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When the rubber meets the road
Pushing a progressive agenda has proven tougher than Providence City Councilors Miguel Luna and David Segal expected
BY IAN DONNIS
Round two

 

Cicilline says heíll Ďabsolutelyíseek reelection in 2006

A GLOSSY BROCHURE mailed to Providence residents over the winter ó headlined, " 365 days ó A Progress Report from Mayor David N. Cicilline to the People of Providence " ó was enough to make some observers wonder if the mayor is mulling a campaign for higher office.

In a 1999 interview with Providence Journal political columnist M. Charles Bakst, Cicilline mused about the possibility of running for the US House seat being vacated by Robert Weygand. Asked last week whether he still has any interest in running for Congress, seen by some as a logical destination for Cicilline because of his intellect and legislative background, he replied like an experienced politician: " The only job that I have any interest in is being mayor of this great city right now. Iím very proud of the work that weíve been able to do as a team. I recognize that we have many, many challenges ahead, and I hope to have the great privilege and honor of being mayor until I can see all of that work through. "

Cicilline, who ran a highly successful underdog campaign, beating three primary challengers in 2002, tells the Phoenix that he will " absolutely " run for reelection in 2006.

The campaign-style brochure sent to Providence residents over the winter, filled with positive headlines from the ProJo, highlights the mayorís efforts in government reform, public safety, schools, economic development, and other areas. It also includes a response card that residents could use to express interest in volunteering or donating to Cicillineís campaign committee. Karen Southern, the mayorís press secretary, says the committee paid for the development and mailing of the brochure ó unlike the way in which former Mayor Vincent A. " Buddy " Cianci Jr. used city funds to mail similar informational efforts to residents.

Cicilline, who jokingly noted, " You can never start campaigning too early for reelection, " says the brochure was sent as " a report to the residents of Providence after my first year in office . . . I think itís important to let the people who elected me know what Iím doing and what Iíve been working on. "

ó Ian Donnis

WHEN A CONSTITUENT realized that a 1985 ordinance requiring the City of Providence to employ qualifying local residents on certain construction projects wasnít being enforced, David Segal and Miguel Luna offered a receptive audience. It was something of a natural topic for the two newest members of the Providence City Council, who, since joining the council in January 2003, have made a signature of their concern for such progressive causes as affordable housing, the living wage, and hiring women and minorities for publicly subsidized construction projects. And by working with council majority leader Luis Aponte, the freshman councilors received assurances last year that the long-disregarded "first source" ordinance ó supposed to be funded in 1985 to the tune of $250,000 ó would finally get its due.

With a wave of construction set to take place in the cityís Capital Center, first source could spread the benefits of economic development more widely through Providenceís neighborhoods. The ordinance is supposed to create a mechanism for connecting skilled minorities and women with available jobs (and expanding opportunities by creating training programs to fill jobs for which there is demand, but few qualified residents). But although the cityís current budget includes $140,000 to get things rolling, it remains unclear when the first source program will start ó perhaps in six months, perhaps longer. As Segal says with more than a hint of frustration, "Itís been really slow coming together."

In some ways, this situation reflects the outlook facing progressive issues in Providence ó thereís an opportunity for discussion, certainly, but liberal initiatives face an uphill climb even if they have a chance of eventually coming to fruition. Somehow, it wasnít supposed to be such a hard slog ó so the thinking goes ó particularly after the election of Providence Mayor David N. Cicilline, who made his name as a state representative, in part, by embracing such progressive causes as gay rights, gun control, and civil liberties. Then again, itís one thing to be a member of the General Assembly, and quite another to be the chief executive of a city that, although widely celebrated, is vexed by poverty, under-performing schools, and a structural budget deficit pegged at close to $40 million for fiscal 2005.

Segal, the first member of the Green Party to win election in Rhode Island, and Luna, a community activist who traces his roots to the Dominican Republic, express disappointment, for example, about the cityís reliance on what are seen as favorable tax stabilization deals with GTECH and the developers of Rising Sun Mills, a residential and office complex in Olneyville. Noting that GTECH is relocating from West Greenwich to downtown Providence, and Abaqus, one of Rising Sunís main tenants, from Pawtucket to Providence, Luna calls this a dog-eat-dog mode of economic development. "Itís not really bringing jobs, itís moving jobs," he says. "This is something that we need to stop doing . . . where basically itís like stealing from another community, and thatís a lazy way of thinking as elected officials. We really need to figure it how ó how weíre going to create jobs."

Progressive activists were also chagrined when concessions, including efforts to employ some local residents, came about at Rising Sun only after a sustained and hard-fought campaign by a coalition of labor and activist groups. The enactment into law of a living wage bill, which has long languished in the city councilís finance committee, seems far more remote.

Still, after Providence experienced little economic growth (other than the Providence Place Mall) during Buddy Cianciís second tenure at City Hall, which coincided with the booming economy of the í90s, itís little surprise that Cicilline hails the GTECH and Rising Sun developments. When it comes to GTECH, he says, "We have to recognize the value of the kind of investment. Not only is it just an office building for GTECH, it sends a very strong message about what Providence is like as a city to do business with. Itís the first office building that will be built in the City of Providence in 13 years. Itís the world headquarters of a multinational corporation, a Fortune 500 company. It will bring almost a thousand high-paying jobs into the city, which bring with it a whole infusion of economic activity," including spending on restaurants, nightlife, parking, and housing. "And then you add to that the thousands and thousands of people who will be at the GTECH facility during the course of the year, again contributing to the economic life of our city."

Cicilline rejects suggestions that being mayor has challenged the kind of progressive impulse he displayed as a state representative, although he acknowledges that the job "requires you to balance things, because you have to make hundreds of decisions a day."

Other observers say itís only natural that Cicilline has adopted a less idealistic, more pragmatic approach since moving into City Hall. "I think you immediately move to the center when you realize immediately the financial burdens that youíre carrying," says former mayor Joseph R. Paolino Jr., who was Cicillineís closest rival in the 2002 election. "He has to work to protect the taxpayer, and I think thatís what heís been doing. You immediately become very conservative when you see those problems. Your heart is always there to try to help, and your emotion is there, and I think the mayor expresses that well, but you have to restrain your spending, because there is no money to spend."

Aponte, arguably the reigning liberal on the council before the 2002 election, expresses a similar outlook. "I would say it is vastly different to be a legislator than it is to be an executive," he says. "Iím sure that thereís a biblical passage that would be appropriate, but the one that comes to mind is, ĎHeavy is the head that wears the crown.í Perhaps the challenges that he [Cicilline] has confronted are deeper, wider than he, perhaps, has estimated them to be." Aponte credits Cicilline with putting together "a very impressive team of people," to face the cityís leading challenges, although the Ward 10 councilor says his sense is "that many do not share the same progressive values."

THIS IS ANOTHER bone of contention for local progressives. Even though Cicilline has brought more diversity to the city workforce, and appointed boards and commissions, the upper hierarchy of his administration (chief of staff Mike Mello; director of administration John Simmons; police chief Dean Esserman; school superintendent Melody Johnson; director of operations Carol Grant; and policy chief Carolyn Benedict-Drew, to name six key players) is mostly white and heavy on people who live on the East Side. To some, the triumph of the "Sixers" (a reference to the 02906 zip code) marks a conflict with the kind of democratic spirit that Cicilline embodied, particularly on the cityís heavily Latino South Side, during his insurgent 2002 primary campaign.

The mayor, who could give Buddy Cianci a run for his money in his dynamism in painting an upbeat picture, hails his as "the most diverse administration in the history of this city. Of people who I have direct responsibility to hire, 65 percent are women or minorities." Such genuine accomplishments aside, though, itís hard to entirely take Cicilline at face value when he says, "The kind of concentration of power you describe [with the core administrators] is not really the concentration of power in this administration. Thatís a much broader group."

An observer familiar with City Hall rejects the characterization of a more diffuse mode of government. "Thereís a lot of work that needs to be done to make our city government more accountable, more democratic, and more transparent," says the source. "It seems like the mayor and those inner administrators view themselves as the experts, and they look warily and very cautiously at city council members, and the greater community, and assume that collaboration with city council members or the community is equivalent to the Buddy Cianci-style of corrupt government."

The administration, however, seems highly unlikely to yield any quarter to the council ó a heterogeneous group that ranges from progressives like Luna and Segal to old-school Democrats like John Igliozzi of Ward Seven and Josephine DiRuzzo of Ward 15 ó particularly after an ongoing dispute about the approval of Essermanís contract. Asked about the council, an administration source close to the mayor says, "Itís terribly ineffective. Honestly, I think the council has no agenda other than to support itís own rights. Itís not like thereís an overriding ideology that keeps them on some trajectory. Many of them are there not to let the mayor succeed."

Luna and Segal, as well as at least some of the other councilors, would seem to have as much interest as Cicilline in sweeping away the vestiges of the discredited old way of doing business. Yet although the two freshman councilors have succeeded in sometimes broadening the range of discussion, relations between the mayor and the council can be expected to remain on a periodic collision course.

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Issue Date: March 12 - 18, 2004
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