Talking Politics

Severe weather creates an array of problems for municipal leaders

By Ian Donnis 
Posted 9/19/23

STORY OF THE WEEK: If you were driving around North Providence, parts of Providence or other local communities during torrential downpours early last week, you may have felt like an extra in …

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Talking Politics

Severe weather creates an array of problems for municipal leaders


STORY OF THE WEEK: If you were driving around North Providence, parts of Providence or other local communities during torrential downpours early last week, you may have felt like an extra in “Waterworld.” Ponds of water covered the streets, and the situation only got worse as afternoon turned to evening, with cars stalling in deep water, some stores on Branch Avenue suffered flooding, families lost homes, and there was a little looting. The simple fact is that sewers in Rhode Island’s capital and other cities and towns can not handle the increased amount of rain that falls quickly during storms.

Perhaps you know of a local side street that now floods a few times a year – and then drains within about 30 minutes once the rain passes. Even if not, our very damp summer was not lost on frustrated beachgoers. There are other tangible negative effects from our wetter climate. As my colleague Olivia Ebertz reported, Providence had 19 more favorable days for mosquitos last year than in 1979, ramping up the risk of greater spread of Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE) and West Nile Virus.

Due to increased rainfall, the situation with periodic outbreaks of localized flooding seems bound to persist into the future. If there’s a silver lining, growing evidence of climate change and its impact could bolster public support for heightened efforts to address the situation.

LEATHERNECKS: Of the many Republicans in the U.S. House, why was Rep. Jack Bergman of Michigan chosen to endorse CD1 GOP candidate Gerry Leonard during a news conference last week at Centerdale Revival in North Providence? Leonard quickly made the answer clear – both men served in the Marines, and Leonard twice served under Bergman’s command. Leonard received multiple honors during his long military career, leaving the service with the rank of colonel – the kind of experience that confers credibility and heft for a political newcomer. But it’s another aspect of Bergman’s background, as a Trump-endorsed lawmaker who voted against certifying the presidential vote in 2020, that may resonate less favorably with voters in CD1, which has a pronounced Democratic lean. Asked about this, Leonard didn’t hesitate to say he was honored by Bergman’s endorsement, and he said he’s his own man.

As if on cue, the R.I. Democratic Party responded with a news release later in the week labeling Bergman as “too extreme for Rhode Island.”

MAKING CHANGE: State Rep. Cherie Cruz (D-Pawtucket) won election last year by fewer than 50 votes (for the seat formerly held by Carlos Tobon) and went to prove herself as an effective lawmaker, championing the House version of a bill that became law to prohibit landlords from charging application fees for apartment rentals. As the ProJo’s Antonia Farzan recounted in a compelling profile last year, Cruz overcame poverty and a host of other obstacles to win two degrees from Brown University by the time she was 40. Cruz said her priorities for the next session include so-called “clean slate” legislation meant to make it easier for people who’ve interacted with the criminal justice system to move on with their lives.

Asked on Political Roundtable about the balance between the public’s right to know about past charges and the need for a fresh start, she said in part, “I think we need to do more, you know, just in educating people around that, and opening the doors because again, if people do care about safety, and they don’t want someone with a past [conviction], right, well, you’re going to, it’s going to create more of an unsafe condition if people can’t work or have housing.”

POLITICALLY ACTIVE: Alex Moore, who has worked on campaigns for candidates including Aaron Regunberg, David Segal and Sen. Dawn Euer, is signing on as the new political director for SEIU 1199, a force in local politics. 

CIVIL SOCIETY: Central Falls Mayor Maria Rivera and Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos are co-chairing local meetings of Democrats and Republicans as part of efforts to bridge partisan divides and strengthen small-d democracy. The second of three meetings (not open to the public) was set for last weekend. The effort is part of Rodel America, a pilot program in RI, Memphis and Washington state.

Reading for the get-togethers includes Federalist No. 10 by James Madison, “Why Democracy” by Robert Dahl; and “Truth and Politics” by Hannah Arendt. According to the Rodel Institute, “The program is designed to break down partisan barriers, increase mutual understanding, and create an atmosphere conducive to practical problem-solving. The seminar discussions are designed not just to identify and highlight policy differences, but to help participants identify areas of shared concern and common values. Through thought-provoking readings, open and honest conversations, and time spent in fellowship, participants build trust and lasting relationships amongst themselves that they carry back to their everyday work.”

HELP HER RUN: A new, non-partisan series to help women and non-binary people run for office is set for this fall, with four sessions in October. Along with practical advice on staging a campaign, the series organized by the women’s empowerment organization Gather RI will include as guest speakers former Rep. Liana Cassar, as well as Reps. Rebecca Kislak (D-Providence), Karen Alzate (D-Pawtucket) and Sen. Bridget Valverde (D-East Greenwich). The sessions are open to women and non-binary people 16 years and older who plan to be in Rhode Island for the 2024 campaign year.

“The lack of campaign managers has been a pinch-point for women candidates in Rhode Island,” Anne Holland, founder of Gather RI, said in a statement. “By our estimate, as many as 60 women and non-binary people may run for local office next year in Rhode Island, yet there are only a handful of trained campaign managers to support them. Several organizations already provide training for candidates themselves; however, no one focuses on training campaign managers despite how critical the role is. That’s why we are thrilled to be able to present this unique training as part of our empowerment programs for women.”

CITY HAUL: Here’s an interview with Providence Mayor Brett Smiley, conducted via email, on a number of current hot topics.

Ian Donnis: What difference will the new agreement on PILOT make for the city?

Mayor Smiley: “This new proposed agreement demonstrates a mutually beneficial relationship for Providence and the four major colleges and universities, and allows everyone to work together towards shared economic growth goals. This proposed agreement more than doubles the financial contributions from the last agreement, representing a 138% increase, and includes ways in which these universities and colleges can continue to contribute to the larger Providence community. When ratified, this would become one of the most generous agreements in the country and has the potential to make Providence a national leader on how to develop stronger relationships with major tax-exempt anchor institutions.”

Donnis: How’s the outlook for getting contributions from Lifespan?

Smiley: “Lifespan has indicated they are not going to provide us a PILOT payment for the 2023 fiscal year, which ended in June. This is the second year in a row that Lifespan did not make a contribution, and currently, Lifespan is the only major tax-exempt entity in Providence without a PILOT agreement. It has been exceptionally difficult to get Lifespan to come to the table and begin negotiating, but they have committed to start conversations this fall and we look forward to beginning in earnest.”

Donnis: What’s your evaluation of how PVDFest went this year? How does this influence your thinking for next year?

Smiley: “Like with any changes, there were great successes and things that didn’t work as well this year. I was disappointed we lost a whole day of programming due to the extreme weather events we’ve now been experiencing for the last week. Programming on Friday and Saturday went smoothly, with minor delays on Saturday. Currently, our teams are gathering the feedback we’ve heard from festival goers, vendors, artisans and performers so that we can ensure that the festival continues to evolve.”

Donnis: We see how Providence is just one of many Rhode Island communities dealing with more intense rainstorms. What’s the short- and long-term plan for responding, to prevent some of the problems that were evident this week?

Smiley: “The recent storms have put Providence’s stormwater system at capacity. Our protocol before a large storm is to have our DPW teams go out and street sweep and clear out drains and catch basins so that water can be properly drained. However, even with this preparation, our drain systems and sewer infrastructure was never designed to take on several inches of rain in condensed periods of time. That’s why my administration is making strategic investments in our stormwater infrastructure, as unpredictable and major weather events like this become more frequent.”

SOUTH COUNTY: As my colleague Alex Nunes reported, William Conley, a former chairman of the R.I. Senate Finance Committee, is facing criticism over shoreline access issues in his capacity as solicitor in Warwick. During a recent Town Council meeting, Conley defended himself, saying, “Half-truths and selective narratives have led this council and perhaps even part of the public in the town of Westerly to have a very skewed and unfair vision of the work that I’ve done.”

TAKES OF THE WEEK – a mix of views from various Rhode Islanders.

WEAYONNOH NELSON-DAVIES, executive director of the Economic Progress Institute: “The Census Bureau revealed startling new data this week showing 15 million more people living below the poverty line. This is especially devastating after the record gains we made to reduce disparities and child poverty in the last two years. Even more horrifying is that after a historic reduction of child poverty to 5.2% in 2021, it has now more than doubled to 12.4%.

“Poverty doesn’t just happen — it is a policy choice. Alongside the phasing out of other pandemic-era assistance programs that have proven to reduce poverty, Washington’s choice not to renew the expanded Child Tax Credit was the biggest cause.

“The good news is, we know what works. Now is the time to consider federal and state-level policy choices that result in lifting children out of poverty, eliminating racial disparities, and providing economic justice and broad prosperity in the nation and in Rhode Island. At the Economic Progress Institute’s upcoming 12th Annual Policy & Budget Conference, A Conference of Hope: Igniting the Dream of Economic Justice in Rhode Island, we will be talking about how we can work together to ensure such policy choices for a brighter future.”

JONATHAN HOUSTON, outgoing executive chairman of Justice Assistance: “As I prepare to step away from day-to-day leadership after 45 years at the helm, I look to the political leaders we have partnered with as a model for succession planning. While neither Jack Reed nor Sheldon Whitehouse are going anywhere anytime soon (nor should they), both have done exceptional work to prepare a new generation of leaders in our community. We are seeing this change happen now with the congressional race for CD 1. Rhode Island will have two new representatives. Leadership is and should be transitional. The mold has been set by those such as Sens. Pell, Chafee, Reed, and Whitehouse -- people who search for pragmatic solutions to real problems and challenges.

“The work we do at Justice Assistance fits that bill. Our CORES program, including Habitat for Justice and JA Health & Wellness, is a groundbreaking one-stop resource to provide justice-involved individuals with the support they need to stay out of the system. Habitat for Justice is a workforce training initiative that is strengthening the building trades and helping solve the state’s housing crisis. Project Restitution is a sentencing alternative for offenders that offers a chance for new beginnings. Project Victim Services addresses the case notification needs and serves as a resource hub for needed support services.

“It is likely that the next generation of leaders in Washington will build upon and reshape the foundation that Reed, Whitehouse, David Cicilline and others have laid. Just like I am hopeful that the next leader of Justice Assistance will continue the transformative work we have started while bringing a new generation’s perspective to justice issues.”

THE JAB: Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health, talked with The Public’s Radio health reporter Lynn Arditi about the merit of the latest COVID vaccine: “So if you’re up to date because you got your bivalent vaccine a year ago, you don’t have much protection against infection. And if you’re young and healthy, you still have decent protection against serious illness, but even that can wane over time. And if you’re elderly, you’ve lost some of that protection. So for older people, for high-risk people, this new vaccine is critical to preventing serious illness. And for young people, it’ll provide some protection against infection. It also provides some further protection against serious illness. So I think young, healthy people benefit, but elderly people, high-risk people, they’d benefit enormously.”

RI POLI/MEDIA PEOPLE ON THE MOVE: Marisa Angell Brown (who happens to be the significant other of former candidate for governor Matt Brown) has been selected as the new executive director of the Providence Preservation Society …. Kudos and congrats to Amanda Pitts, who is leaving her reporting job at WPRI-TV for a gig with NBC in Connecticut. Amanda is a fine reporter and lovely person, so she’ll be missed …. Experienced PR professional Hillary Lima recently signed on with Half Street Group, Mike Raia’s strategic comms shop …. Helena Foulkes will be the honorary chair of the 2023 Annual Awards Gala for the Rhode Island Black Business Association …. Kudos and congrats to Kristen Welker of NBC, who cut her teeth years ago at ABC6, and is taking over the hosting job at Meet the Press as of this Sunday. When I wrote a 2005 story about ABC6’s effort to gain market share, a story by Welker figured in my lede.

Ian Donnis can be reached at



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