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The man taking on former mayor and twice-convicted felon Buddy Cianci in the race for mayor of Providence is a Harvard-educated law professor who grew up poor, the son of Guatemalan immigrants.
Democrat Jorge Elorza has never run for elected office and faces Cianci, an independent and Providence political giant who first won office 40 years ago. He never lost any of his six previous mayoral races but was forced from office twice after his convictions, one of which resulted in four years in prison.
Elorza, 37, has made ethics a cornerstone of his candidacy, drawing a contrast between his up-from-the-bootstraps success story and Cianci's past overseeing widespread corruption in City Hall. Cianci, 73, has gone after what he says is Elorza's lack of experience.
A Brown University poll out this week shows Elorza leading Cianci by more than 10 points. Republican candidate Daniel Harrop is far behind in polls and recently donated $1,000 to Elorza's campaign, saying he might even vote for him to help keep Cianci from winning.
Elorza grew up in a tenement house in a rough neighborhood. He graduated from the city's prestigious Classical High School and finished at the top of his accounting program at the University of Rhode Island then went to work as an auditor on Wall Street. Months later, everything changed when he learned a childhood friend had been violently killed.
"At that point, I made a commitment to myself to dedicating the rest of my life to working in that community," he said.
He got into Harvard and after graduation returned to Rhode Island, working as a legal aid lawyer before becoming a professor at Roger Williams University School of Law. He also became a part-time housing court judge in Providence, where he fined banks that didn't appear for court hearings about abandoned properties.
Carl Bogus, a law professor at Roger Williams, called Elorza an introvert, policy wonk and intellectual nerd, not a politician. But he also said Elorza is extremely self-disciplined and competitive, something he's learned in their chess games together.
"He hates losing more than any other chess player I have ever played with," Bogus said. "He's a guy who wants to succeed. He's got the fire in the belly to succeed."
In debates, Elorza doesn't roll out the jokey, sometimes stinging one-liners Cianci is known for, but he faces Cianci head-on. When Cianci has claimed Elorza supports instituting a municipal income tax or said Elorza is supported by strip club owners, Elorza will challenge him, "You can't tell lies, Buddy" or, "You can't just make things up, Buddy."
At a community forum, when an audience member implied the streets were safer under Cianci's watch, Elorza bristled.
"No one is going to tell me that those were rosy days in my community," Elorza shot back.
To criticism he doesn't have experience running a city, Elorza has said his background as an accountant will help him get the city's finances into shape.
While Elorza has introduced plans to address abandoned properties and improve community involvement in schools, he has aggressively focused on Cianci's past.
He goes after Cianci for shaking down city employees for campaign contributions and for overseeing two administrations where corruption was so pervasive that several officials went to prison. He brings up Cianci's decision to approve high cost-of-living increases for the pension system, resulting in one retiree receiving a pension of nearly $200,000 per year from the financially strapped city.
Political analysts say Elorza has to give people a reason to vote for him rather than just a reason not to vote for Cianci. Cianci has had a financial advantage throughout the race, high name recognition and has been airing TV ads for weeks. Elorza isn't as well-known and only had the money to start airing TV ads this week.
"I don't know that Elorza is inspiring people, and that charisma, that draw is usually what will get people out to the polls," said Valerie Endress, a communications professor at Rhode Island College.
Even Elorza's supporters focus on Cianci. When asked this week why she was supporting Elorza, Karen McAninch, 62, said she didn't want to return to the days of Cianci. Then she was pressed on what specifically she likes about Elorza.
"He may not have all the pizazz of Cianci. Nobody does," she replied. "He has the best interests of the community on his mind."
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