Machine Politics and Urban Renewal in Providence, Rhode Island: The Era of Mayor Joseph A. Doorley, Jr., 1965-74

Carl Antonucci, Providence College


Joseph A. Doorley, Jr., was inaugurated as the mayor of the city of Providence on January 4, 1965. At that time, Doorley was both youngest mayor in the history of the city of Providence as well as the youngest mayor of any major city in the United States. His tenure as mayor was marked by a series of political, racial, and fiscal tensions and offers insight into the dynamics of politics – both local and national – in the latter part of the twentieth century. Doorley was a product of the Providence Democratic “machine” that dominated Providence politics from 1936 until his defeat in the Providence mayoral election of 1974. Democratic politicians in Providence started to build this machine in 1936 and, beginning in 1940, under a revised Home Rule Charter, were successful in electing mayors who were able to govern with substantial authority. The study provides a look at the rise of the Providence Democratic machine which operated on the premise of providing jobs and services in exchange for votes. During the Doorley era, 1965-1974, Doorley displayed his strength as mayor, and many times he and his administration were more interested in maintaining power than solving the problems of a declining industrial city.

This study also analyzes the many problems of the city of Providence during this era. Doorley and his administration dealt with a declining tax base, a decline in the population in the city, racial tensions, the battle for fair housing and school desegregation. Doorley tried to respond to the many problems of his era by working on urban renewal projects, clearing slums, and bringing funds from the federal government to Providence. He attempted to breathe new life into an old industrial city by using a combination of machine politics, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society” legislation, and the power he enjoyed as the head of the Democratic ‘machine’ in Providence. The Doorley administration was a continuation of the old-style political machine and focused on assisting groups within the city that had high numbers of loyal Democrats with the premise of providing jobs and political favors. Doorley dealt with the financial crises during his terms by being fiscally conservative while attempting to balance the budgets and hold the tax rate.

The end of the Doorley era marked the end of Democratic Party dominance in Providence. The political split between Doorley and his Public Works Director, Lawrence P. “Larry” McGarry destroyed one of the most powerful machines in the history of the city of Providence. The conflict enabled Republican, Vincent A. Cianci, Jr., to win the mayoral election of November 5, 1974, by the slim margin of 709 votes. During the Doorley years, McGarry, who was also the chairman of the Democratic City Committee, was responsible for dispensing jobs in exchange for votes for Democratic candidate for mayor and city council. During his tenure in city hall, Doorley realized that the political landscape in Providence was changing. At the beginning of his political career, the way to win elections was to provide patronage jobs, adequate city services and low taxes. However, during his tenure the mayor’s office focused on providing decent housing for the poor and minorities of the city and helping them to fight poverty.

During his ten years as mayor, Doorley advocated for the poor and minorities of the city. He was a strong supporter of the fair housing law that was signed into law by Governor Chafee on April 12, 1965. The Doorley administration also created Progress for Providence, Inc., the city’s antipoverty agency, drafted a proposal to have Providence designated to receive federal funds for urban renewal projects under the Model Cities Program, and played a large role in the desegregation of Providence Schools under the Providence Plan. The Doorley administration helped to fight poverty in the city. Doorley also continued to operate the city as a strong mayor, using the traditional old-style machine that had existed in Providence since 1940.

During the Doorley era many African Americans were not pleased with their relationship with the mayor. They were the have-nots in the city of Providence and felt that Doorley did not pay enough attention to their needs because they lacked any political power. At this time, segregation and bias towards African Americans was not as blatant in Providence as it was in the South but just as real. However, feelings of prejudice existed in the city especially in the areas of employment and housing. Because, for the most part, Doorley kept his distance from those who lived in the economically depressed areas of the city, the have-nots perceived his advocacy only as a matter of expediency and were not convinced of his support for them. For example, Providence Journal reporter Hamilton Davis thought that Doorley was forced into leading the way for the integration of the schools in order to enhance his political image on the national scene by being a progressive mayor. During his tenure in office, Doorley was seen by many as the consummate machine politician and concerned only with winning the next election to keep him and the machine in power. McGarry never supported Doorley’s efforts to advocate for the poor, minorities, and elderly of the city and was concerned that political jobs went to the white Democratic supporters who lived in the city. In February 1974, Doorley named Roosevelt Benton, an African American, as his top administrative assistant. This appointment indicated that Doorley was at least making some efforts to include the voice of minorities in his administration, but the move was too little and too late in his administration.

During his last term in office, Doorley had many critics within his own party who maintained that he had lost focus on the problems in Providence and that he was not responsive to the poor and elderly of the city. McGarry believed that he had lost interest in the day-to- day operation of city affairs. Doorley was absent from city hall on many occasions for such diversions as national political meetings, bowl and tournament games, and long summer weekends in Jamestown. During the times that Doorley was away, McGarry took over the running of the Providence Democratic machine. One factor in the split between Doorley and McGarry was the fact that McGarry and many Doorley supporters were upset that on most days Doorley’s daily work schedule ended at noon and that he would retreat to one of the city’s many drinking establishments. Another factor was McGarry’s discontent that Doorley had been in the mayor’s office for too long and should have moved on to a higher political office so that other loyal Democrats would have a chance to run for mayor. As a result of this political separation, the campaign for the Democratic Mayoral Primary on September 10, 1974, became a very interesting chapter in the history of mayoral elections in Providence. The breakup became official in June of 1973 when the Democratic City Committee, under the leadership of McGarry, refused to endorse Doorley for reelection in 1974. The political divorce of Doorley and McGarry divided a once-united Democratic Party in Providence and left the door open for challengers to fight Doorley for the right to run in the November 1974 general election as the Democratic candidate for mayor of Providence. McGarry threw his support behind Democrat, Francis B. Brown in the primary. Doorley won the hard-fought primary battle, but the battle better enabled Cianci to win the general election to become the city’s first Republican mayor in thirty-four years. With the election of Cianci the Democratic machine lost control of politics in Providence.

Some of the urban renewal programs and poverty programs during the Doorley era failed and did not help the residents in their fight against poverty. Urban renewal uprooted many poor African Americans and increased racial segregation in Providence. Many also fault Doorley with not showing enough interest in the revival of the downtown area. For example, at the end of the Doorley years South Providence was still a blighted neighborhood with many problems despite the urban renewal, and many businesses had moved away from the downtown area to the suburbs of other areas of the state. Many of the urban renewal efforts did not create better lives for the poor residents of the city and in some cases made the situation worse. In spite of these criticisms, Doorley did try to address the serious problems of Providence. He argued that his greatest accomplishments were that he was able to hold the tax line, expand the tax base, and secure for the city of Providence a double AA bond rating. Another mayoral accomplishment was the creation of the Providence Civic Center, referred to by the press as “Doorley’s Dream.” He was also credited with changing the physical skyline of the