Angel Taveras had heard it all before.
Taveras is a nice guy.
A smart guy.
But he’s not tough enough.
Certainly not tough enough to deal with unions in Providence that for decades had played hardball in negotiations; particularly the firefighters, that for eight years made life miserable for Mayor Taveras’ predecessor, David Cicilline.
The word in political circles a year ago was that the 37th mayor ofProvidencewas in for a very rough ride as he stared directly into the teeth of a $100 million deficit. Good luck getting the unions to budge on any givebacks.
As for the toughness, or lack thereof?
“I’ve heard that many times — or I used to,” Taveras said, in a wide-ranging interview with The Hummel Report at City Hall several days before the anniversary of his inauguration. People forget, he said, where and how he grew up. As Taveras has often said: from Head Start to Harvard, on toGeorgetownLawSchool, then his own law practice and an appointment to be a city Housing Court Judge. Many also forget his unsuccessful congressional run in 2000 for the seat that Jim Langevin eventually won.
“And the toughness comes from my mom and from my dad,” he said, noting his father came to Rhode Island from the Dominican Republican during the 1960s, knowing no one. “I may just show it differently than other people, but I got a big chuckle about that during the campaign because that was a question. ‘Was I tough enough?’ And, I wasn’t sure what that meant, but I’m glad no one’s asking that question anymore and we can talk about it and almost laugh about it.”
Make no mistake, it has been tough going the past 12 months. The days are long and Taveras said he sometimes has to look at his IPhone to remember what day it is. He leads a dizzying pace because now everybody wants a piece of him. There are no weekends, as most of us know them. He jokes that the most important person in his office is not his chief of staff or communications director, but his scheduler.
“So, I’m very, very nice to her, as she determines where I’m going and when I’m going,” the mayor said with a laugh. “It is difficult to do that, especially coming from a small law practice, where I handled so many different aspects of my life myself, to having a much bigger staff and giving up control of many different aspects of your life.”
In a year where most of the state’s politicians have had exceptionally low approval ratings — particularly David Cicilline and Gov Lincoln Chafee — Taveras is one of the most popular politicians along with RI Treasurer Gina Raimondo, despite the difficult decisions he’s had to make.
Or perhaps it’s because of those decisions.
In his inaugural speech last February, Taveras alluded to the bad financial shape the city was in. He was stunned during a meeting with his Director of Administration, Michael D’Amico, by the specific figures.
“(D’Amico) was sitting on that couch over there, pale, very pale and letting me know (the deficit) was over $100 million,” Taveras said. “And I asked him: ‘What?’ And he said it’s over $100 million. He just was pale and blank. And I said, ‘Well, this is going to be the challenge of our lifetime. And we’ll get though it. We have to get through it.’”
That’s when the new mayor’s toughness began to show.
He had a good relationship with both the police and fire unions, but quickly made it clear to the leadership: He needed concessions because there was simply no money. When the police initially balked, he said OK, if that’s your stance, we’ll have to make deep layoffs to bridge the financial gap. That caught their attention — eventually leading to an agreement that relied heavily on early retirements, but preserved jobs.
He followed suit with the Fire Department and teachers union — initially firing all of the teachers. It’s something he says in retrospect he could have handled differently. But nobody questioned the 40-year-old’s resolve after those decisions.
Throughout his first year, it became increasingly clear the depth of the mess former Mayor Cicilline had left the Taveras administration. Every week, it seemed, came new revelations about mismanagement pointing squarely at the now-congressman. And many expected Taveras to follow the age-old political tradition of blaming his predecessor. But he has steadfastly refused to do it and wouldn’t take the bait in our interview.
“Because I want to be different,” he said. “What I mean by that is, you’re right, it’s a very political thing to pass blame and do those types of things. That doesn’t solve your problems. Blame doesn’t balance the checkbook. It doesn’t pay the bills. And for me, my focus has always been: what can we do to fix the problem and look forward?
“And truth be told, there are a lot of reasons why we’re in the situation we’re in. There’s not one, there are a lot of reasons. I focus on solving it because ultimately – what people are going to judge me on is what I do.”
And while Taveras runs into Cicilline at many events — after all this isRhode Island— and has spoken with him about national issues relating toProvidence, he said he has had very little conversation with Cicilline aboutProvidenceduring the 36th mayor’s eight-year tenure.
Taveras has also distinguished himself from previous mayors in other, more subtle ways.
While he’s had to get used to the typical trappings of being mayor — the title, the car and police driver and simply being called ‘mayor’ by everyone — he makes it clear he is a custodian, and not an owner, of the second-floor corner office at City Hall.
“I always try to remember that everything around me is really the ‘mayor’s,’ not Angel Taveras’, he told us.
“It’s the mayor’s. So, right now, we are in the mayor’s office, not my office. I happen to be mayor right now, but this is the mayor’s office and I try to make sure I never refer to it as my office.”
Taveras has continued one tradition Cicilline began early in his first term: My Time With The Mayor.
It’s a monthly meeting, in neighborhoods all across the city, that gives residents/constituents a chance to meet privately, one-on-one with Taveras. The only other person in the room is an aide, taking notes, along with the mayor, who comes on this night armed with pen and legal pad, giving it the feel of Taveras the lawyer meeting with a client, his full attention focused on the issue.
On a weeknight last month the Mt. HopeLearningCenteronCypress Streetwas already packed with dozens of people when Taveras arrived just after6pm. He immediately went to the kitchen and began listening.
“It’s amazing the number of people that come out,” Taveras said. “I hear a lot about the economic struggle. People who need help with a job; people who need help with rent; people who need help with paying bills; people who are just having a very difficult challenge.
“What I like about it is that it kind of reminds me of the greatness ofAmerica. You can go and sit right there with your leader and talk to them. You can question your leaders here in this country, and you do that face-to-face. And it reminds me of how great we are as a country.”
Taveras is the first mayor in decades who went through theProvidenceschool system himself. As a result, the state of the city’s educational system is very personal with him. One night in December, he and interim superintendent Susan Lusi held a forum atNathanaelGreeneMiddle SchoolonChalkstone Avenue. It happened to be the school Taveras attended when he was in junior high.
“I know how important education is. It’s the difference between success and failure for so many people,” he said. “So I look at the schools, I feel very personal about it because a lot of those kids, they’re me. They come from immigrant parents, over 60 percent Latino, probably first generation, and they have hopes and they have dreams.
“And what I enjoy about going into the schools is when they see me and see that I’m the mayor of the city they know that I speak Spanish, that I look like them, that I talk with them and I can tell them I sat in that seat. I went to that school. I grew up to be mayor. You can do it too, have no doubt in your mind. But that’s only going to happen if we make sure every child gets a good education.”
Taveras knows 2012 presents a new set of challenges. The current budget is still not balanced and the city’s unfunded pension liability, like many municipalities, is crushing. His first priority when the new legislative session begins this week will be to lobby for municipal pension reform, hoping lawmakers will build on the work they did on the state’s pension problems in November.
Beyond that, he has three major goals: chipping away at the high unemployment that plagues many parts of the city; finding a new superintendent and continuing to improve the school system; and making sure the city is on firmer financial ground.
Part of that will be pushing the city’s vast network of tax-exempt institutions to contribute more financially toward city services.
And if they don’t? Taveras is prepared to have legislation introduced to force them to do it. Make no mistake, the carrot often precedes the stick with Angel Taveras.
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