondo and director of administration beginning in 2016.
Now, Smiley is one of four candidates vying to be the next mayor of Providence. He faces former Chief of Staff to R.I. Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea and former Deputy Secretary of State Gonzalo Cuervo, current Ward 3 City Council member Nirva LaFortune MA’19 and Michael Solomon, former president of the Providence City Council who also ran for mayor in 2014. The general election will be held Nov. 8.
Smiley said he feels “well prepared” to be mayor, drawing on his experience managing the city’s operations. “Honestly, I feel like the best-prepared and best-experienced candidate in this race,” he added.
According to his campaign website, Smiley’s top priorities include health and safety, education, sustainability and solving the housing crisis in Providence.
Smiley was among the first to start campaigning for the 2022 mayoral race, but he came under fire for controversial campaign donations.
Last fall, Smiley settled an ethics complaint regarding campaign contributions from several state vendors while he was leading the R.I. Department of Administration. He paid a $4,500 fine after an extensive investigation by the R.I. Ethics Commission.
“I inadvertently accepted contributions from a couple of people who did business with the state,” Smiley told The Herald. “When it was brought to my attention, I immediately and completely refunded the contributions, and then fully cooperated with the Ethics Commission,” whose investigation also concluded Smiley had done this unintentionally.
“And now that I'm no longer a state employee, all those issues are in the past,” Smiley said, adding that he’s focusing on the issues in the race.
“I'm excited that there's now a proposal that is housing,” Smiley said. “I think … that's the only viable option for that building.”
“Currently the building is a blight on downtown,” he added. “I think it has the potential to help reactivate our downtown, which has been particularly hard hit through the pandemic.”
He added that decisions about multiple proposals which would modify or relocate the bus hub from Kennedy Plaza, which sits adjacent to the Superman Building, must be made “in concert” with planning for the building.
“I think that we should probably be pushing the pause button on any detailed spending on Kennedy Plaza until we know exactly what the Superman plan is, because you can't make one of those decisions without the other,” Smiley said. “Kennedy Plaza is the front porch for the Superman Building.”
If elected, Smiley said he would also strive to advocate for students in the Providence Public School District. The R.I. Department of Education assumed control of the district in 2019 following the release of a report from Johns Hopkins University detailing poor conditions in PPSD.
“After letting down our students for decades, the state took a big step forward by taking over the Providence school system,” reads his campaign website. “Unfortunately, the pandemic hit soon thereafter and the takeover effort never really took off.”
“The mayor's role (in directing PPSD) needs to be redefined in light of the takeover,” Smiley said. “I don't believe that now that the state's running our schools, the mayor should just wash his hands of it and say ‘this isn't my problem anymore.’”
Smiley said he would prioritize getting back on track with the state’s turnaround plan, which was released in 2020 and set benchmarks for progress in making changes in the district, using the bully pulpit of the mayor’s office, he added.
“The campaign that we’re running is really focused on the issues here in Providence that people are dealing with every day,” said Noah Rosenfeld ’24, an associate advisor on Smiley’s campaign. “What we’re talking about here is getting to the basics of governing and making sure that people feel secure in their city and feel like government is working for them.”
Rosenfeld is involved in Smiley’s campaign as an advisor focusing on youth engagement and outreach on Brown’s campus. Pursuing an interest in becoming involved in Providence politics, Rosenfeld met with Smiley and learned about his campaign.
“After spending an hour with Brett, I was really amazed and impressed with his approach to politics, his approach to getting things done, his tremendous amount of qualifications and his problem solving abilities,” Rosenfeld said. “Candidates reaching out to potential people to come work for them is not common … I think it goes to show Brett’s difference, his ability to connect with people and meet them where they are and get people involved, not just in campaigns, but also in Providence and local issues.”
“Brett is someone who moved to Providence because he loves Providence,” Rosenfeld said. “I think he’s exactly the person to continue rebuilding it and making it better, and making the government actually do the basics of governing … getting the snow off the streets, making sure our school’s aren’t falling apart, making sure that people feel safe in their homes and their city.”
In 2019, the city released its Climate Justice Plan, which details potential solutions to environmental inequities in Providence. “I intend to work with that plan, and start to think about implementation,” Smiley said.
“Many parts of the city, and especially most of downtown, (are) highly vulnerable to climate change and sea level rise,” Smiley added. “There's a lot of work that needs to be done to incorporate resiliency into design (and) into new construction.”
Tiana Ochoa, a Providence resident, attended a forum between the four mayoral candidates April 12, and plans to support Smiley in the Sept. 13 Democratic primary. “I feel a lot of respect for all (of the) other candidates, but feel Brett is most prepared to face challenges of the city,” she told The Herald.
“I believe that Providence really is a great city,” Smiley said. “And if we get our priorities straight, we could really be one of the best-run cities in the country.”
Additional reporting by Elysee Barakett.
Clarification: A previous version of this article used an out-of-date title for Noah Rosenfeld. The article has been updated to reflect his current position.
Ashley Guo is an arts & culture writer and layout designer. She previously covered city and state politics as a Metro section editor. In her free time, Ashley enjoys listening to music, swimming, and reading!
Katy Pickens is the managing editor of newsroom and vice president of The Brown Daily Herald's 133rd Editorial Board. She previously served as a Metro section editor covering College Hill, Fox Point and the Jewelry District, housing & campus footprint and activism, all while maintaining a passion for knitting tiny hats.