Taveras pitches personal story in bid for governor


Associated Press

Posted on August 3, 2014 at 6:04 PM

Updated Sunday, Aug 3 at 6:04 PM

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — Providence Mayor Angel Taveras is sure to remind everyone where he comes from.

The son of Dominican immigrants, Taveras was raised on the capital city's south side by a divorced mom who worked factory jobs to support him and two siblings.

"Lockwood Plaza, Building 15, Apt. 89," Taveras told the crowd at a recent gubernatorial forum at Ebenezer Baptist Church, recalling his old public-housing complex.

The first-term Democratic mayor has made his personal story a central component of his campaign, invoking his path from "HeadStart to Harvard" as he aims to become governor of Rhode Island, whose unemployment rate of 7.9 percent is the country's worst.

Taveras, 43, has also stressed his efforts to fix the city's financial woes. When he took office in 2011, he inherited a $110 million deficit that pushed Providence to the edge of municipal bankruptcy. He cut spending, raised taxes, closed schools, won more in voluntary payments from tax-exempt institutions including Brown University and negotiated with unions and retirees for pension changes.

Early in his administration, the city sent termination notices to all of Providence's schoolteachers to have more budget flexibility. Although most were rehired, bitterness lingered.

In his first TV ad in the governor's race, Taveras calls himself the "son of nobody famous." In another, he strolls down Main Street in Warren, part of his effort to draw a contrast with Treasurer Gina Raimondo, whom he accuses of being aligned with Wall Street.

Taveras, Raimondo and Clay Pell — a former official in President Barack Obama's administration who is the grandson of the late U.S. Sen. Claiborne Pell — are the leading Democrats in the Sept. 9 primary. The GOP nominee will be either Cranston Mayor Allan Fung or businessman Ken Block.

Taveras knew as a third-grader he wanted to be a lawyer. He admired Jimmy Smits playing an attorney on "L.A. Law." He attended Classical High School, where he played baseball and became friends with Fung.

His first job was as a grocery store bag boy. During summers, he got a scholarship to attend a program at Phillips Academy in Massachusetts. Eventually, he attended Georgetown Law, started a law practice and became a municipal Housing Court judge.

"It's been quite a journey," he said in an interview. "The odds were long — the odds were very long — but here I am."

Taveras, who is married with a 2-year-old daughter and a baby on the way, has lined up dozens of endorsements from state lawmakers and other politicians.

"He's always provided me guidance and advice. I do consider him a mentor," said James Diossa, who was elected the first Latino mayor of Central Falls in 2012, after Taveras blazed that trail in Providence. "I really, really like his style of being honest and straightforward and really caring about his community."

Myrth York, a three-time Democratic gubernatorial candidate, served as Taveras' mayoral campaign chairwoman in 2010. He sought her support for governor, but she endorsed Raimondo instead, saying she thinks she will make the best governor. York said she wishes Taveras had stuck it out in Providence and sought a second term.

Brett Smiley, who was Water Supply Board chairman under Taveras, first met him several years ago when Smiley was raising money for then-Mayor David Cicilline.

"I think he really rose to the occasion to meet the financial crisis head on," said Smiley, adding that while Taveras didn't solve the city's financial problems — pension payments escalate in future years — he bought Providence time.

Running for mayor himself, Smiley is now raising issues, like crime, that may end up dogging Taveras on the campaign trail. Recent violence on Federal Hill included the fatal beating of a man with a two-by-four. Raimondo frequently notes there were 100 shootings in Providence last year, and she has criticized high unemployment and commercial property taxes.

Taveras is known for being soft-spoken and thoughtful. During a public radio debate, when the candidates could question one another, the mayor admitted making a "very public mistake" in the teacher firings. He asked the other Democrats: What mistake have you made, and how did you handle it?

At the recent forum at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Taveras said the state needs a governor who understands what it's like to have setbacks — and then succeed.

"I understand these struggles because I've lived them," he said.