It had been rumored for some time.

And last week, in an interview with the Phoenix, former Providence Mayor Joseph R. Paolino Jr. offered confirmation: if he hops in the mayoral race this year, he will run as an independent.

Paolino, a Democratic fixture for years, says he would simply feel more “comfortable” reaching a broad swath of voters as an independent. But the political advantages of skipping the Democratic primary are obvious.

In a 2002 run for mayor, Paolino vied with state Senator David V. Igliozzi for the traditional white ethnic Democratic primary vote, and lost out to “new Providence” candidate David N. Cicilline, who put together a coalition of Latinos and East Side liberals.

This time around, observers are suggesting a redux could be in the making, with long-time City Councilman John J. Lombardi and State Representative Steven M. Costantino splitting the traditional white ethnic vote in the Democratic primary, and Harvard-educated lawyer Angel Taveras taking the Democratic nomination with a Cicilline-like coalition.

By sitting out what promises to be a costly and bruising fight for the Democratic nomination, Paolino can avoid the vote-splitting problem and gear up for a one-on-one fight with the party’s nominee in November.

But if the move makes sense from a tactical point of view, it marks a notable departure for a party stalwart.

Paolino was not only the Democratic mayor of the city. He also sought the party’s nomination for governor. And Paolino, whose family owns large swaths of downtown real estate, has been an important fundraiser for Democrats over the years.

Indeed, President Clinton appointed him ambassador to Malta for his efforts. And it was not so long ago that Paolino was raising money for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

But Paolino says he had little trouble deciding that he would run as an independent should he throw his hat in the ring. “When you’re looking at the city of Providence, I don’t think people really think about a Democratic way and a Republican way of plowing streets and filling potholes,” he says.

There is, in fact, precedent for a successful independent run for mayor. Vincent “Buddy” Cianci, Jr. once did the trick. And Darrell West, a former Brown University political science professor now at the Brookings Institution, suggests that party labels matter even less today.

Indeed, he says, a certain high-profile, independent run for Rhode Island governor could smooth the way for Paolino. “When you have Lincoln Chafee running as an independent, it creates the opportunity for others to do the same,” West says. “It’ll be as American as apple pie.”

The former mayor would be able to pour substantial resources into a run. He has already loaned himself $500,000.

And Paolino will offer up some headline-grabbing ideas in a campaign. An advocate for consolidation of public services, he says the next mayor of Providence should be the last. A mayor of Providence County, he suggests, makes more sense.

But he would place economic development at the center of his campaign. Paolino trumpets his role in the Providence Renaissance most closely associated with Cianci. And he emphasizes his work in the private sector.

Like many pols, he trumpets the potential of bio-tech development along the stretch of land that has emerged with the shift of Route 195. He also talks of a renaissance along Broad Street and even a wind farm on the site of the old Shooters Waterfront Cafe.

Of course, Paolino is hardly the only candidate who will be focusing on economic development. It is, far and away, the most pressing issue for a recession-weary city. And with significant message overlap, he will have to confront another issue: the perception that he is yesterday’s news.

Paolino ran the city in a very different time, after all. And he fared poorly in the gubernatorial bid he launched in 1990, at the close of his time in the mayor’s office, and in the mayoral run he made 12 years later.

Paolino will try, mightily, to spin his distance from elected office as a virtue. “I’m the only guy that’s looking at this race that’s pretty fresh, that’s been out of politics for 20 years,” he says.

But observers say it will be a tough sell. For West, of Brookings, Taveras is the man to beat.

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  Topics: This Just In , U.S. Government, Darrell West, Darrell West,  More more >
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