Here’s the first thing you should know about the race for Providence mayor: since the beginning of World War II, only two incumbents have lost their bids for re-election to the top job in City Hall. Democrat Joe Doorley was beaten in 1974 and Republican John Collins was unseated in 1940.
So, it’s safe to say the odds are stacked against retired school administrator Robert DeRobbio and community advocate Kobi Dennis as they seek to unseat Mayor Jorge Elorza in the Democratic primary on September 12.
But that doesn’t mean the two challengers are making it easy for Elorza, the well-funded former Housing Court judge and college professor whose first run for office four years ago became an international story because of the guy he was running against, former mayor-turned-felon-turned-mayor-turned-felon-turned-radio-host Buddy Cianci.
During a recent forum at Martin Luther King Jr. School on Camp Street, the three candidates sat on stage together for the first time as residents voiced their concern about the city’s schools, economic development policies, and Elorza’s proposal to monetize the water supply in an attempt to strengthen the City’s ailing pension fund.
DeRobbio, who turns 73 on September 3, has made education a centerpiece of his campaign. A former superintendent in Lincoln, he also had a lengthy career as an administrator in Providence schools and served on the School Board. He has vowed to resolve a year-long contract dispute between Elorza and the teachers’ union by bringing all sides together and hammering out a deal.
A former chairman of the RI Ethics Commission, DeRobbio has also been a vocal critic of what sees of clear conflicts of interest from the mayor’s office. He has promised to ban former members of his staff from serving as city or state lobbyists after they leave City Hall while pointing out that former Elorza chief of staff Anthony Simon now works as a lobbyist for the firm hired to oversee the city’s speed camera program.
Dennis, 47, launched his campaign last October with a promise that he would reach voters who are often overlooked, namely the young African-American and Latino youth he has spent most of his adult life working with at various nonprofits. He has spent the last year hustling between his day job as a manager for a mentorship program called Princes 2 Kings and building buzz for his campaign.
On the trail, has been critical of the high percentage of city employees who don’t live in Providence, although he has backed off an initial pledge to seek legislative approval to restore residency requirements. Instead, he has said he wants to offer incentives to city workers to live in the city. He has also promised to build a better relationship with the City’s nonprofit hospitals and colleges rather than solely depending on their annual cash payments each year.
While Elorza’s financial advantage – he has $729,000 in his campaign account, 13 times more than that of DeRobbio and Dennis Combined – and campaign organization suggests he’s a strong favorite to win re-election, disputes with firefighters, teachers and police officers have cost the mayor endorsements from his major public employee unions.
At the same time, Elorza has repeatedly made the case that his administration has stabilized the City’s financials, committed to making hundreds of millions of dollars in repairs to schools, roads, and sidewalks, and improved the delivery of city services to residents. His decision to become the most outspoken politician in the state against President Donald Trump’s positions on illegal immigration and guns has also strengthened his standing among progressives.
The winner of the primary won’t necessarily be allowed to waltz to victory in November, as Independent Dee Dee Witman has the financial resources to run a credible campaign. Another Independent, Jeff Lemire, is also running in November.