Mayor Mr. Nice Guy
I first met Providence, Rhode Island mayor Jorge Elorza in 2017, two years into his first term as mayor of that state’s capital. A former law professor whose Guatemalan parents immigrated to the U.S. before he was born, Elorza aspired to end to the corruption that had long plagued Providence politics, tackle the city’s underfunded pension crisis, and reform its inefficient city government. He’s made huge progress on two out of three—the pension crisis remains an unsolved problem, though not because Elorza hasn’t tried—and last November he was reelected with about 64 percent of the vote. Elorza had another reason to celebrate in 2018, as he and his fiancée, Stephanie Gonzalez, welcomed a baby boy, Omar Ernesto Elorza Gonzalez.
Intense and cerebral, Elorza, who is term-limited and can’t run again, thinks and speaks with the disciplined logic of the law professor he once was—but he’s clearly passionate about his second term agenda: to solidify the capital’s financial standing and improve its infrastructure and public education while working to build a “kinder, more compassionate city.”
What does becoming a kind city mean? Elorza points to the “massive void” he says Americans suffer from even as we possess more material goods than our ancestors ever imagined. “We’re not dying from without,” he says. “We’re dying from within.” But can a mayor really make a city kinder? Elorza is determined to try.
Congratulations! Since the last time we spoke, you’ve gotten reelected and become a dad.
Yeah. I’m a dad now—the baby is in the building [Providence City Hall]. And it is nice to have the election behind us. You know, you work so hard for four years and elections are all about the silly stuff.
You have this big vision for development in the city, and we have more stuff going on than we have in a generation. We have a 20-year plan that we’re kicking off to rediscover a river that cuts through the city. So you have some really big accomplishments. And during the campaign, the issue that keeps coming up is…speed cameras. Or parking meters—another candidate wanted to remove them all. It’s just sort of a nuisance. I’m so glad it’s over. And, you know, we won pretty comfortably.
There’s an interesting tension that many mayors have between articulating and executing on that big vision and tending to potholes of one sort or another. And regular folks absolutely care about potholes.
I’ll say two things. The first thing that comes to mind is that these silly issues will continue to come up. On social media, it doesn’t matter what you do, you get hit from every angle. We live in that world, right? We’re in this bubble and we hear all of it. But we’ve done polling pretty regularly, and so we get a good sense of how people feel beyond the folks that are posting on social media.
We always brace ourselves when the results are coming back—at least, I always brace myself—but every single time that we’ve done a poll, it always surprises us how good the results are. It’s a reminder that there are a lot of angry voices that will bring up silly issues. But that’s not what most people care about. Most people really have in mind the direction the city is going in and are you doing a good job?
What’s the second thing?
The second thing is, I see the little things as part of the big things. On the one hand, it’s hard to inspire people that you can do the big things if you can’t do the little things. Right?
But the way I think about potholes, it’s about my job as a manager, and I embrace that role. I love the managing part. I see it as a transition from the old way of doing things and the old politics to the new way of doing things and the future of the city. And the way that, not just Providence but frankly every large city in the country was run before was more of the personal, the machine-stop politics.
The Tammany Hall model of patronage?
Yeah. But now we’re CEOs in charge of billion dollar budgets every single year. And we have to manage appropriately. We have our structures. We have our programs. We have to deliver for our constituents as efficiently as possible.
I know that one of your priorities for your first term was to make city government function better and more efficiently.
Over the past five years, we have completely changed the culture of how city hall is run. We have directors. They know what I expect of them. They then inspire their employees. And as a result, our capacity to do things is two, three-fold what it was in the past. And it does tie into the big things. We have a greater capacity to fill potholes, but we also have greater capacity to deliver on infrastructure projects.
I recently spoke with San Antonio mayor Ron Nirenberg about his experience with social media, and he said something very similar. I asked him what were the lessons of his first term, and he said one of them was to not worry about the negative voices quite so much. They were always going to be there, and sometimes you can’t do anything about it.
It’s a loud bunch, but it’s also a small bunch. And their views don’t necessarily reflect those of the entire community.
On a large scale, there is something fundamentally fair about politics and the electoral system that we have. On the whole, if you do a good job, you’ll get reelected. If you do a poor job, you’ll get replaced. And so my advice to any new mayor would be, “You’re going to get criticized for whatever you do. So in a counter-intuitive way, that’s somewhat liberating. So you can shut out all the noise and just do what you think is right. And if after four years, if you’ve done what you think is right and delivered effectively on it, you’re going to rewarded by the constituents.”
In your inaugural address, you talked about making Providence what you called the City of Kindness. Can you tell me what that actually means?
So I’m in my fifth year [as mayor] right now, and every time that I take a moment to reflect on what this job entails, I always adopt a more expansive view of the world. As mayor, I talk about infrastructure, budgets, education—all the stuff that mayors talk about. But I don’t want it to be limited just to that. We’re not taking full advantage of this platform if we limit our thinking and priorities to just that.
And there’s something that really has troubled me for a while. I’ve been wrestling with the fact that, at the same time that standards of living have risen so much, there’s also this massive void inside of us. Every single one of us has more stuff, more things than any of our ancestors could have dreamed of having. And at the same time, loneliness, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, suicide—they’re all on the rise. More people died of suicide last year than died of violent crime, war, and terrorism combined.
And if you throw in opioid use, that number skyrockets.
We think we’re dying from without, but the truth is we’re dying from within. There’s some void there, and all of us are looking for meaning and purpose in our lives. One sure way to bring that meaning and purpose is to make people feel as though they’re connected to something greater than themselves. And so the “kindness initiative” speaks to that. It’s one piece of bringing meaning and purpose and a connection to something greater than yourself to the city.
And how do you accomplish that?
This is the vision, and I want them all my directors to think along these terms: If you’re in the parks department, sure, let’s invest in our parks because they help bring people together. But maybe as we’re investing in the parks, maybe we should invest a little bit less in infrastructure and a little bit more in programming to bring people together. When we do long-term planning, infrastructure work—infrastructure work is about the bricks and the mortar and the walls and the roofs. Great infrastructure brings people together.
So if we design great streets, then parents are more likely to let their kids outside to play with the other kids, knowing that our well designed streets are going to reduce speeds. If you have new parents and they’re afraid to come out or are just walking down the street is inconvenient, they’re not likely to meet up with each other. But if we have great sidewalks, there’s a curb cut on every corner, there’s slower speeds from cars, then people are much more likely to come out and be part of their community.
Which is something of a redefinition of infrastructure, right? We think of infrastructure as a basically a way for people to get from Point A to Point B. This is infrastructure as community-building.
That’s exactly the point. And that’s what I mean about taking full advantage of this platform and adopting an expansive view about what this job is about. So I’m a CEO. I’m a social worker. I’m a policymaker. I’m all of that. But at the heart of it, my job as mayor, the job as mayor, is to bring people together.
Since your inauguration, how have you been able to translate this broad vision into specific results?
My role within the organization is to provide vision for all of my directors to then operationalize. So I have ideas. So, for example, we have a really robust youth jobs program but as we think about how we implement this program, maybe we should spend a little less or offer a bit fewer internships but invest a little bit more in making sure that every intern is paired with a mentor. So that every intern finishes their summer with a reference for the future. Creating connections among people.
So that’s one way to operationalize it.
What if we swapped the word “kindness” for the word “friendliness”? I travel to a lot of different cities, and I have to say that, typically, in the South people are friendlier than people here or in Boston or New York. How do you effect that kind of cultural change?
That is a big cultural change and I think a lot about Southern hospitality. Who knows? Maybe one day we’ll be talking about Providence hospitality, Northeastern hospitality.
So how would you make it happen?
Like with any big problem, you break down into bite-size chunks and you address them. For example, the people who have been leading the “kindness initiative” have been our faith community and our students. We have a “kindness crew” at one of our high schools. We want to expand that to all 11 of our high schools.
If you can make high schools kinder places, then you’ve really accomplished something.
When I was in high school, being mean was, like, par for the course. This is social infrastructure that’s being built to call people out when they transgress—to call people out when they’re being unkind to somebody else
So that’s what the kindness crews do? Point out unkindness?
That’s part of what they do. And so they create a culture of kindness. They’ve repainted the [school] bathrooms, which are just beautiful now—there’s messages of kindness, of inspiration, of hope, of a “we got your back” kind of thing. We have a kindness crew at one school. We want to spread it to every school.
You mentioned the faith community. What’s its role?
They already do a lot of this work in terms of filling that spiritual void that exists in people. Yesterday, we had about 30 pastors in here talking about that challenge, and I want them to convert that into a secular message of living by the Golden Rule. Let’s treat each other as we would want to be treated. They preach this from pulpit every weekend. I want to provide them a platform so they do it in a secular way out in the community.
How do you manifest this philosophy personally? Because if you’re saying, basically, “I want to live in a city of kindness,” then you have to manifest that kindness too.
No one’s perfect, much less me, but when I’m out there talking about kindness, it’s an additional check on me to make sure that I’m being courteous and compassionate to folks around me. Because it is very easy to get frustrated and lose your cool. So I’m reminded that I have to lead by example for my team and for the city.
Does this City of Kindness vision have any connection to the national conversation and, frankly, President Trump? There’s certainly a tone set from the White House now that is…well, you wouldn’t call it kindness. And from Congress and elsewhere in DC, to be fair. Was that part of your consciousness?
I think so. But we’re not the first city to do this. A good friend of mine, Mayor Tom Tait of Anaheim, he’s the first one that I heard it from and he’s the one who first put the idea in my mind. The more the idea settled in my mind, the more I got to thinking that this is exactly what we need in this moment.
Mayors throughout the country, they’re stepping up right now and filling the void. Whereas, perhaps, in the early years of my first term, I wouldn’t have thought that it’s your role as mayor to help fill that void. Perhaps it’s the national leaders that really guide the moral conscious, but in the absence of it at the national level, sure—we’re more than willing to fill that leadership void.