A Hummel Report Investigation
This week Providence Mayor Angel Taveras looks back on his first year in office: the challenges and surprises, the successes and setbacks, as he answers the critics who thought he might not be tough enough to get it all done. And he tells Jim Hummel why he hasn't criticized his predecessor David Cicilline - when many others have.
The pace is relentless and the days often run one right into the next. Everybody, it seems, wants a piece of Providence Mayor Angel Taveras.
Taveras: ``There have been days where I can't remember what day it is and I have to look at my iPhone to determine what day it is because the days are long, every day is a work day for me, so there are really no weekend in that sense. And it's been a challenging year, but also I think it's been a good year in many ways.
Let's be clear, Taveras isn't complaining - after all this is what he signed up for when he won a landslide election in 2010. But he's coming to realize the job is a marathon and not a sprint - even though he often refers to The Urgency of Now, a phrase used by Martin Luther King Jr.
Taveras: ``It is difficult to give up control of so many different aspects of your life. And I can tell you the most important person in this office is not the chief of staff, it's my scheduler. And so I'm very, very nice to her, as she really determines where I'm going and when I'm going.''
In a wide-ranging interview on the eve of his first anniversary as the city's 37th mayor, Taveras talked with us about the challenges and surprises that confronted him constantly - including the now infamous reference to a Category 5 financial hurricane hitting the city last year.
Hummel: ``At one point did you know it was a Category 5 hurricane? Was it a compilation of events or at some point were you in a meeting where you realized: This is bigger than I expected?''.
Taveras: ``It happened at the end of February in this office with Michael D'Amico, my Director of Administration, sitting on that couch over there, pale, very pale and letting me know there it was over $100 million. and I said: ``What?'' And he said it's over $100 million. He was just 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.'"
Hummel: ``Did that give you pause at that point?''
Taveraas: ``It was a surprise, and I expected a deficit, I just didn't expect one of that magnitude. And when you hear that on a budget of $635 million - that's a lot of money.''
There are many who thought Taveras would not have the backbone to deal with the city's monumental problems. Or to negotiate concessions from the city's thee unions, as he eventually did, to close the budget gap.
We showed Taveras a clip from last year's Lively Experiment.
Hagan: ``Predictions for 2011 for the best and the brightest. Jim why don't we begin again with you.''
Hummel: ``It's not groundbreaking but I really think Angel Taveras is going to have a very rough go in Providence. I wish him luck, I think he's a talented guy - but again I think when the rubber hits the road with the unions, and there's only so much you can give, and the nice guy routine. He's tough underneath and we all know him , but I have concerns about Providence.''
Hummel: `` There were a lot of people, and I include myself in this, who thought you were going to get steamrolled. Had you heard that, did you get an inkling? Hey this guys' nice on the campaign trail, but he just doesn't have what it takes at the negotiating table.''
Taveras: ``I've heard that many many times. Or I used to ''
Hummel: ``You proved them wrong.''
Taveras: ``Well you know, Jim, I said before I don't think people don't realize what you have to do to grow up where I grew up and go on to Harvard, and get a law degree from Georgetown and become a lawyer and become a housing court judge, start your own law practice and be a litigator and do what I've been able to do at this point in my life. And the toughness comes from my mom and from my dad. My dad left his country in the 1960s looking for a better life, coming to America where he knew no one. So it's just - that toughness, I may just show it differently than other people but I got a big chuckle of that during the campaign because that was a big question, was I tough enough? And I wasn't sure what that meant, but I'm glad that no one's asking that question anymore and that we can talk about it and almost laugh about it now.''
Many have sharply criticized Taveras's predecessor, David Cicilline, for leaving the city in financial shambles, Cicilline's assurances during his campaign for Congress notwithstanding. But Taveras has taken the high road, not criticizing Cicilline in public, when it would have been very easy to do so.
Hummel: ``I'm curious as to whether that has been deliberate on your part because a lot of people have said - you've had to clean up a pretty big mess, but you have never once - I have never once heard you - really speak ill of your predecessor. Why is that?
Taveras: `` Well because I want to be different. And 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 bill. And for me, my focus has always been what can we do to fix the problem and looking 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. And so I focus on solving it because ultimately what people are going to judge me on is what I do.
While Taveras has distinguished himself from Cicilline in many ways, he has continued one Cicilline's traditions: meeting one-on-one with constituents in their neighborhoods. It's called My Time with the Mayor and on this night at the Mount Hope Learning Center, the place was packed when Taveras arrived just after 6 p.m. He immediately headed into the kitchen and began listening, pen and legal pad in hand at the kitchen table.
Hummel: ``What about the commitment to do that, and more importantly, what do you hear from people when you're talking to them?''
Taveras: ``I've been doing it every month since January and it's amazing the number of people who come out. People are struggling. People need help and it's a big challenge right now for people. So I hear a lot about the economic struggles. 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. You know, what I like about it is that it kind of reminds me of the greatness of America. You can kind of go and sit right there with your leader and talk to them and tell them...and I've had some issues that have come up as well, people might not agree with something I'm doing, and I like the fact you can do that. 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 generations who is a product of the Providence school system, and a couple of nights later we found him hosting a forum at the middle school he attended, Nathanael Greene on Chalkstone Avenue. Like many schools, it's clearly showing its age, and the mayor knows Providence has a lot of work to do, to improve the school system.
Taveras: ``I know how important is - it's the difference between success and failure for so many people. 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, I talk with them and I can tell them I sat in that seat, I went to this school; I did this, I did that. If 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.''
One thing Taveras makes clear - despite the trappings of being mayor, he is only a custodian of the office.
Hummel: ``Are you still getting used to being called mayor?''
Taveras: ``I am, to some degree, I am still getting used to that. And I also always try to remember that everything around me is really the `mayor's - not Angel Taveras's. It's the mayor's. So, right now we're filing in the mayor's office, not my office.;;
Hummel: ``When I sit here to do this interview a year from now, what would you like to be able to look back and say: `This is something I talked with you about a year ago, Jim. It was my priority and we've gotten it done.'?
Taveras: ``I'd like to be able to say to you our unemployment rate is down. And that we're heading in the right direction. As long as anyone is unemployed we have work to do, so there will always be work to do to make sure to get everyone an opportunity. I'd like to make sure to be able to say to you, `Jim, our schools we've got a permanent superintendent, we're definitely on the right track, we're improving them, the kids are doing better, there's a way to go, but we're improving them overall. And I also would like to make sure to be able to say to you, financially the city is on much firmer ground, that we were able to get contributions from our tax-exempt institutions, that the budget is balanced going forward and our pensions are a lot more sustainable and on firmer ground.''
In Providence, Jim Hummel, for The Hummel Report.