Politics & Elections

Interview: Gonzalo Cuervo is running for Mayor of Providence promising solutions, not talk

“Are we looking at public safety response as a whole, as opposed to this ongoing adaptation of a police model that was created in the late 1800s?” asked Providence mayoral candidate Gonzalo Cuervo. “What we’ve been doing is just tacking on technology to policing. But the underlying response continues to be the same response, despite the fact that society has evolved light years ahead during that time.”
Photo for Interview: Gonzalo Cuervo is running for Mayor of Providence promising solutions, not talk

Published on September 28, 2021
By Steve Ahlquist

Gonzalo Cuervo is a community organizer and business person with government experience, most recently in the Secretary of State’s office under Nellie Gorbea. He is running for Mayor of Providence in an election that’s over a year away. We conducted the interview by Zoom, and the conversation has been edited for clarity. The photo is from an environmental protest at the Port of Providence.

This is the first in a series of interviews with Providence Mayoral Candidates. See also:

UpriseRI: Could you start by explaining what you think are the top two or three issues facing Providence today? When you’re door knocking, what are you hearing from voters?

Gonzalo Cuervo: The top three issues I’m hearing about from from folks are housing, public safety and education. Those are the three issues. There is absolutely a housing crisis happening. And what’s happening is that the market has evolved and shifted so quickly that it’s created this boom within a boom and people are getting priced out of our city at an astounding rate. That’s a huge problem.

Another issue is public safety, and that comes in two forms. Public safety for folks who are doing okay is feeling insecure because people think they may be the victim of crime. For folks who are struggling, public safety means something different. They’re concerned about crime, but they’re also concerned about what is being done to alleviate and address the issues that lead our youth and individuals into a life of crime. They want a more global approach, more than just assuming that we can hire our way out of this problem with more police officers.

In terms of education, people are profoundly concerned that the state takeover of our schools is failing our children and what we’ve seen is just constant bickering and a blame game among everybody. The biggest challenge in education is the combination of persistent poverty and accountability. We have the conditions that lead to a system that fails our children, and then the adults in the room are all busy pointing fingers at each other. Even those who have compelling arguments are so busy pointing fingers at each other that we can’t move beyond that.

UpriseRI: Staying on education for a minute, what is your take on the state takeover?

Cuervo: I think the state takeover has, for the most part, been a failure because the it was billed as a reset. It was supposed to be a do over. And what we found is that for many reasons, we’ve kind of stuck to the status quo. That’s a lost opportunity. Now I don’t want to fall into the trap of saying it was an opportunity to go after the teachers. I think it was an opportunity for us to bring people together, to negotiate tangible solutions. In all negotiations the negotiating parties never get everything that they want. There’s always a give and take. There’s always a bit of sacrifice.

Maybe there’s a little bit of pain involved, but the idea is to have an outcome that produces the widest possible benefit. And we’ve seen this happen in similar places. If we go up the road to Lawrence, Massachusetts, they had a state takeover less than a decade ago. They had a very different, much less confrontational, much more collaborative segue into the takeover. Even though it’s a smaller city, the demographics of Lawrence are identical to those of Providence – the level of poverty, the level of English language learners – and they had good outcomes. I’m not saying it’s perfect. It wasn’t perfect. It was still painful, but they had significant outcomes in their test scores and graduation rates. And the biggest thing is that they went through this process in a fairly collaborative way.

They got buy-in from the community first. Then they got buy-in from the teacher’s union. They were able to make some changes that were challenging at times – and difficult – and there was pushback. There wasn’t always consensus, but almost a decade later, I think that the results are pretty obvious. Lawrence is not a wealthy community. Lawrence is a post-industrial city full of immigrants. It has the second highest concentration of Dominican immigrants per capita, only after New York City. And Providence is actually the third.

Rhode Island is basically kicking the can down the road. What we have to do as a city is prepare for when that moment comes, in a year or two, when we get the schools back. We have to be ready for it. We can’t wait for that moment to happen and then put together a study commission. We have to prepare, beginning now, so that we have the buy-in from the different stakeholders and we have the mindset and the ability to effect real change. Because the takeover in itself, I believe, is only going to maintain the status quo.

UpriseRI: The Lawrence thing is interesting because it’s really the only example of a “successful” state takeover of a municipal school system in the country. From the beginning the state takeover of Providence schools seemed a losing proposition to me.

Cuervo: One of the other things that worked in Lawrence was that there was a lot of buy-in from the legislature to put resources behind it. It’s not like here, where we constantly have this fight with the legislature that sees Providence as a big black hole and sees Providence’s problems as somebody else’s problems. That’s really unfortunate. It’s unfortunate because Providence is not only the economic engine of our state, it’s the heart and soul of our state. It’s where the state began. It’s where all our activity happens – all our commerce, all our meds and eds activity – everything happens here.

UpriseRI: You talked about public safety. Part of it is the easy availability of guns, which Providence can’t really do a lot about because there’s a state law that says Providence can’t pass our own gun regulations. State law predominates. So what do we do to stop the proliferation of guns, which make the crimes that are happening here so much worse?

Cuervo: I think there’s a multi-pronged approach. There are ways to dissuade the use of guns. We can lobby the State House to pass gun laws that dissuade folks – the less hardened folks – from carrying guns. Because what’s happened is that, since guns are so easy to access and we live in a country that’s obsessed with guns – it’s almost the default for a person who’s involved with certain activities to carry a gun around because it makes them feel safe or it makes them feel like they have some kind of backup. We can lobby the state and implement measures at the city level that that may not go as far as what we would like to see in terms of gun control, but we’ll make the less hardened criminals think twice about carrying guns. There is always going to be an element of people who just don’t care and want to see the world burn, but I don’t think there’s anything you can do to dissuade those types of folks.

UpriseRI: In the Summer of 2019 we had some of the largest rallies in the state’s history in response to the murder of George Floyd. We had people in the streets and there was talk about Defunding the Police, however that is supposed to be understood. Despite a lot of words being spoken and a lot of promises being made, the State and the City increased police budgets. What are your thoughts on that?

Cuervo: I think the current situation in Providence with violent incidents is a clear indicator that we’re not doing things right. But I also think “Let’s just hire more police officers” is the simplistic solution. The Providence City Council had a special meeting about a month ago. Chief Hugh Clements went and he said we need more police officers, but that hiring more police officers won’t necessarily equate to a reduction in violent crime. The 70th police academy is underway right now. That’s going to generate a batch of police officers, probably 50 or so police officers, and the council and the mayor already authorized the subsequent police academy.

So police officers are being hired as we speak. And they’re going to be hired on a rolling basis going forward for the near future. But we need to admit as a community that we’re not going to hire our way out of this problem, because what we have right now is an underlying lack of trust between all the interested parties. A lot of the community doesn’t trust the police and the police don’t trust its political leadership. The political leadership has been pointing fingers and trying not to meddle in a lot of things. We need to hit the reset button and we need to restore trust and communication between the interested parties and recognize that public safety and policing isn’t just a matter of reactively arresting people, or flooding the streets with uniformed police officers to intimidate people who do bad things.

We need to look at the underlying issues – persistent poverty and the lack of opportunity that drives folks into crime. I like to use a perfect example. When you go into a suburban community like East Greenwich or Lincoln, they usually have only a handful of cops on it at any given time, right? I think there’s two or three cops on duty and usually they’re just doing traffic duty. You wonder, “How is it possible that a community that has 30 – 40,000 people needs only a handful of police officers at any given time? The answer is very telling. The people who live in those communities are all set. Their needs are met. The last thing on their mind is going out and committing a crime, because they’re all set.

We need to look at the underlying issues. I realize that resolving those issues is a mid and long-term thing. It’s not going to solve crime tomorrow. It’s not going to solve crime in six months. But if we don’t begin now to address those underlying issues, we’re going to be in this cycle of violence and blame and violence and blame – and all it generates is loss of life.

UpriseRI: I hear from people outside the city that Providence is a dangerous, terrible place.

Cuervo: We’re not, but perception is reality in politics. Nobody wants to hear this. Whenever there’s a particularly gruesome incident or somebody loses their life in a tragic encounter, all the stats in the world don’t matter. We know for a fact that in the nineties, the murder rate in Providence was more than double what it is now. Nobody cares because the internet and social media didn’t remind people every 10 seconds of what was happening in the nineties. So we have to address this in the current context.

UpriseRI: Should PERA (Providence External Review Authority) have more teeth? Do you think that’s part of the solution? NOTE: PERA is a civilian led police review board in Providence.)

Cuervo: The question is not, “Should it have more teeth?” The question is, “Should it have any teeth?” Right now it’s missing all its teeth.I think it’s unfortunate because if we built a public safety ecosystem where we had real collaboration accountability from all parties, we wouldn’t be afraid of civilian oversight, right? When we created this body that’s supposed to provide a civilian oversight, and then robbed them of their ability to provide any actual civilian oversight, we’re encouraging the naysayers and folks who were saying, “‘You see, they don’t want to have oversight because they have something to hide.”

It’s a vicious circle that just intensifies the debate. We have to look at public safety as a whole. If we think about firefighters as first responders – most of their responsibilities during their shifts is responding to paramedic type calls. They’re responding to people that have behavioral issues. They’re responding to people that are going through emotional crises. They’re responding to people that have substance abuse problems that alter their behavior. But firefighters don’t respond with a gun and a badge. They respond with a first aid kit. They’re very successful at the job they do. They’re fantastic.

My question is why, if these are first responders, why aren’t we studying their model of response? Are we looking at public safety response as a whole, as opposed to this ongoing adaptation of a police model that was created in the late 1800s? What we’ve been doing is just tacking on technology to policing. But the underlying response continues to be the same response, despite the fact that society has evolved light years ahead during that time.

UpriseRI: I want to talk about climate change and specifically the Port of Providence, a lightening rod for climate change talk in the city. What are your thoughts on climate change and climate resiliency? What are we doing and what should we be doing?

Cuervo: Well, I know the current administration prepared a very compelling climate action plan. I think the challenge we have is turning ideas into action. That’s one thing throughout my career – as a community activist, as an administrator, as an organizer – I’ve tried to focus on. How do we solve problems by bringing people together, collaborating, and finding opportunities to move forward. Providence is in a very unique situation because we’re at sea level. There’s no margin of error. We’re not on a cliff, we’re at sea level where we’re going to drown.

I raised my kids in Washington Park, I raised my kids a mile and a half from all that fossil fuel infrastructure. That’s where the Port of Providence is continuously spewing gas and all types of fumes into the air. I lived a mile and a half away. There are people that live literally 200 feet away from that. It’s a residential neighborhood, and to me, in the year 2021, that is unacceptable. It’s an unacceptable use of prime land that is in a beautiful, privileged location. We could develop that for green infrastructure. We could develop it for public space. We could develop some of it to generate revenue and to increase the tax base, because it’s such beautiful land. Regardless of what you want to do there, there are a million more productive ways to use that land, rather than using it for garbage transfer stations and a depot for fossil fuels.

We need to get rid of that. Another thing we need to do is to look at building emissions. There’s an ordinance that’s been sitting in the city council for a while about asking property owners to do self surveys to figure out how much their buildings generate in emissions. And obviously, if you’re a real estate investor, this is one more mandate, but the reality is that buildings generate a ton of emissions. We’re not in a rural area, full of cows. Boston recently passed their ordinance and Boston is much more densely built. That’s an important step forward.

We also need to make a significant investment in expanding our tree canopy as a public health issue, not just as a aesthetic issue, but as a public health issue. There are miles and miles and miles of roads – of urban streets – that have almost no trees. Not only do trees generate oxygen, a decent tree canopy on the street can lower temperatures by more than 10 degrees, which makes people happier. And it’s also aesthetically pleasing – so I think we need to make a real investment. With recovery money we could assign several million dollars to trees. We’ve got a street like Manton Avenue that has like one tree on three miles. Let’s figure out how to plant a ton of trees on Manton avenue. Let’s figure out how to play in trees on Chalkstone Avenue. Let’s figure out how to plant trees on Cranston Street – these highly populated, densely trafficked areas that have almost no tree canopy.

UpriseRI: On to economics. We have this unfunded pension liability. Nobody knows what to do about it.

Cuervo: I think people know what to do about it. Nobody wants to address it because it’s not an attractive option. The reality is that it took us decades to get into this mess and it’s going to take us decades to get out. When you talk to a financial advisor about personal finances, they tell you you have to pay down your debt and you should pay down your biggest debt first – the ones that have the highest interest – and then move onto the next one, move on to the next. There’s never a silver bullet. There isn’t a silver bullet for the pension issue either. We need to grow the economy so we can grow the tax base – and find additional revenue sources that we can apply to this debt and pay this debt down.

As was established years ago, pay it down on a schedule and, whenever possible, refinance the debt. At the end of the day pensions are a promise that was made to working folks. And this concept of, “We can just declare bankruptcy and tear everything up” has been proven, time and time again, to not work. Because not only are you defaulting on a promise that you’ve made to people who have planned their lives around it, it’s been demonstrated everywhere – from Detroit to Central Falls – that at the end of the day, the only people who are winning from bankruptcy are the lawyers. Central Falls had a $17 million budget and ended up with a $6 million legal bill. Half of their entire annual budget they owed to attorneys. The attorneys are happy because they’re going to get paid no matter what. At the end of the day, if you look at what really happened in Central Falls, they ended up getting bailed out by the state.

There are no easy solutions to the pension. If we diversify our economic development to take advantage of the unbelievable human talent that we have in our minority/majority city – where 45% of our community is Latino, where two thirds of our community are people of color – if we focus on developing that talent and building an economy based around that human talent and the human resources that we have, I’m convinced that we can grow our tax base at a healthy rate to address the pension issue over time.

When we talk about unfunded liability and we throw around this huge number, that number is stretched out over decades – over lifetimes – because here’s the thing – there are pensioners that are collecting their pension today and there are 25 year old kids mowing the lawn in the parks department. The money that 25 year old kid is going to start collecting 40 years from now is factored into the calculus when they come up with that figure. We want to throw these huge numbers around to terrify people.

We need to get to a place where it’s not a burden on the city. And currently it’s a burden on the city. I don’t want to minimize that. What ends up happening is our annual contribution to the pension fund grows at a significantly higher rate than inflation and it crowds out our ability to spend resources on things that are important – that people expect from the city. We don’t want that either. We also have to get away from this doom and gloom scenario where, “Oh my God, if we don’t get to 100% funded, we’re in trouble.” That’s not entirely true.

UpriseRI: You spoke about building wealth, and I wasn’t going to talk about this, but there’s this interesting program out of Cleveland. What they’re doing is developing co-ops that are owned by people within Cleveland to take on city, hospital and university services – anchor and legacy institutions. The city helps to establish co-ops, co-owned by people within the city to provide these key services. instead of contracting with out-of-state or out-of-city vendors, the city, and the anchor institutions, contract with resident owned co-ops within the city. This keeps money circulating locally. It builds the tax base. it allows home ownership, better educational opportunities for youth. Good union co-op jobs with fair pay.

Cuervo: That’s a fascinating concept. There are a lot of services that are provided by city employees, union employees. And obviously, the city government has already privatized a lot of services that go to vendors and we can look at those services. And one of the ways that we’re going to grow our economy and raise our folks into the middle-class is by supporting the development of innovative small businesses. And I’ll tell you this – When I was at the Secretary of State’s office, I worked closely with Fuerza Laboral to pass legislation to expand the definition of co-ops because they wanted to establish a cleaning co-op, which they did. It was the first co-op that wasn’t an apartment complex in the state of Rhode Island. So I’m very familiar with co-ops.

The city spends more than a hundred million dollars a year purchasing goods and services, and we have no strategic approach to that other than to go to the “lowest bidder.” And even that process is sometimes questionable. Other cities have had unbelievable success in aksing, “How do we leverage our purchasing power?” We don’t have to spend one additional dollar to create economic opportunity in our cities. We pay vendors from Massachusetts and Connecticut and New York for what a small business or a co-op would provide here. It creates taxes here. And, and the money stays here.

UpriseRI: Because the ownership is here, right? Working people will be owners of the co-ops.

Cuervo: That’s how you build wealth in a community.

UpriseRI: They can buy a house. They’re paying more taxes. Then other businesses will come just to take care of our new rising co-op middle class.

Cuervo: Think about this. The City of Providence spends more than a hundred million dollars. And then you look at an organization like Brown University, which probably spends $40 or $50 million a year providing goods and services. And it’s like, “Why don’t you invest some of the money that you’re already spending in the local economy? It won’t cost you one additional penny, right?” It can help build our local economy in a way that’s sustainable and in a way that elevates more of our people into the middle-class. There’s too much of a wage and opportunity gap in our city and it only continues to grow. Outsiders fall in love with Providence and they move here and they squeeze out folks that don’t have economic mobility. Well, we want to give those folks economic mobility. We want to give them the ability to build wealth and by wealth, I mean home ownership wealth. I mean savings. We’re not talking about massive wealth. We’re talking about people earning living wages or running their own business and living with dignity with a good quality of life.

UpriseRI: Right. Not just the city, but all the legacy institutions in the city – the hospitals, the universities, certain corporations – all of them start pooling their money into local goods and services.

Cuervo: We can do that while recognizing that this doesn’t mean that we have to privatize more city services.

UpriseRI: You’ll never hear me talk about privatization. I was against selling or leasing the water for instance. What I’m thinking is that if we’re paying a private company, that private company should be located or Providence, and it should be owned by Providence residents as a unionized co-op. And Providence should be investing in the development and support of these co-ops.

Cuervo: Exactly. I’m running for mayor. I have a community based coalition of supporters. Most of my contributions come from small donors, small business people – neighborhood, business people. There are people who are running for mayor who have the donor class, which is comprised primarily of those folks that have benefited from the city’s purchasing power for decades and decades and decades. They are lining up behind the other candidates because they want to keep the gravy train coming. If we don’t empower our working class folks, if we don’t empower our youth to take advantage of all the opportunities that this city has to offer so that they can grow professionally and personally, and can rise into the middle-class, then what we’re doing is just perpetuating the status quo. What we’re doing is keeping that donor class happy. And that’s unacceptable to me.

UpriseRI: I want to ask about Kennedy Plaza, which I think is under threat from the so-called donor class right now. What do we do to change the mind of the people who just want to estroy it? They just want poor people out of downtown, right? This is a coup by the landlord class downtown. What do we do?

Cuervo: A lot of times, people create a crisis where a crisis does not exist. Kennedy Plaza has always been a quirky place and it’s always been populated with folks with varying degrees of unique personality issues. Ever since I was a kid, when my mom, who never had a car, would take me downtown, she’d bring me into Kennedy Plaza and it’s a fascinating place to a young child because it was a quirky place. It’s always been that way.

We are terrible at providing alternative options for folks that have nothing to do but hang around there and maybe panhandle or consume drugs, but the reality is it’s a public space and it’s a public space that was designed to be enjoyed by folks from all walks of life. When we go to other cities, we see very similar dynamics. I think instead of focusing on eradicating “undesirable people” from Kennedy Plaza we need to diversify the menu of attractions downtown. If we diversify the economic development downtown, the argument over Kennedy Plaza becomes kind of obsolete and irrelevant.

UpriseRI: I hope that’s true. I see the Plaza and public transportation as being under threat.

Cuervo: That’s a totally different point. The plan to breakup Kennedy Plaza and create some kind of mini hubs all over the city is a disastrous plan. I have been outspoken against that. I’ve been to two rallies. I think it’s a terrible idea. If anything, I think we need to figure out how to improve public transportation options. I think RIPTA [Rhode Island Public Transit Authority] could improve public safety options in the city. The city could look at doing what other cities have done to innovate in that space to create more options for public transportation, so that we become less reliant on individual vehicles. Wehave to stop looking at bus service as something that’s only for poor or disadvantaged people. We need to break that stereotype. A lot of folks, particularly folks that are in decision-making positions, probably haven’t taken the bus since they were teenagers. They just assume that if you’re on the bus, you must be broke. It’s really kind of a corrosive attitude to have.

UpriseRI: As far as I know, right now, there’s no one on the RIPTA board who takes the bus, which is remarkably thick headed on the part of the ruling class in Rhode Island.

Cuervo: The buses are an unbelievable asset. I live on Mount Pleasant Avenue and there is literally a bus stop right outside my front door. And if I walk a block to Chalkstone Avenue, there’s another bus stop. The bus service is a remarkable asset and we have to stop looking at it as a liability.

UpriseRI: Is there anything I should have asked you that I didn’t?

Cuervo: My pitch is that Providence is this fantastic city that has so much creative energy and has so many unbelievable resources – and yet a majority of our people don’t have access to any of that. They might as well be light years away. This mayoral election is a choice. It’s a referendum. We have the opportunity to elect a person who has spent their lifetime bringing people together to actually solve problems and to advance progressive values. I have a track record of that. I did it as a community organizer on the south side. I did it when I was a small business person on broad street. I did it working in city hall for more than a decade. And I did it with the secretary of state at the State House. I’m not new to our reality. I believe that that bringing those life experiences and those professional experiences can bring people together to find real solutions, as opposed to just talking about it, because we’ve been doing a lot of talking – and sometimes it’s beautiful talk and other times it’s technical talk – but ultimately it’s just talk.

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