Talking Politics

Providence's new mayor is getting to work quickly

By Ian Donnis
Posted 2/22/23

STORY OF THE WEEK: Providence Mayor Brett Smiley has moved quickly in the early stage of his administration to fill two key public safety positions, appointing Oscar Perez as police chief and Derek …

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Talking Politics

Providence's new mayor is getting to work quickly


STORY OF THE WEEK: Providence Mayor Brett Smiley has moved quickly in the early stage of his administration to fill two key public safety positions, appointing Oscar Perez as police chief and Derek Silva as fire chief, picks that seem to favorably meld politics and policy. Unlike predecessor Jorge Elorza, Smiley does not face a steep learning curve when it comes to city (or state) government.

During an interview on Political Roundtable, Smiley said his top long-term goal is fostering growth in Rhode Island’s capital city. “But we need to facilitate that growth in a way that maintains the character, and the history and the culture of Providence,” he said. “I think we can do that.” There’s reason to think the city could be more populous; back in 1940, Providence had more than 250,000 residents, although the current population hovers around 190,000. Adding residential density would seemingly improve Providence’s economy and give the city more verve. Still, some familiar challenges – particularly the complex challenge of improving underperforming public schools – complicate the outlook.

For now, Smiley’s short-term focus includes getting more city revenue from nonprofit universities and hospitals in Providence. The mayor’s newly announced legislative priorities include getting nonprofits that own commercial property to pay commercial property taxes and enabling cities and towns to get part of the payroll tax from newly created jobs.


THE STREETS: The way in which Superior Court Judge Richard Licht, a veteran of Rhode Island politics, was struck by a vehicle last week while attempting to cross Smith Street near the Statehouse, underscored concerns about pedestrian safety. (“He has come through emergency surgery well and is resting and in the capable hands of a team of physicians at RI Hospital,” his family said in a statement.) Critics say the volume of incidents in which pedestrians and cyclists are injured or killed by people driving cars calls out for attention. At the same time, there’s a generational divide on such issues as bike lanes and traffic humps between old-school and new-school residents in Providence.

Mayor Smiley does not seem to be a fan of the bike lanes ushered in by Mayor Elorza. Asked how he will thread competing views on traffic calming, here’s part of Smiley’s response on Roundtable: “[T]he transit master plan includes not just a conversation about bike lanes, but also a conversation around pedestrian safety, safe crossings. And that's where my focus is. So things like what they call bump outs, where the sidewalk juts out a little bit so that the crossing is actually shorter, are time tested and proved and good safety measures. Proper striping, proper timing of the crosswalks, there are certain crosswalks where the light doesn't stay white long enough so that a pedestrian can safely cross, that will be my priority and to try to not expend a disproportionate share of energy debating bike lanes, but rather to think about safety for pedestrians, and everyone who uses our roads.”


SMITH HILL: The dismissal of the lawsuit brought by former RI House Minority Leader Blake Filippi offers a window into the influence of personality and personal approach in politics. When Filippi brought the lawsuit in 2020, he was frustrated by how he was often on the outside, looking in, during Nick Mattiello’s tenure as speaker. The possibility of a resolution came into view when Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung defeated Mattiello later that year, and then Filippi surprised colleagues last year with his decision not to seek re-election. The new powers in the House, Shekarchi for the ruling Democrats and Chippendale for the nine Republicans, appeared more willing to commit to a fresh start.

At the same time, Shekarchi is enough of an institutionalist that preserving the House’s three to two advantage on JCLS was important to him. Smart observation via Twitter from John Marion of Common Cause of Rhode Island: “It doesn't get more inside baseball than how the JCLS functions, but the power behind the power is incredibly important. Will be interesting to see what issues (contracts? personnel?) come before the body when it starts meeting.”


STATION FIRE: Last Monday marked a grim anniversary in Rhode Island – the passage of 20 years since the Station fire disaster in West Warwick. One hundred people died, and more than 200 were injured in the conflagration. A lack of sprinklers, highly flammable soundproofing foam, and Great White’s use of pyrotechnics combined to trigger one of the worst nightclub disasters in U.S. history. The calamity raised a focus on fire safety, particularly for nightclubs. Yet as Antonia Farzan reports in the ProJo, inspections remain inconsistent for other entities, and fire prevention generally takes a back seat to other demands for local fire departments.


THE YOUNG AND RESTLESS, THE SEQUEL: The rising crop of young RI Democratic activists back in 2005 included the likes of Tony Simon, Paul Tencher, Matt Jerzyk, Cara Camacho, Ed Pacheco, Meghan McBurney, and Chris Bizzacco, and Seth Magaziner, among others. So with the RI Young Democrats poised for their latest revitalization, one executive board member is already well known: RI Senate Majority Leader Ryan Pearson. Keep an eye on the rest of this crew: Sam Ackerman (president of YDRI) and executive board members Cecilia Marrinan and Noah Rosenfeld – respective president and VP of the Brown University Democrats -- Secretary-Treasurer Robert Craven, Mary-Murphy Walsh, Lloyd Ocean, Lauren Call, and Anthony Cherry.


GUN STUFF: State Rep. Enrigue Sanchez (D-Providence) has crafted a profile as a bold progressive since joining the House. That’s why it was interesting to learn that he asked to have his name removed as a sponsor on the bill from Rep. Jason Knight (D-Barrington) to ban new sales of military-style semiautomatic rifles. Sanchez tells me his request was based on a few decisions, including wanting more time to read the bill and a potential concern about the penalty for violation. At the same time, he said that restricting gun rights is “a big no-no on the extreme left,” including some of those who identify as communists, anarchist and socialists, and that this stance overlaps with conservative support for gun rights. Sanchez added that he supports efforts to get guns off the street and may still vote for Knight’s bill.


RADIO RADIO: The Public’s Radio is pleased to announce that Olivia Ebertz will be joining the station as our metro desk reporter in early April. Oliva is joining us from WNYC, where she has been an assistant producer for Morning Edition. She has also reported for KYUK in Alaska and speaks multiple languages, including Spanish, Italian and Norwegian. Olivia’s focus will be the diverse communities in the Providence area, and we’re excited to welcome her.


MENTAL HEALTH: Former U.S. Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy, who now lives in New Jersey, is among those commenting on U.S. Sen. John Fetterman of Pennsylvania’s public battle with depression. “When I sought treatment for addiction while in office, I felt I had to hide under the cloak of night,” Kennedy tweeted. “After it became public, I faced some calling for my resignation. But in actuality, it made me a stronger leader and politician for my constituents. We've come so far in destigmatization of these brain illnesses, but we still have so far to go. In the midst of our national mental health crisis, Senator Fetterman's leadership by example, may just be lifesaving for many other Americans.”


MASSACHUSETTS: From my colleague Ben Berke: Joseph Michaud, one of three judges that hears eviction cases in the Southeast Housing Court, has received a public reprimand from Massachusetts’ highest court for his social media activity during the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election. Michaud shared a series of highly politicized Facebook posts that criticized Democratic politicians and spread false claims about widespread voter fraud, which were screenshotted and reproduced in a report unsealed by the Supreme Judicial Court last Friday.

The Commission on Judicial Conduct, which referred the matter to the Supreme Judicial Court, found that Michaud’s posts also “contained content that gave the appearance of bias based on gender, ethnicity and immigration status.” The Supreme Judicial Court’s public reprimand of Michaud will have no effect on his judicial responsibilities, according to a spokesperson for the court. Michaud will continue to hear eviction cases in cities like Fall River, New Bedford, Taunton and Attleboro.

The reprimand is not the first time Michaud has drawn criticism from state officials. Legislators from Fall River and New Bedford convened a meeting with the Housing Court’s leadership in 2021 after an investigation by The Public’s Radio found that Michaud’s court was evicting tenants at twice the rate of its sister courts. Between October 2020 and September 2021, while a federal eviction moratorium was in place to reduce displacement during the coronavirus pandemic, the investigation found that Fall River experienced more evictions than Boston, a city six times its size. The same is true of New Bedford. Michaud has apologized for his social media posts in a letter to the Commission on Judicial Conduct.


TAKES OF THE WEEK: Various views from a mix of Rhode Islanders

Dante Bellini, chief hooligan at Hooligan Films: "The American healthcare system is broken. In Rhode Island, like other states, we, the users of the system, have become victims of an economic bureaucracy we don’t understand. Nonprofit healthcare? No such thing. What it is, is a behemoth; a powerful, monstrous system that seemingly pits us against them. And what is ironic is that everyone in the healthcare system believes that they are the actual victim.

"Think about it. Docs want more reimbursement. Insurers want higher rates. Nurses are burned out. Hospitals want more federal dollars. Nursing homes are in code red. Oh yeah, and you the patient is on a gurney in the hallway at Miriam. All the beautiful and empathetic marketing messages produced by the providers, hospitals and insurers can’t hide the fact that many of us live in fear or denial of the fragile thread we hang onto. Not finding primary care, long waits for specialists, afraid to go the ER, outrageous pharmacy pricing, overburdened doctors, nurses and techs, paperwork, compliance and ever-increasing premiums.

"If we can’t prioritize and fix this issue soon, all the other problems that we have will pale by comparison. To borrow a phrase, the ripple effect of a broken and worsening healthcare system will only create more victims and villains."

RI Senate GOP Leader JESSICA DE LA CRUZ: "Gov. McKee’s sales tax cut proposal, from 7% to 6.85%, has been widely criticized for good reason – Rhode Islanders need to keep more of the money they earn. A decrease of .15% will save Rhode Islanders 15 cents on a $100 taxable purchase. 15 cents. That will not spur economic growth. Historically, reducing taxes has stimulated economic activity, which leads to an increase in government receipts. But this cut is so tiny, it's negligible. Its impact on economic growth and taxpayer relief will be negligible as well.

"That's why I've introduced legislation to lower the sales tax to 5%. 5% is IMPACTFUL. It gives Rhode Island the lowest rate in New England, with the exception of New Hampshire, which has no sales tax. That increases competitiveness for Rhode Island businesses. Our businesses win when more Rhode Islanders STAY in state to make purchases and even more so when our neighbors in MA and CT cross the border to buy goods.

"Budget experts say Rhode Island households will save an average of $39 per year under the governor’s proposal. Under the proposed 5% rate, those households would save over $500 – real money that will help taxpayers. We have a choice between timid and lackadaisical tax policy or bold action to spur growth and prosperity. That choice has started the conversation on tax relief and structural tax reform and where we go from here, which is a conversation we owe the people of Rhode Island."

PAIGE CLAUSIUS-PARKS, executive director of RI KIDS COUNT: "On Monday, Michigan State University was the site of the 67th mass shooting in the United States in 2023. This means there have been more mass shootings than we have had days in the year. Firearms recently became the number one cause of death for children in the U.S., surpassing motor vehicle deaths.

"The U.S. is the only country among its peers in which guns are the leading cause of death among children, and yet we are still debating laws that can help prevent mass killings. I truly don’t understand it. Weapons designed for warfare do not belong on our streets, and safe storage laws recognize that with gun ownership comes responsibility. Rhode Island is already in a children’s mental health crisis. Mass shootings and the trauma they create further threaten the well-being of our children and our communities. Some think banning assault weapons is too extreme. I argue that it’s just common sense."

Blogfather, lawyer and lobbyist MATT JERZYK: "The state's entire legal community is sending thoughts and prayers to Superior Court Richard Licht, a tremendous jurist and former lieutenant governor, who was struck by a car while crossing Smith Street on Wednesday evening. A pedestrian was struck and killed on North Main Street in a hit and run the previous night. The scope of these tragedies demands discussion about pedestrian safety.

"Yes, there was a time when it made sense for cities to concierge the needs of cars. It made sense when cities emptied into the suburbs (link), highways cut through neighborhoods, downtowns became business-hours shopping experiences and cities were tumbleweeds after dark. But now, after the rivers and highways have been moved and WaterFire and Providence's restaurant scene became a destination, downtown Providence is a neighborhood filled with thousands of residents, thousands of students, and the city's commercial thoroughfares are filled with walkers, bicyclists, runners, scooter-users and dog walkers.

"Add to this that many cities like Providence and Central Falls are deprioritizing parking in their zoning ordinances as residents rely on micro-mobility options like rentable bikes or scooters or buses, trains or Uber. In this environment, we need to prioritize pedestrian safety and lean into investments to make our streets safer. We already know some common-sense ways to deal with it without additional studies, such as narrower roads, better lighting, streets designed for slower speeds, crosswalk lights timed with actual walking speeds, speed humps, etc. Support for greater enforcement against texting while driving and failing to stop at crosswalks also makes sense.

"Perhaps we could also close some streets, like Westminster St. or Atwells Ave., for people to enjoy culture and nightlife without concerns for traffic. (Kudos to Providence Mayor Brett Smiley for tackling this issue head-on during Political Roundtable.) Doing nothing is not an option."

State Sen. Bridget Valverde (D-North Kingstown): "The shortage of teachers and administrators in our schools is a crisis – and unless we can keep experienced, qualified educators in front of our classrooms, we won’t see the kind of improvements we all want. This week, the Senate Finance Committee heard testimony on bills led by myself and Sen. Britto that aim to allow retirees to continue to serve in our schools beyond the current 90-day limit. The consensus was clear – we need to move quickly on these bills and legislation led in the House by Reps Craven and O’Brien to prevent the teacher shortage from getting even worse before the end of the school year.

"The severity of educator shortages varies from district to district, but statewide, hundreds of positions remain unfilled. Retirements, educators leaving the profession for other career opportunities, and a shallow bench of new educators have left districts struggling to fill gaps. This means classes are sometimes doubled up, and classes like math and science may be taught by substitutes without subject matter expertise.

"Long term, we must actively invest in and nurture our pipeline of teachers and administrators, as this problem is not going to resolve itself anytime soon. In the short term, we must keep the educators we have. Thankfully, many retirees have stepped up to lend their considerable expertise and temporarily fill some of the open positions. Their dedication to our students when they could be enjoying other pursuits is remarkable. But as we enter the final months of the school year, many are being forced to step away because they are hitting the statutory 90-day limit on post-retirement employment for retirees in the state pension system. They must not stop helping when our kids need them most. The House and Senate are working quickly to address the issue, and I am confident we can work together to enact a solution that helps our schools make it to June without having to say goodbye to more of our retiree heroes."

Ian Donnis can be reached at

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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.