Ending ongoing speculation he would not seek reelection to take a post in state government, Mayor Scott Avedisian told his department directors Wednesday morning that he planned to accept the job of RIPTA CEO if the board approved the appointment that afternoon.
That action came as expected, setting up a process where City Council President Joseph Solomon will become acting mayor and Ward 8 Councilman Joseph Gallucci will become president of the council.
The action also opened the floodgates on speculation on who would run for the city’s top elective post and whether both Democratic and Republican parties could face primaries.
Solomon unequivocally said, “Yes, I will be a candidate for mayor.” He said with his accounting, legal and legislative experience, “I think I can do a fine job as mayor…I would hope to be elected for a full two years.” He said “inclusiveness and cooperation” would be trademarks of his administration as acting mayor and if elected to the post.
Richard Corrente, who carried the party’s standard two years ago, has already announced his candidacy. He said yesterday he’s still in the race.
While it is still early, Charles (CJ) Donovan, who served 14 years on the City Council and is now working as a policy analyst for the House of Representatives, said he is interested in returning to public service and is considering a run. There are likely to be more, but already ruling themselves out of the running are Senate Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey, House Majority Leader K. Joseph Shekarchi and Ward 4 Councilman Ed Ladouceur. Former Mayor, Governor and U.S. Senator – now a Democrat – Lincoln Chafee also said he wouldn’t be running for mayor.
Several names have emerged as possible Republican candidates.
In response to a phone call, attorney George Shuster responded in an email, “I would very much like to be Mayor someday, but I am not sure that now is the right time. I am thinking it through.”
Shuster was active in the Apponaug Improvement Association and play a key role in founding the Rocky Point Foundation that lobbied for the state bond issue that eventually enabled state purchase and preservation of more than 80 acres of the park. In a shaky voice with some department directors drying tears, Avedisian opened his remarks on Wednesday asking for the prayers and thoughts for the mother of one director who is ailing. He also preceded his comments with the announcement he has received a letter of retirement from Fire Chief James McLaughlin. McLaughlin will have served 30 years by May 29. He said he plans to stay on until June 10 in order to complete the upcoming budget cycle.
“Twenty-eight years ago, I walked into this building and sat in that seat as a 25-year-old newly minted member of the City Council. And it’s been a really exciting 28 years,” Avedisian began.
“Look at all the wonderful things this city has done, between City Centre, Rocky Point, the airport, Apponaug, you all have an awful lot to be proud of and to point to a wonderful legacy of great accomplishments. And that’s all because of you, all the work you have done, and the wonderful service you’ve given to the 83 to 84,000 people in the city,” he said. No special election
Avedisian said he has requested his start date with RIPTA be delayed until after May 11 – about a month, he said – so as to avoid the expense of a special election and to work on the city budget. Avedisian also said he would be talking to Solomon about the budget and asked for the cooperation of his directors in making the transition.
A RIPTA release issued yesterday afternoon did not specify when Avedisian who start in his new job.
“Scott’s long, successful experience with RIPTA means he has an in-depth understanding of the Agency that enables him to immediately provide leadership in continuing our progress towards making RIPTA a success,” said Kezirian. “It’s a perfect fit for where RIPTA is today, and where we want to be in the future,” said RIPTA board chair Wayne Kezirian in a statement.
“He is an excellent choice to lead RIPTA. I look forward to working with him to keep Rhode Island moving and provide Rhode Islanders with high quality access to public transportation,” said Gov. Gina Raimondo in the release.
In recent years rumors have surfaced on more than one occasion that once Avedisian had reached the combination of age and years in office for retirement that he would take a job in private industry or government. Asked of his plans last month, Avedisian told the Beacon he usually makes his political announcements in May and that this year would be no different.
What prompted him to accelerate a decision?
Avedisian didn’t offer a clue, but the ongoing rift between him and the council that has torpedoed initiatives such as the sale of the former Aldrich Junior High School and shelved bids to purchase fire apparatus and a sanitation truck has been wearing. Clearly there has not been open communication. Solomon said he has been included on developments such as contract negotiations and Avedisian has said Solomon doesn’t return calls.
Solomon said yesterday that Avedisian “has had a long career with the City of Warwick.” While he acknowledged they have had their difference, “We have had things that we’ve worked on together; we have built a lot of good things together.” Solomon said that both he and Avedisian “put the people of Warwick first.”
In his comments to directors, Avedisian said, “By Monday, if you could all give me an update to your departments as to pressing issues right away. I’m assuming we’ll have about a month to work on all these things. I expect everyone to give him [Solomon] the same support and encouragement you’ve always given me,” he said.
Avedisian didn’t speak as to what promoted his decision at this time, when evidently other opportunities came up within recent years.
Nonetheless, even one of his closest friends, Mark Russell, sensed the mayor was ready to open a new chapter in this life. Russell, who has worked on Avedisian’s campaigns from 1988 and his first bid for the Ward 1 Council seat said he was “glad” for Avedisian.
“I had the funny feeling he wasn’t going to run,” he said. “Nobody can do the same thing forever.”
Russell noted that no fundraisers had been planned, which reinforced his belief that the time had come.
GoLocal Providence first broke the news on Tuesday afternoon that the RIPTA board would be voting in closed and public sessions on appointing a new CEO during their Wednesday afternoon meeting, and that Avedisian was a candidate for the position.
Cranston Mayor Allan Fung declined to comment on the development at this time through a spokesman.
Brandon Bell, chairman of the state GOP, said that if Avedisian were to take the job, his presence would be missed by state Republicans.
"He's done some great things and brought a great perspective to the party and he's done some really great things. He'd be missed, but I'd also wish him well if he were to do it," Bell said shortly after the story broke on Tuesday. "He's one of the best retail politicians that I've known. He's learned a lot from on-the-job training but he's also a natural. I think he gives a great name to our brand and the Republican party and the Rhode Island Republican party specifically. I would hate to lose him."
Former Mayor of Warwick, Governor and US Senator Lincoln Chafee pointed out hat as governor he appointed Avedisian to the board of RIPTA in 2011, a post he held for five years until resigning in 2016. Chafee said Avedisian is “well respected” at RIPTA and played a key role in turning the agency around.
Chafee said Avedisian said he confided in him that he was “looking at different options” to seeking another term in office.
Asked about department directors, who are in non-classified jobs, Avedisian said as acting mayor Solomon would have the authority to make changes. As the fire chief would not retire until June, Avedisian said that would become Solomon’s appointment.
Solomon said he has a great deal of respect for the professionalism and compassion Chief McLaughlin has demonstrated. He believes there are many qualified candidates from within the ranks to fill the job of chief.
Avedisian’s plans at RIPTA
In the release Avedisian said he is excited about the opportunity to lead RIPTA, which he described as being an essential component of a successful economy, and provided Rhode Islanders with 16.6 million trips last year.
“You can’t have a world-class economy without a world-class transit system,” Avedisian said. “I’m looking forward to working with the great team at RIPTA to build on what’s already been done to create that model transit system for our state,” he said.
Avedisian also noted the important role of public transit in reducing the number of cars on Rhode Island’s roads, easing traffic congestion and reducing emissions and environmental impacts.
Capitalizing on successful routes and creating a more flexible system will be two of Avedisian’s priorities, he said.
“Overall, we need to build a new RIPTA that meets the needs of existing customers – and future customers - where they are,” he said. “A system that is innovative enough to be flexible has tremendous potential for growth.” Connecting RIPTA with Rhode Island’s colleges and universities will be another priority, Avedisian said. “These institutions are engines of Rhode Island’s future economy, and we need to do our part to make those connections efficiently and effectively.”