Jorge Elorza is the democratic candidate running for Mayor of Providence. A Providence native and graduate of Classical High School, Elorza holds degrees from University of Rhode Island and Harvard University in accounting and law respectively. After working as an auditor and lawyer, he served as a housing court judge. He recently sat down with BPR’s Alex Abuaita.
Brown Political Review: What do you think is the single most important issue in this race? Why does it matter to you?
Jorge Elorza: The single most important issue is creating opportunity. We have an unemployment rate that is twice as high as the state rate in some neighborhoods in our city. That’s simply unacceptable. People need to have job opportunities, which is why I’ve had a very aggressive jobs plan from the working waterfront to reversing the brain drain, to internships, to investing in our arts and culture, to make sure we put Providence back to work. So, it’s definitely on the jobs side but it’s also with education. There’s no future without it. These are our business leaders and this is our workforce of the future. We’ve been looking at the best practices throughout the country, in particular Cincinnati. We commit to full service community schools so that we create an environment around each child where there’s a culture of excellence and every one of them has the ability to achieve their dream. The single biggest issue in this election is who has a vision for creating opportunity for our residents, and I’m confident that I have that.
BPR: Regarding education reform in Providence, what would you do for schools that your opponents wouldn’t? What would you do specifically to create opportunity?
JE: I’m committed to full service community schools, which have two components. There’s a full service piece of it and what I’m talking about is not creating new programs and services. What I’m talking about is taking all the great programs and services that exist within a community and bringing them inside of the school building. So for example, if parents can come into the school building to take English classes and those English classes can be synchronized with the instruction their kids receive during the day, then the parent can help the child with their homework. Or we can offer sports, we can offer music, we can offer financial literacy. All of this can happen in the school building. Every single school that I’ve visited, just about to a T, the ones that are in the worst physical shape and the ones that have the worst outcomes are also the ones that have the least amount of community and parent engagement. So I want to engage an entire community around what happens in school and to create that culture. That’s the full service point of my vision.
The other piece of it is the community schools aspect to it. The school registration system is a total mess here in Providence and we need to fix it so the kids are actually assigned to their neighborhood schools. That makes it much easier for the community and the parents to get involved and engaged. I want to make sure kids go to the schools that are in their neighborhood so we can fully commit to these full service schools.
BPR: Providence is diverse, racially, ethnically and socioeconomically. If elected, how will your administration reflect and engage with that diversity?
JE: The first step is to make sure that you maintain those lines of communication and you build those relationships very closely with the community. That means inviting them to City Hall and to be a part of key decisions that are made so that way they are at the table, their voices are heard and their perspectives are shared. The second part is as the mayor you’re out there in the neighborhood, you’re out there in the community and you’re talking directly to them and hearing directly from them. I’m born and raised here in Providence and that perspective really helps understand not just what people are saying, but where they are coming from. In a way you can understand not just their worries but also their aspirations and making sure that that informs your thinking as you’re advocating at the state level, the federal level and as you’re running the city.
BPR: The Providence Journal’s endorsement of you touted your campaign as the “Providence kid-made-good” and the “classic American story”. Could you touch on that past and how it affects your campaign?
JE: My story and who I am have been a big theme of the campaign. I’m the child of immigrant parents who came to this country with nothing. But they worked their tails off in the factories and little by little they worked their way up into the middle class. So those opportunities, the ones that existed, they’re no longer around and I want to make sure that we make them available to the current and future generations. While my parents were in the factory, I went through the public schools and I almost didn’t graduate from high school and I ended up getting rejected from every university I applied to. But people believed in me. And I started off at CCRI and got my act together. Then I transferred to University of Rhode Island and I ended up graduating first in my class as an accountant. Then I went off and graduated from Harvard Law School. Then I came back and gave my services to the community. I’ve been a law professor and I’ve been a judge. And in all of that change, you know people opened doors for me when I most needed it and that informs my thinking in the way that all of these children that are on the verge of dropping out, all these kids that are struggling, I truly believe that they have the capacity to be great and it’s our responsibility to reach them. So I want to make sure we give every single child the opportunity to achieve their dream and if I’m remembered for one thing, I want to be remembered as the mayor that turned around these schools and gave everyone a chance.
BPR: You’ve never served in office before. Does this disadvantage you? What qualifies you to be the Mayor of Providence?
JE: First of all, I mentioned that I’m an accountant. My job as an accountant — I was an auditor specifically — was to go inside large companies and large organizations and figure out administratively how they function and to figure out ways that they can function more efficiently. That’s exactly the same thing we need to do at city hall with the administration. The Mayor’s job entails a lot of things but an important piece of it is to make sure all the trains run out on time, so to speak. And that means running an efficient administration. That’s my background and that’s the aptitude that I bring. Also, I’ve been a judge here in Providence for the past four years. And as a judge I had a great opportunity to work with a number of departments here in the city and understand how they function. All of this helps me understand how to write laws, how to understand laws, how to communicate them effectively. But the most important piece of being a mayor is having a vision for a city and having that connection with the people so there’s an understanding of what the community needs and how to execute and how to serve it and I have a track record of being engaged with the community, I have a track record of being successful and effective at implementing plans.
BPR: You recently made headlines for engaging in a “battle of religion” with Buddy Cianci. How much do you think religion plays into this campaign?
JE: Well, it shouldn’t. You know, my opponent Buddy Cianci has been telling folks that I don’t believe in God. Which is an absolute lie. I’m a person of faith, I believe in God and these nasty rumors, you know this is an indication of the dirty politics they are willing to play. They will say and will do anything to cause panic among people, to spread lies and rumors. And there are so many others that they’re spreading as well. But we’re not going to let them get away with it. We’re gonna be out there talking directly to people. We’re gonna make sure that they hear directly from me the truth. And that they hear our positive message and our vision for the City of Providence.
BPR: Earlier in your campaign, you asked former Mayor of Providence and your now opponent, Buddy Cianci, for an endorsement. Why? And would you change your mind now?
JE: No, that’s the way that Buddy Cianci put this. I sat down with him, just as I sat down with every single person who was considering running for mayor, and I explained to them that I was raising the money, that I was a serious candidate, and that I was in this until the very end. I wanted to push him out of this race, and to let him know that number-wise it’s a different city and a city that has changed demographically in ways that benefit me. As he puts it, I “practically begged him” to support me. That’s a complete fabrication and it’s just the style and the things that he will say and do to disparage anyone in his path. So that’s an absolute lie on his part.
BPR: That’s all the questions I have, but I’d like to give you an opportunity to say anything else you’d like to say to reach out to Providence voters, especially those in the Brown community.
JE: Sure: This is a very important election. We’re choosing between a vision that moves our city forward and one that would move our city backwards a number of significant steps. I’ve made a central theme of my campaign transparency, openness and ethics. I’ve been an accountant; I’ve been a judge. And I know that all of this is paramount because ethics and transparency matters. How do we expect to attract businesses if they don’t have a basic level of trust in our city leadership? How do we expect to work with our federal delegation, when they don’t and can’t trust the mayor of the capitol city? How can we expect to attract federal dollars if a secretary of a federal department is trying to decide between a grant for one city vs some other city? Then having the mayor of the other city do a press conference and say that the Secretary of Commerce, for example, gave a grant to a twice-convicted felon, rather than giving it to their city. What person will be looking to invest in our city with a person like that at the helm? Also, my opponent has said that this campaign is about the future and not about the past. Well, he continues talking about the past and how things were great when he was here. But what he doesn’t talk about with respect to the past is the compounded polars that we are now paying for. And also that he did not fund the pension system while he was in office, another piece that we are now paying for as well. We’re paying the consequences of mismanagement in the city finances while Buddy Cianci was in office. And we have to turn the page and continue moving forward. Hiring an accountant, hiring a judge, and hiring someone with high ethical standards to run our city going forward.