One has a compelling story of making it on the street as a high school student and going on to build three businesses employing about 40 people, and the other has a background in law and government. Both have families, a love for community and want to work for a better Warwick.
Mike Penta, running as an independent, and James McElroy, having won the Democratic nomination in the September primary, are vying for the Ward 4 council seat left vacant with Joseph Solomon’s designation as acting mayor following the resignation of Scott Avedisian and Solomon’s decision to seek the post in the November Election.
Solomon has represented the ward, largely made up of Conimicut and Hoxsie, for the past 18 years.
The Penta/McElroy campaign is one of two City Council contests. The other race is in Ward 1 where incumbent Richard Corley faces Patrick Maloney, who is running as an independent. Incumbents Jeremy Rix, Ward 2; Timothy Howe, Ward 3; Ed Ladouceur, Ward 5; Donna Travis, Ward 6; Steve McAllister, Ward 7 and Steve Merolla, Ward 9 are without opponents. In Ward 8 where Joseph Gallucci is not seeking reelection, Anthony Sinapi beat Bethany Furtado in the Democratic primary, thereby assuring his election as no other candidates declared for the ward.
McElroy and Penta are walking the ward, knocking on doors, meeting people and both spoke at the recent Conimicut Village Association meeting held at St. Benedict Church hall. They are finding people are concerned about Warwick schools, speeding in their neighborhood and trash at Conimicut Point beach.
“I’m hearing a lot about schools,” said McElroy, whose wife was a Warwick teacher and is now the acting principal at Sherman Elementary School. He finds the battle over school finances with the possibility of a lawsuit against the city as well as a history of teacher contract unrest as creating an atmosphere of strife that has worn at the fabric of schools.
Pointing to cutbacks in custodians in order to balance the budget and what that means in school cleanliness and the cutback in after school use such as that for cheerleading practice, Penta said, “do I know the school system is in need of bucks? Absolutely.”
Neither candidate offers a resolution.
“We have to try to work out something reasonable,” said Penta.
His concern is that the issue has contributed to an overall sense of malaise about the city.
“People are just fed up,” he said. “I don’t want to give up on Warwick.”
McElroy feels a legal fight would be counterproductive and serve to harden positions.
“Once you start fighting, it’s hard to go back,” he said. McElroy feels Mayor Solomon is “receptive” to an agreement and trying to work things out.
On a ward level, the two candidates are troubled by the number of vacant storefronts in Conimicut village.
McElroy feels the city should take an active role in attracting a major outlet that would serve as a catalyst for other businesses.
“There should be some type of draw,” he said. “Someone has to take the lead and come up with ideas.”
As the operator and owner of a construction business and two restaurants that he runs with his wife, Angelica – Gel’s Kitchen in West Warwick and Mike and Gel’s Pizza on West Shore Road – Penta believes Conimicut and the city overall would benefit from a friendlier business climate. He said businesses are over taxed and regulated. He would seek to create a “one stop” environment for businesses where they could get answers on planning, zoning and permitting without having to interact with multiple offices, facing delays and often getting conflicting information.
“When businesses want to come in, we need to say this is what we’re doing for you,” he said. “We have to make it easier.”
The use of beach fees as a means of generating revenue and reducing beach litter was a hot issue at the village association meeting. Penta opposes fees and says if the city came down harder on littering it would make for cleaner beaches. If revenue is the objective, Penta suggested the use of speed-ticketing cameras, as being used in Providence, would serve that purpose while also addressing complaints of speeding on Point Avenue.
McElroy isn’t convinced beach fees would solve the litter problem. He’s willing to try fees for a year or two to see if it would work. Speeding is of concern.
“All it takes is one speeding car to hit a child,” he said.
While rooted in the community, the two candidates have contrasting stories of growing up and their involvement in politics.
McElroy said he has been friends with Solomon for years. They lived across from one another and McElroy served as his campaign manager in his first run for Ward 4. McElroy said he wouldn’t have run had Solomon sought reelection to the council rather than running for mayor. He follows city politics and is active in Democratic circles. This is his first bid for public office.
An attorney, McElroy worked for the state Division of Taxation, the state Supreme Court and served as a legislative counsel in the State House. He left five years ago and is thinking of returning to legal work. He and his wife are the parents of four, all Pilgrim High School graduates. One is an attorney; three are teachers.
As a high school student, Penta found himself homeless as his father left him and he and his brother were evicted from their apartment. Caring for his younger brother, Penta didn’t tell authorities of the situation and the two of them lived out of a car he parked near Pilgrim High. Working odd jobs, Penta found an apartment and then through the landlord and realtor took on construction jobs. It was what put him on a path to going into business for himself.
He has been active in city politics as a member of the Republican Party and as its former chairman. In 2012 he ran for Ward 4, losing to Solomon. Then in 2016 he ran for House District 21, making the unusual move of attending a fundraiser for his Democratic opponent Camille Vella-Wilkinson, who won the seat. Friends with Vella-Wilkinson, he said regardless of who won, he believed the constituents of District 21 would be well served.
After that run, Penta said he was thinking he would not seek public office again. Then with Solomon’s run for mayor the picture changed. Penta decided to make a run, but this time as an independent.
Penta says his tenacity is his greatest asset.
“I never gave up when I was 14 and I’m doing it at 52…if I get elected I’m not going to stop.”
He said McElroy lives right down the street and should McElroy win he offered to work with him for the betterment of the city.