The Doyle-Grebien mayoral fight energizes Pawtucket politics

Outside Providence: Two democrats square off in the Pawtucket mayoral election.  
By MATT JERZYK  |  October 22, 2008


DUKING IT OUT: Doyle and Grebien each tout a message of change.

The two Democrats squaring off in the Pawtucket mayoral election generally agree on the broad vision for transforming this onetime blue-collar manufacturing mecca into an American city reborn: an MBTA commuter rail connecting Boston artists and Pawtucket lofts; a rehabilitated train station catalyzing Pawtucket retail growth; a Broad Street revitalization project assisting small businesses; a statewide funding formula providing a much-needed cash infusion to the public schools; and a new Division Street hotel.

Thus, the race between incumbent Mayor James Doyle, 70, and Councilman Donald Grebien, 40, has largely turned into a clash over style rather than substance.

Doyle, an 11-year incumbent who takes credit for putting the city on a sound financial footing and raising its artistic profile, cites the need for an experienced hand guiding the city through tough economic times. By contrast, Grebien, also an 11-year incumbent, is campaigning on a message of change. He says he has lost faith in an administration that has had more than a decade to get the job done on major issues from economic development to a failing school system.  

The “change vs. experience” dialectic was on display last week when a standing room crowd packed into the Gamm Theatre in a debate sponsored by the Pawtucket Alliance for Downtown Success (PADS) and the Times of Pawtucket. The turnout showcased the ethnic succession of a city made famous as the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. Sitting side by side were older Irish Catholics, newer immigrants from Cape Verde and the Dominican Republic, and younger artistic hipsters.

Maia Small, a steering committee member of PADS, represents in many ways the changes that have come to Pawtucket. She moved to Pawtucket four years ago from Providence and owns an architecture firm in the city. “With economic development issues like the train station, city government has to be more proactive,” Small says. “Pawtucket’s been in a preventative stance, and we need to do a better job of promoting the city on a state level and in the private sector.”

Doyle acknowledges that there is much more economic development work to do, but he also points out how far the city has come: “When I inherited the city in 1998, I looked out of the City Hall windows and saw abandoned mills, boarded-up houses and the sad reality that manufacturing jobs had left the mills to go south. We were left with nothing. But we quickly realized that we could attract people — artists and professionals — who were being priced out of the Providence and Boston market.” 

Doyle describes how the city pushed through historic and arts zones to create economic incentives, and used a hands-on approach to meet the needs of newer Pawtucket residents and businesses, assisting them in moving, for example, and working on speedy responses to problems ranging from sidewalks to street signs.   

The arts community remains divided in this election, however. “We came to live and work in Pawtucket,” says one prominent civic leader. “And we were sold a bill of goods that have not materialized: a train station, easy access to Boston, a commuter rail, restaurants.”   

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