Four Democratic candidates who are running to be the mayor of Providence — Gonzalo Cuervo, Nirva LaFortune MA’19, Brett Smiley and Michael Solomon — explained their platforms and answered questions in a Jewelry District Association open forum Tuesday. The event was moderated by Dan McGowan, a columnist for the Boston Globe.
The Democratic primary for mayor of Providence will be held Sept. 13, and the general election will be held Nov. 8. At the forum, candidates discussed topics including the taxation of nonprofits, issues with Providence Public Schools and the housing crisis.
Cuervo is the former deputy secretary of state and former chief of staff to R.I. Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea. The Herald previously reported that Cuervo’s platform is centered around reducing income inequality, fighting the housing crisis and focusing on green initiatives.
LaFortune is currently the Providence City Council member for Ward 3. Her platform says she will focus on advocating “for safe and healthy communities for our families” and “for access to a quality education for all of our children.”
Smiley was chief operating officer in Providence under Elorza, as well as chief of staff and director of administration for former Gov. Gina Raimondo. According to his website, Smiley aims to improve quality of life in Providence through supporting schools, small businesses and public safety.
Solomon, the former president of the Providence City Council, ran for mayor in 2014 along with Smiley. Solomon stated that his priorities are education and public safety in an interview with WPRI in February. To improve public safety, he seeks to combat gun violence and increase school educational programs, he told WPRI.
Cuervo said that he would push for a longer school day and year. Solomon said he would demand more accountability from teachers and administrators. Smiley said that the current teachers’ union contract is too restrictive and that a new contract is necessary to give teachers more flexibility. LaFortune said she would address absenteeism and called for a pipeline to attract more teachers and a residency program to better retain teachers.
LaFortune said that the process for appointing the new Providence Schools Superintendent Javier Montañez was not inclusive of the community. But she added that this is the first time in her lifetime since being a part of the Providence Public School system “that I have seen a superintendent that has actually gone through our school district (as) a teacher, then became an administrator and now serves as the superintendent.”
The three other candidates expressed their support for Montañez. Smiley added that the teachers and students he has spoken to approve of the appointment.
Solomon advocated for the presence of school resource officers — police officers positioned in city schools — while Smiley said principals should determine whether or not they should be present on a case-by-case basis. LaFortune and Cuervo said that they do not support SROs and would rather invest in other support services for local schools.
McGowan asked candidates about crime in the city, referencing a spike in homicides over the past year.
LaFortune called for a strong public safety plan. Her plan would include more officers on foot talking to people and learning the community, greater investment in crisis response initiatives to respond to nonviolent incidents and more extracurricular youth programs.
Cuervo said he would address community policing so “that people in neighborhoods get to know the officers that are assigned to their neighbor(hoods),” he said. “This breaks down whatever barriers may exist, and those relationships can help improve that perception (of high levels of crime) and the reality of public safety in our neighborhoods.”
Solomon said that the city needs a “perpetual police academy to get the level of policing that we need for our neighborhoods.” He added that he supports greater community policing and increased education programs and jobs for young people. He said he would support a mandatory minimum sentence for anybody with an illegal firearm in the city.
Smiley said that policing cannot be the entire solution. He said that while more police staffing is necessary, the city should also focus on tools to keep people safe, such as behavioral health response teams or the 911 diversion program, meant to reduce the number of emergency calls that police respond to. He said that Providence is the economic heart of the state and needs to guarantee safety and security for community members.
All candidates agreed that there should be a Providence fire chief, a role that has not been filled since 2015.
The housing crisis
McGowan asked candidates about their plans to address the housing crisis. He noted that the data show Providence has historic lows in rental vacancy and housing production.
Smiley said that the city needs to build more housing to increase the supply, adding that the city needs to make it easier to buy and sell property. He also noted that the city should make it easier for homeowners to “develop additional single units on their property,” which could provide income and add housing units.
LaFortune talked about actions she has already taken on the City Council to help the housing crisis. “I introduced legislation to incentivize developers to develop more affordable housing,” she said, adding that the city needs to increase the supply of housing to lower the cost.
Cuervo said that the city needs “to increase the level of homeownership and the level of owner-occupancy.” He said that he would use the soft power of the mayoral office to lobby the state to change how it calculates eligibility for affordable housing.
“We could be leveraging those federal funds to build in Providence, to rehab old housing stock, build new stock, use tons of irregular and undersized lots,” he said.
Solomon said that the city needs to collaborate with nonprofits, noting his successful work with groups such as the West Elmwood Housing Development Corporation while serving as council president.
The candidates expressed different views on taxing nonprofits in the city, which are tax exempt. The city has Payment in Lieu of Taxes agreements with various nonprofits in Providence, under which the organizations make voluntary contributions to the city. The University makes direct payments to the city under two agreements, both of which are set to expire this year.
Cuervo said that taxpayers are being “taxed beyond burden.” He said that while Brown brings economic development, prestige and research dollars, the University also brings gentrification, burden to city services and a rise in cost for residents. He said the city should use the city of New Haven’s relationship with Yale as a model for Providence’s relationship with Brown — Yale recently announced it would increase contributions to New Haven by $52 million over six years.
Smiley noted that Brown has buildings on Thayer Street and pays commercial taxes on those properties while other nonprofits do not. He said the Brown and RISD are huge parts of the city and make Providence special.
Solomon said that he supports some sort of payment to the city by nonprofits determined by a formula. He added that the city should renegotiate its agreement with the University once the current agreement expires because Brown’s “footprint is a lot bigger than it was 10 years ago.”
LaFortune said that local universities should all pay more taxes to go toward investment into the city. She underscored her work in higher education and said that students from underrepresented groups need money from these colleges, and that she would not want to take away these students’ ability to attend these institutions.
Correction: A previous version of this story misquoted Gonzalo Cuervo in saying the city needs increase the level of owner-occupancy. The Herald regrets the error.
Elysee Barakett is a senior staff writer for Metro. She mainly covers activism in Providence. She is a part of the class of 2025 and studies International and Public Affairs on the Policy and Governance Track.