Interview: Brett Smiley is running for Mayor of Providence as an experienced administrator“What I hope is part of the conversation in the year and a half to come is, ‘How are we going to properly manage and run the city better and who has the right experience to do that?’ That’s why I’m excited to do this job,” said Providence mayoral candidate Brett Smiley. “I want to actually run a better city.”
Published on October 13, 2021
By Steve Ahlquist
Brett Smiley is the former Chief Operating Officer under Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza and the former Chief of Staff and State Director of Administration for Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo. He is running for Mayor of Providence. The interview was conducted outside and in person near the Michael Van Leesten Memorial Bridge and has been edited for clarity.
This is the third in a series of interviews with Providence Mayoral Candidates. See also:
- Interview: Gonzalo Cuervo is running for Mayor of Providence promising solutions, not talk
- Interview: Nirva LaFortune has a vision for Providence, and wants to be your mayor
UpriseRI: I want to talk to you about your run for Mayor of Providence. As you walk the doors and meet voters, what are you hearing from people? What are the top two or three issues?
Brett Smiley: I hear two issues that rise above all the rest. It’s schools and public safety. The third issue is a distant third for everybody. I’ve been around government and politics long enough to know that public safety is a unique issue in that it also comes and goes a little bit. We’re at the tail end now of what was a pretty violent summer here in Providence. So it certainly is more top of mind now than back in April but it’s a top issue in every neighborhood.
And public schools – what I find heartening is that concern for the quality of our public schools comes from more than just parents. I hear it from older folks who say, “My kids- who have long since grown up and moved away – went to great public schools.” I hear it from young people who say, “I’m not married yet, but eventually, and what’s happening right now in our schools is not okay.” There’s universal acceptance that high quality public schools are something we value, something that is part of what is supposed to make this country great, and something that’s frankly, not happening right now.
UpriseRI: It’s also something that like draws businesses and people to a place.
Smiley: That’s absolutely true. It’s part of why we see some of the success in Boston. There’s this reputation that Boston has good public schools. And that reputation is slightly more nuanced in reality, but it’s the reputation out there. So there’s this notion that if you move to Boston there’s high quality, high wage, high skill jobs and a high quality public school system. People are willing to pay higher housing prices for it and deal with all of the other challenges that make Boston less appealing to live in than Providence. But obviously people are doing it.
UpriseRI: Isn’t that because Boston, or Massachusetts as a whole, took on education over 20 years ago and came up with some really strong ideas and Rhode Island never did? We didn’t do things like establish education as a right. We didn’t tweak our funding formula to take into account ELL learners. What we did, at least in Providence, is the state takeover. And one of my questions is, How would you rate the state takeover?
Smiley: Bridging off of what you were just talking about in Boston, one of the lessons I draw from the Massachusetts experience is that not only did they set a plan in motion 20 years ago, but more importantly, they stuck with it. We have this constant churning of plans and theories for change and a revolving door of superintendents and new curriculum. There’s this old adage that a decent plan, well executed, is better than the perfect plan poorly executed. I hear from teachers who feel like they have whiplash, that they’re constantly getting new curriculum, new criteria for advancement for students. What we need is continuity – and this is more than one mayor or another – this is decades of continuity.
The state takeover was supposed to be the opportunity for a reset, if you will. Some dramatic changes to set us on a new trajectory because the incremental changes that the city was accomplishing wern’t enough. And I supported that general idea. In my opinion, it has fallen largely off track. Right after the John Hopkins report came out one of the things that I was most encouraged by when going to those community meetings that summer – having worked in city government before and having been active and engaged for a while – was parental engagement. That’s something we struggled to accomplish, for very legitimate reasons. If there are two parents, they’re working two or three jobs. It’s just hard. But that summer we saw parents turn out like I had never seen before.
And now it feels like we lost that engagement. Parents have become disengaged again. It’s a wasted opportunity. Some of it is nobody’s fault. Nobody could have predicted the pandemic. And we lost a superintendent again for some really poor judgments that he made. But nevertheless, here we are again. So I want to see the turnaround get back on track. It was contemplated to be a five-year takeover, which means that it would wrap up during the next mayor’s first term. Then I would like to see the schools returned to local control.
UpriseRI: What does the return of schools to city control look like? How does Providence manage that? You would nominate the entire school board, but beyond that, how do we engage people when Providence takes over? What would that look like?
Smiley: We need to re-empower the school board. Right now they’re – I don’t know – advisory, for lack of a better word. They’re still seated, but they don’t really have any statutory responsibilities. So we need to re-engage and reinvigorate the school board. We need to have some changes that will be motivating to parents, so they can see that things have started to get better for their children, our students. And then we stay the course. I go back to continuity because it’s a really important point. I’ve been in Providence 15 years and have seen at least a half dozen superintendents. The reality is that these folks seem to be on a national career cycle where, they move on to the next bigger city.
I don’t know if we can stop that, but what we can stop is that every time we get a new leader, instead of asking them, “What are they going to do to fix it?” we should be asking them, “What are you going to do to continue to implement the plan we’ve adopted?” We can hire people, explicitly, not to bring in their own plan, but rather to keep on the path so that our students feel some continuity, families feel some continuity, and we can have a chance to see some of this stuff take root.
UpriseRI: To that end we could also hire internally and promote internally and probably pay a lot less than when we head hunt these very expensive outsiders.
Smiley: If that talent exists, absolutely. I certainly don’t have some orientation that you have to go to the outside. We want the best candidate possible. But if that candidate is a Rhode Islander or better yet coming through the Providence public schools, terrific.
UpriseRI: Let’s move on to policing. You talked about crime and I agree with you that we have an uptick, but as we go into the fall that uptick is going to fade. We know that national crime statistics explain a lot of what’s going on in Providence, but we also have issues with guns. Providence can’t do anything about guns, that’s a state level issue. The state has literally taken away the power of Providence to do anything on guns. What can we do? Why can’t we turn gunfire into a punch?
Smiley: There is absolutely a role for the mayor. Providence, the largest city with the largest legislative delegation at the State House, can lead legislatively on guns. We have in the past. We need to always be trying to tighten our gun laws and we’ve seen progress in the past. We got the red flag law passed when I was working for Governor Raimondo. We have the straw purchasers ban in place, which is progress. I would still like to see a ban on either high capacity magazines or assault weapons.
UpriseRI: We’ve seen high-capacity magazines used in Providence.
Smiley: The question is how deadly is the weapon. I want to continue to see progress on guns and there is a role for the mayor to work with his or her delegation at the State House to get that progress done. The mayor can and should be working with the Providence Police for the continued seizure of illegal guns. The majority, if not all of the guns being used in crimes in Providence, are illegal guns, so we need to empower and support our police to continue their track record of seizure, which is pretty good. They had some significant seizures this summer. We need to keep getting these guns off the street, and work with the Attorney General’s office and prosecutors on making sure that those who are committing crimes with illegal guns are held accountable so we don’t see the frequency of this problem. And we need to continue to invest in alternatives.
I heard from a community guy this summer who said, “When I was growing up, we all knew the one crazy guy on the street with a gun, but now you’re the one guy without the gun. You’re the crazy guy.” That mentality has taken hold because of the proliferation of guns. The only way you’re living in life is to also have access to a firearm. That’s where investments in community partners like the Nonviolence Institute come in.They can try to work with young people to understand the consequences and the risks, but also to try to steer them onto a healthier, more productive path because the gun violence is outrageous. We know a lot of these crimes are over what I would characterize as stupid or petty things, spread in part by social media – and what might have been a fist fight over a girl is a shooting. Then you get into this cycle of reciprocity where you don’t even remember what the original slight or beef was about. That’s where investments in community partners comes in. The other piece to the illegal gun problem is healthy, constructive alternatives – non-violence work and community work around engagement with folks who might fall into either gang violence or other violent crimes.
UpriseRI: So the flip side of the policing issue is police accountability. And we’ve seen some pretty outrageous behavior on the part of police officers in Providence. I’m thinking about about Sayles Street, and about the pursuit of the three boys and their violent arrest that the Commissioner and the Mayor both said was outrageous, or some term to that effect. The two parts of this, from my perspective are the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights (LEOBoR), and PERA (Providence External Review Authority). Should we repeal LEOBoR? And should we be giving PERA some teeth, some real oversight over policing?
Smiley: Hopefully it goes without saying, but I hate to not say it – As a community, we should not accept or in any way tolerate abusive police officers and they need to be held accountable. And over the last couple of instances, accountability is underway or they have been held accountable. Some modifications to LEOBoR would help with police accountability – and also help with community confidence in the police – because there is an erosion of confidence, particularly among certain communities who don’t have confidence in the police and don’t necessarily feel safer when they see a police officer. There are some reforms to LEOBoR that are both beneficial to community trust but also possible to accomplish. So I would support those.
With respect to PERA. PERA is intended to be a civilian body to improve community relations, but also, help address accountability. The mayor’s role in that is relatively minor. It’s a nine member board to which the Mayor has one appointment. I look forward to having the opportunity to appoint a strong, trusted advocate to that board who won’t be afraid to be outspoken. I’ll also work in a credible way to rebuild relations, build trust within the community, and appropriately hold officers accountable were there to be misconduct.
UpriseRI: As a note, only 15 states have LEOBoR and Rhode Island is the only New England state, and it would be hard to say that our police are way better or worse than say, Massachusetts or anywhere else. It’s just easier for officers to be held accountable in Massachusetts.
On to other issues. Housing and homelessness. All the money we’re getting from the ARPA funds are probably going to be spent by the time the next mayor takes office. That said, how do we approach the housing crisis? Also the homelessness crisis with the encampments and all the various issues that come with that. What do we do?
Smiley: Housing is a crisis and we need to produce more housing, at every level, in the city. I’m encouraged that there seems to be a moment where it’s risen up the agenda at the State House, the federal and the local level. For so many of the major policy challenges we discuss money is the problem. There’s money right now between the affordable housing bond at the state level, federal funds through pandemic relief and now the city’s own, historic, affordable housing trust fund. That’s really exciting. We need to support the development of additional affordable units. We need to get aggressive about that. We should do that in conjunction with a renewed focus on the blighted and abandoned property problems in our city – which are opportunities for new housing. Also, the persistence of those properties end up being blights on the neighborhood and the community.
Mayor Elorza rolled out this “Everyhome Initiative” many years ago – not much has come of it. What we need to do is subsidize the production of housing. We have really trusted community partners. We’ve got high quality Community Development Corporations (CDCs). We know who is doing great things already in Olneyville and Smith Hill and in the South Side. We need to fund them to do more projects. The city should be taking the blighted and abandoned properties either through negotiation or through eminent domain and turning them over to partners to develop homes. We need to support, at the lower end of the spectrum, the permanent supportive housing model for homelessness. Support Crossroads‘ plan for their new building next to the current building. It’s the humane thing to do – but it also saves money. Many of the people who are experiencing homelessness are consuming quite a bit of public services that we pay for. We could be meeting their basic human needs and providing them the wraparound health services that they need and providing them a stable foundation to get back on their feet. Let’s support Crossroads and other community partners who want to build in this moment while we have money.
UpriseRI: There’s a possibility we could wipe homelessness out. We might have more federal funds coming down the road with whatever the next Biden package looks like.
Smiley: Absolutely. Thinking specifically about hoping to be the next mayor, I always try to be disciplined. We’re the poor kid at the table. The state’s got more money than the city and the federal government’s got more money than the state. So our relatively more scarce resources always need to be targeted to the gap that no one else is filling. That’s where I want be disciplined and try to make sure we’re drawing down as much of those housing dollars and federal dollars as we can and that we’re using our relatively small pot to fill in the gap. I’ll be constantly focused to try to maximize and leverage other people’s money to use the city’s money most efficiently.
UpriseRI: We know that Providence is particularly susceptible to climate change. We can see the water line right there. If that rises six feet, we’re soaking in the river, right? What are we doing about climate change? What can we do as a city about climate change? What should we be doing more of?
Smiley: Over a year and a half ago the city released its Climate Justice Plan, which is really good. This is maybe analogous to the conversation we were having about education. Sometimes candidates are asked, “What’s your plan for this? What’s your plan for that?” I don’t think we need a new plan on everything and with respect to climate change, we have a really good plan that had robust community involvement and huge stakeholder engagement. As mayor, I intend to focus on implementing that plan as opposed to starting from scratch. It’s good work. And the hardest part of that plan that was left unsaid – How do we prioritize and how do we find resources to go do this stuff?
There’s a whole conversation to be had about how do we free up resources – money in the city budget – to do the things we want to do. But there’s real opportunity in that plan to lead by example and around the continued greening of city buildings, including school buildings, which are major facilities throughout the city. There are great opportunities for green energy, both as a consumer but also as a place for job growth and economic development. There’s a huge opportunity at the Port to continue to be – or to try to be – a leader. We have an opportunity we haven’t quite grasped yet to be a leader in the wind energy sector.
There are some really smart people in Providence doing work about how to become a “Green Port” – to be a leader around the emissions that happen when ships are idling and discharging while docked. Not only can we do a good job here, we can be an exporter of expertise, intellectual property and technology by how we lead by example here in Providence. So my focus is really on implementing that plan and coming up with resources to get it done.
UpriseRI: So around the Port, we have some of the highest rates of asthma in the entire New England area. We have the expansion of industries in the Port that contribute to this. We have the metal companies burning stuff. We have the LNG and LPG companies. We have the storage of chemicals so dangrous you can’t even describe what they do to human body. How do we get the Port under control? I mean, the industries there seem barely regulated, there’s lawsuits that come and go – What do we do about that?
Smiley: Some people use a couple of terms interchangeably, but they’re not interchangeable. There is the waterfront. There’s what people call the Port, but there’s really ProvPort, which is a quasi public city entity down at the end of terminal road. And there are the other waterfront facilities that people would refer to as part of the Port, but are not the same as ProvPort. In particular, there is one bad actor just north of the Thurbers Avenue onramp, Rhode Island Recycled Metals. The one with the half crane, where the submarine was, and they’ve had a variety of DEM (Department of Environmental Management] violations. We should do everything we can to either shut that place down or bring it into compliance.
Not only is that a low value use for what is a high value asset for our city – which is a 40 foot channel deep water port potentially a source of really high quality jobs – it’s been violated multiple times for polluting the Bay and there should be no tolerance for that. I don’t think all actors along the waterfront are equal and I have confidence in their performance and the regulations. I’m not sure I agree with you that some of these things are unregulated…
UpriseRI: We had the Shell Oil suit. We have other lawsuits that are being brought because of non-compliance and I have to say that DEM does not do a great job regulating polluters. They only have a few people working to regulate and they work state wide. And I don’t know what Providence does on regulations.
Smiley: I’m not sure either.
UpriseRI: It’s like saying there’s no crime in a city where there are no police.
Smiley: I see your point. I don’t know enough to know what the regulations are on all of the chemicals and such at the Port.[Note: Neither does UpriseRI.]
Smiley: My only point is that not all the actors along the waterfront are created equal and I do support the continued maritime use of the port. It is an economic engine for our city and for the region. I would like to see us continue to find higher and higher value uses for that land. I am very optimistic and enthusiastic about expansion in the wind energy space – as I understand it New Bedford is full. There is an opportunity for spillover. We had the nation’s first offshore wind farm and shame on us if we don’t become a center of excellence and a center of that industry as it moves forward. I’d like to see those kinds of businesses continue to grow and expand on the waterfront parcels from the the Rivers Avenue onramp north.
UpriseRI: Sea 3 is a relatively new LPG business in the Port planning a big expansion that is currently being heard by the Energy Facilities Siting Board (EFSB). The Attorney General, CLF and the Providence City Solicitor are advocating against the expansion or at least insisting of a full EFSB hearing. What are your thoughts on the expansion of fossil fuel industries in the Port?
Smiley: I have confidence in the process and I am also not opposed to the continued necessity of some fossil fuel use as renewables grow in our energy sector. It wasn’t too long ago that I was working in state government and we had a gas outage in Newport because of supply disruptions and perhaps pipeline malfunction. And there’s a whole, investigation still going on.
UpriseRI: I read the report. There were at least three factors involved with that.
Smiley: And Newport’s at the end of the line. Part of the solution for those families on [Aquidneck Island], until they either convert to heat pumps or make some of the other conversions is – in the near term – fossil fuels. So the Sea 3 expansion is going through the process. I trust that process. I’m not a party to that process, but I don’t object to their continued storage at the port.
UpriseRI: This is uncomfortable, but three of the people are working to make Sea 3 happen in the Port held a $1000 a plate fundraiser for you two weeks ago at G Pub. Nick Hemond, who’s the lawyer for Sea 3, Peter Baptista, who’s a lobbyist for Sea 3 and Zachary Darrow, whose law firm is representing Sea 3. Does that have anything to do with your tacit support of fossil fuels in the Port?
UpriseRI: So how does it work when somebody like that gives you a lot of money? I’ve never understood this as a person. I’ve been doing this job for 10 years and I’ve never understood how somebody gives a donation to a political candidate and doesn’t expect them to then be on their side. Or do you think they gave you the money because they know you are already on their side regarding fossil fuels?
Smiley: I don’t have a role in this process. I don’t know what anyone might expect a candidate for mayor to do. I don’t sit on the EFSB. I don’t work for DEM.
UpriseRI: The city solicitor for Providence is one of the people opposing Sea 3 before the EFSB. Theoretically, I guess, a mayor could pull the City Solicitor off that.
Smiley: I don’t work for the City either.
UpriseRI: Well, no. I’m saying as the Mayor of Providence, you could. The Invenergy power plant case before the EFSB dragged out for four years. Sea 3 could go that long.
Smiley: I’ve never accepted a contribution from a donor having an expectation that I take a certain position or not. And that’s no different in this case. People support candidates who they think will be good for the job. And in those guys’ case, they think I’ll be a good mayor, I appreciate their support and I’m happy to have it. There’s not much more to it than that. There was no expectation around support of one topic or another, but rather, what leader will I be for our capital city as we face some pretty serious challenges.
UpriseRI: Back to Burrillville – When Governor Raimondo went to Chicago and got a lot of money from Invenergy, even though she later modified her stance and said she was neutral and didn’t want to influence the EFSB, in truth her administration’s Office of Energy Resources was advocating for the power plant at the EFSB every day. The administration never stopped advocating for the power plant. I think a lot of that had to do with the money she was taking from them. Maybe I’m jaded on this.
Smiley: I can’t speak to what Governor Raimondo’s motivations were, or not, years ago. But I know that I’ve never taken a contribution with an expectation that I take a specific position or not.
UpriseRI: Moving on to the pension liability issue. What is the solution? I ask this knowing that a mayor can’t solve this in four or eight years.
Smiley: The city should get out of the pension business. And what I mean by that is we should stop running our own pension. It doesn’t mean we should stop providing pensions, but there are too many small pensions around. All of us pay for our own financial advisor, our own lawyer, our own bankers. We all get substantially similar advice. I don’t think we get bad advice. We’re just all getting the same advice. So we should be working with the state on a negotiated package to move ourselves into the state system where there’s a bigger pool and much more stability. We have the opportunity to spread the risk around. One of the other challenges that came to light, in the midst of the mayor’s proposal for pension obligation bonds that I didn’t fully appreciate until I got into the weeds on this, is that the Providence pension is so poorly funded that we have to keep a disproportionate share of it in cash or cash equivalents because we make payments every month out to retirees.
You can’t have that money invested long-term when you’ve got cashflow needs. The city makes its pension payments at the end of the pension year, but we’re making payments out every month. The city keeps a ton of its money in cash to make those payments. We don’t earn a return on any of that. If we were in a bigger pool, we could start earning a higher return because of the stability in the broader resources. What I would like to see us do is negotiate with the state to get into the state fund, to negotiate for the opportunity to buy in slowly over time. Treasurer Magaziner changed a law where municipalities can go into MERS [Municipal Employees’ Retirement System] anytime they want, but you’d have to come in at a certain funded ratio, which we don’t have the cash to do right now.
So that will be the negotiation. And honestly, we should do it in concert with the other distressed local pension funds so that it’s not just a Providence solution. I’ve seen enough times at the State House that anything that looks like a Providence bailout usually doesn’t garner the support necessary to pass, but this isn’t just a Providence problem. Our problem is the biggest dollar figure because we’re the biggest community, but there are several others – Warwick, Cranston, Coventry, West Warwick. Treasurer Seth Magaziner said that he thought that the local distressed pension funds were the state’s biggest financial risk. This is in fact a state risk. So let’s work together on a state solution.
UpriseRI: If Treasurer Magaziner becomes Governor that would make your negotiations easier.
Smiley: Yeah. I’ll remind him of that quote.
UpriseRI: One of the things that Mayor Elorza tried to do about the pension was privatize the water. Is that a possibility again, or are we beyond that? Is that a political possibility?
Smiley: That proposal has come out twice. Both times it was not rolled out well and it’s clear that the residents of Providence have no interest in privatizing their water system. I understand that and therefore will not try to go down that route again. I do think that the taxpayers of Providence continue to get the short end of the stick when it comes to how Providence Water operates in that we’re regulated by the PUC [Public Utilities Commission]. It’s a quirk of history, how this thing happened, where we our city water department serves 60% of the customers in the state. The problem is that our wholesale customers buy at a regulated rate and then they mark it up.
There’s no appetite for privatization and I never advocated for privatization. But I do think that there is more work to be done to make sure that the taxpayers of Providence are treated fairly by the costs that they bear and have born historically in the development of Providence Water.
UpriseRI: It’s a mess, but I remember talking to a lawyer about this a few years ago during Mayor Elorza’s second privatization attempt and the lawyer said that the legislation enabling our water system is complex because the law is so old and so ill defined that nobody is really able to restructure it because they don’t know where to begin. He said that had it been less complex, it’s likely that Mayor Cianci would have privatized the water back in the eighties. So the arcane legal complexity actually helped preserve the water.
Smiley: That’s an astute observation. I think the complexity has preserved it. Providence Water has expanded over the years to take over some of these little water districts that have like three employees. They don’t have their own water. They resell, usually Providence water, but sometimes some other system’s water and there’s huge inefficiency in that system. Some great leader someday will try to rationalize the water system in Rhode Island, but my concern is Providence and I know that there’s more work to be done to make sure that financially, city taxpayers are being treated fairly in that complex setup.
UpriseRI: I’m almost done. Kennedy Plaza is an issue that hits people who are not wealthy, especially low-income people and people of color. Right now there’s a plan to break up Kennedy Plaza into at least three different bus depots. DOT [Department of Transportation] Director Peter Alviti has been pushing this. Governor Daniel McKee promised public meetings that never happened. What is the best outcome for Kennedy Plaza?
Smiley: I know Kennedy Plaza becomes shorthand for this stuff, but I hope the right question is “What’s the right outcome for transit?” It doesn’t have to be that place-based – that’s becomes shorthand for what we’re talking about. A robust public transportation system that works for riders is paramount and it’s important to all kinds of people, but particularly as you point out, low-income Rhode Islanders communities of color. RIPTA [Rhode Island Public Transportation Authority] has been slowly trying to make some route changes over time, but we still primarily have a hub and spoke system that relies on a central hub. Therefore, having a transit system that works for riders is going to require some sort of central hub. I don’t believe it has to be where Kennedy Plaza currently is, but I also don’t think that the idea of three or four transfers for a rider to get to work or to a doctor’s appointment is fair or a transit system that works.
Community engagement around this has obviously been lacking. There’s been protests, cries for meetings, and concerns from people feeling like they don’t know what’s going on. We need to do better at that. As far as I understand, there’s the contemplation of a new, different central hub which might be a good solution. I haven’t seen too many of those details. But within the current transit structure, a central hub is the only way to have a convenient system. By the way, I also think RIPTA needs to keep working on a more distributed system because I have a good friend who worked at Thundermist Health Center in Woonsocket until recently and they told me that they would have clients in North Smithfield be on the bus for an hour and a half – to come to KP only to go back out to Woonsocket for what’s like 15 miles as the crow flies. It’s ridiculous and totally unfair. RIPTA needs to do better at that.
One of the things that always frustrated me working in government and just as a citizen and an activist is when you see the list of unfilled jobs in Rhode Island and the list of unemployed Rhode Islanders. If we could just connect these two groups of people. A lot of it is training, but transportation is part of that puzzle. I was in a conversation with some leaders in the manufacturers association who have been in conversations with RIPTA because we have workers for these lower skilled manufacturing jobs, but the factories aren’t in Providence any more. They’re in the suburbs. So they’ve been working with RIPTA to develop job buses to move workers from where they live to where they work, which is a win-win as far as I’m concerned. RIPTA needs to keep thinking about that.
UpriseRI: We have regular bus service to the casino.
The last thing I have here is COVID and sadly it’s still going to be an issue a year from now. How do you feel about vaccine mandates and mask mandates?
Smiley: We’re going to be dealing with COVID for a long time, regrettably. I support mandates with religious and medical exemptions, which is what everyone’s talking about, but it should be said. And Rhode Islanders are broadly supportive of them as well. I was at the Abortion Justice March this past weekend and [Paul Rianna Jr] who said he was a candidate for governor, started to ask me if I was a hypocrite for supporting a woman’s right to full reproductive care, including abortion services, but not respecting his right to not get a vaccine.
I bring this up because it does get to, philosophically, what I believe with respect to mandates – which is, if you want to live in the woods and not interact with society and choose not to take a vaccine, by all means. But when you enter a public building, when you work in a healthcare setting, if you work for a public employer that serves the public, we need to require vaccines. That’s the cost of participation in society. Vaccines work, they’re safe, they’re fully approved. It’s how we end this whole thing.
So I support the continued expansion of these mandates. If I were mayor, I would mandate city employees. I know that it needs to be negotiated with a couple of the unions, but I would negotiate with them. Looking forward a couple of years, most doctors seem to think that this is going to become one of these “manageable diseases” that we deal with like the flu or what have you, so we’re going to be talking about the equivalent of a flu shot every year or a COVID shot every year. It’s not something that we’re going to stop talking about. We’ve got to wrap our heads around it.
UpriseRI: If I have to wear pants, people should wear masks. There’s a minimum price you pay for walking around in the world. It used to be pants, now its masks and pants.
Smiley: You want to be one of these separatists in the woods, in a cult, great. Just don’t leave the commune.
UpriseRI: My last question is easy. What should I have asked that I didn’t? What should be on my radar?
Smiley: Different shades of the term progressive get thrown around now and it means different things to different people. But you’ve got three left candidates running for mayor, different shades and stripes. I don’t know how different our policies will be. In addition to being the leader of the capital city and providing moral leadership on certain issues, there’s this whole other part of the job of mayor, which is running the city – a couple thousand employees, a half billion dollar budget, some challenging union relationships and tough negotiations that have to occur. When I vote for someone for the legislature or Congress, I’m looking for someone who’s really gonna fight for my values and who really shares my values.
But for mayor, in addition to that, I am also trying to hire someone to run a large organization. What I hope is part of the conversation in the year and a half to come is, “How are we going to properly manage and run the city better and who has the right experience to do that?” That’s why I’m excited to do this job. I want to actually run a better city. And after being the city’s first chief operating officer, chief of staff for the governor, and then the state director of administration, I feel like I have solid public sector operations management experience that will serve me well as mayor. I’m trying to make that case to voters. I want voters to know that and I hope it’s part of the conversation in the year to come. Not just what do we believe, but how are we going to do it?
UpriseRI: If I were ever run for office it would be the legislative, not the executive branch because I wouldn’t want to do the administrative part. I’d rather be out there on all the issues, not on the day to day fundamentals and administration, which are really difficult.
Smiley: Clearly you and I just have different ideas of fun.
UpriseRI: Right? This has been fantastic. I really appreciate your time.
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