Voters in Providence’s 3rd ward here on the East Side have the chance to make history on Tuesday, by writing in Marcus Mitchell for City Council in his race against Kevin Jackson. I believe we should take it. In conjunction with the election of Jorge Elorza as mayor, it's a vital step toward making our city government more responsive, honest, open, and representative of our increasingly diverse, young and creative population.
I have lived here for a decade. My wife and I are raising our children here, and we long ago fell in love with the youthful, creative, and quirky exuberance of Providence. We’ve made our home here. We want our kids to see its politics and government as something that is noble and important, worthy of their time, consideration and respect. I am an American History professor, and I write and teach about cities, politics, and social movements. One of the things I’ve learned over the years, and that I constantly try to impress upon my students, is that history teaches us how truly ephemeral – and recent – societies governed by democratic institutions and the rule of law truly are. This country has really only been a functioning democracy for just over 3 decades, and that accomplishment is under constant threat even now. Most people throughout human history have lived in societies where the power to make the rules – the laws -- was determined by birth, by wealth, by ‘connections,’ and by violence. Most people today still do. It is often said that we get the government we deserve. Providence – and my children – deserve a municipal government filled with citizens who understand that the power we give them is a sacred trust, which they exercise with us, not over us, or for their own direct benefit.
We have some important choices to make in Providence this year, I’ve recently realized. It wasn’t just Buddy Cianci’s campaign for mayor, and his long (and ongoing) proclivity for treating democratic laws and processes with disrespect, that woke me up to this. It was Kevin Jackson’s participation in his campaign that got me. I honor and appreciate Jackson’s service to the neighborhood. I agree with him on many policy issues. And like Tom Waits, I like my town with a "little drop of poison." But this is too much. His behavior tells me that he's become a bit too comfortable in his seat. As historian Robert Caro once said of NYC highway maven Robert Moses, he originally sought power because of the things it would enable him to do; later, he did things because of the power it would bring him.
Surely the people of Summit/Mt. Hope don’t need to settle for this. We can’t. We will be failing our children if we do. Even if we think that Jackson is often ‘right’ on policy issues, or that Cianci is ‘effective,’ the cost is simply too high. Mussolini, they say, used to make the trains run on time. There are lots of people right in our own neighborhood who could serve on the City Council and make those trains run on time -- but who could also do good while doing well. We don’t have to settle for a mess of pottage, when something more nourishing is within our grasp.
We need to elect someone who fights the good fight while using power in a responsible way. We're about to send Aaron Regunberg to the State House, for example. I believe Marcus Mitchell is also one of these people.
While I can't claim to 'know' Marcus, I have talked with him quite a bit over the past few weeks. We share some personal experiences, having to do with family and health, and I know he has answered the call to run at considerable personal sacrifice.
I have found Marcus to be a decent, thoughtful person, a good listener, with an empathetic sensibility that aims toward inclusion, civility, and moderation. I believe his commitment to the public good is genuine and deeply-felt, and that he would seek to build on the movement that puts him into office, rather than abandoning it once safely on the Council. While he is an idealist, he isn’t a naive one. I know where he came from in Philly, and I doubt anything he has seen or will see here will throw him. His Quaker sensibilities seem to infuse his approach to politics, and we certainly could use a councilman who listens, and believes all voices deserve a measure of respect. I think he has the desire and the ability to bridge differences of race and class in our neighborhood. People I respect feel strongly about his candidacy. That goes a long way with me. Your friends and allies say a lot about you.
Marcus has a vision of the role our councilperson should play in the community: to knit together the racial and class divisions of Ward 3, find common ground, and make of our diverse neighborhood a model for the city. We can do that. But only we can do that.
We have not just a chance to make history on Tuesday – we have an opportunity, even a responsibility, to do so. I will proudly write in Marcus Mitchell, and connect the two arrows. You should too.