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Mayor Elorza embarrassed himself in confronting Governor McKee. But he was right

The confrontation at the WaterFire press conference undermined a really good point: The public deserves more transparency when it comes to the Providence Teachers Union contract

Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza confronted Governor Dan McKee during a news conference Wednesday evening promoting WaterFire, taking the governor to task about the newly proposed Providence Teachers Union contract.
Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza confronted Governor Dan McKee during a news conference Wednesday evening promoting WaterFire, taking the governor to task about the newly proposed Providence Teachers Union contract.Courtesy WPRI 12 News

Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza has cemented his political legacy in Rhode Island. He’ll forever be remembered as the guy who nearly came to blows with a governor from his own party over the secrecy of a teachers’ union contract.

The mayor embarrassed himself Wednesday night when he confronted Governor Dan McKee at an event that was meant to kick off one of Rhode Island’s greatest traditions – WaterFire. Television cameras caught him yelling at McKee, and a member of the governor’s police detail actually had to intervene.

“This is too important for you to play the coward’s role on this,” Elorza yelled in a video captured by Channel 10.

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During a press conference Thursday afternoon, Elorza doubled and tripled down on his immature actions, and refused to apologize to the organizers of WaterFire or to McKee. He once again urged McKee to slow down the contract approval process, which the union is slated to vote on Friday night.

It’s clear that Elorza needs to admit that he crossed the line by coming in a little too hot when approaching McKee. He overshadowed an important event.

But we should all acknowledge something else, too: Elorza was right about the lack of transparency over the contract.

The mayor is frustrated that the deal was negotiated and agreed to behind closed doors, especially since he had no role in the discussions (the state took over the city’s schools in 2019, after a dismal report detailed widespread dysfunction and subpar student performance). McKee announced that an agreement had been reached on July 20, but has so far refused to comment further. On Wednesday, the contact leaked, and the Globe published a copy of it.

McKee’s office said the governor wouldn’t speak about the agreement until it was ratified by the teachers’ union. That’s not how these kinds of contracts work in every other city or town in Rhode Island, where school boards and City Councils oversee school departments.

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The state takeover of Providence schools, which Elorza strongly supported, was designed to remove some of the bureaucratic layers that can get in the way of the most basic school functions, like purchasing paper or computers. In the past, those kinds of expenditures could require approval from the City Council, a purchasing board, and the school board.

But removing those pesky boards and commissions has consequences, too.

Before the state takeover, a teachers’ union contract — which locks a community into multimillion-dollar agreements that are covered by taxpayers — would be vetted and approved by the City Council. A public hearing would be held. There might even be a fiscal note attached.

The takeover changed how things worked. Now the deal, negotiated by McKee’s staff, has Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green’s signature on it. A spokeswoman for the commissioner said this week that once the teachers approve the deal, no other governing body is required to vote on it.

Elorza, who is likely to run for governor against McKee next year, opposed the contract before he ever had a chance to read it. He held a press conference at the State House on Wednesday afternoon to call for more transparency, and then confronted McKee that night.

His main gripe: “In this contract, seniority is still king,” Elorza told reporters on Thursday. “It’s a contract that works for adults, and not for kids.”

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When I asked him if there is an example of any other teachers’ union contract in the country that he thinks Providence should mirror, he couldn’t point to one. He believes the state’s power in the takeover process allows it to dismantle the union contract, but that would likely lead to a prolonged legal battle.

Rather than offer other solutions, Elorza is letting his emotions get the best of him.

He said Thursday that he never planned to confront McKee, and claimed the governor has essentially been ducking him when it comes to discussing Providence schools. But it’s hard to believe that Elorza’s history with the city’s teachers isn’t a partial cause for his anger.

In 2018, thousands of teachers crowded into City Hall to protest during Elorza’s State of the City address. He responded by spending 20 minutes shouting his speech over the screaming teachers. It became a sideshow. Later that year, his campaign reelection kickoff event was sparsely attended because the teachers formed a picket line.

Elorza has never forgiven the teachers for those actions. Now it’s possible the voters will never forgive him.

Even if he’s right that McKee should be more transparent about the teachers’ union contract.


Dan McGowan can be reached at dan.mcgowan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @danmcgowan.