Can a 27-Year-Old Take a City out of Bankruptcy?

The newly-elected mayor of Central Falls, RI, inherited a crumbling town.

January 23, 2013, 11:12 AM

Jan. 25, 2013— -- On the first day of 2013, James Diossa was sworn is as mayor of Central Falls, Rhode Island on the same podium where 10 years earlier, he stood in his cap and gown to receive his high school diploma. Now, he was delivering his inaugural address in both English and Spanish.

The 27-year-old Diossa reflects the shifting demographic of this old textile-mill city of 19,000, where currently 60% of its residents are Latino, mostly Colombian.

Diossa's parents emigrated from Medellín to Central Falls in 1983, where Diossa was born two years later. His mother Melva worked at a shoelace factory, his father Bernardo at a light bulb manufacturer. Diossa's parents often worked double shifts to save up for their three sons' education, being able to send Diossa to Becker College in Worcester, Massachusetts where he studied Criminal Justice--making him the first in his family to go to college. From a young age, Diossa knew that he would someday return to Central Falls. "This city gave my parents a job. It's where they call home. I always knew that I wanted to come back here to give back to my city," Diossa said.

Many others; however, wanted to do just the opposite-- flee from what Diossa calls a, "dark cloud of corruption." Central Falls was falling--it filed for bankruptcy in August 2011. "Decisions weren't in the best interest of the citizens. People moved out. Businesses closed," he said. In September 2012, mayor Charles Moreau resigned and pleaded guilty to federal fraud charges.

While some may worry that the new mayor is too young, his age shouldn't be mistaken for inexperience. In November of 2009, Diossa was elected Central Falls city councilman, the city's youngest ever-- at age 24. In his second year as councilman, when the city went into receivership, the city's only public library closed due to lack of funds. "Taking that away from its people was like cutting the life-line of the community," said Diossa's best friend, Gonzalo Cuervo. But the city would learn that a quiet library doesn't stay silent for long. Diossa gathered his Central Falls' community to raise funds and within a month it reopened-- its reference and checkout desks staffed by a rotating band of volunteers. A sign on the door now reads, "Welcome to YOUR library."

Early in 2012, the city's only post office was also in danger of being closed by the federal government and the city's zip code, 02863, erased from the map. Diossa led a march in protest and took his battle to Washington DC, where he met with the Post Master General and won his case to keep the post office--and its sole clerk--in business. "I told them it was a necessary service for our community and taking away our zip code would be like taking away our identity," Diossa said.

When former mayor Moreau resigned, Diossa started receiving a slew of phone calls from people he didn't even know suggesting that he run for mayor. "It took me by complete surprise. It was very moving to see that my community had so much faith in me. I ran because I saw it as an opportunity to restore my community and the spirit of its people. I believe that it is possible to be honest in politics and get ahead," said the mayor, who is a Democrat.

On December 11, 2012, Diossa won 62% of the vote in a special election, beating former police chief Joseph Moran who received the remaining 38% of the votes. Diossa's father, who would have been working that night, took a vacation day from work to stand proudly by his son-- the new mayor's--side.

When asked how his life has changed since becoming mayor on January 1st, Diossa, who is single, replied, "I get up at 5 AM and am lucky if I return by 10 PM. There's not a moment to waste." Though he said he's still the same person who likes to eat "empanadas" and "bandeja paisas" at his uncle's Colombian restaurant on Dexter Street, play a pickup game of soccer and just hang out with his friends.

But, can Diossa restore a city crippled to its core? Central Falls must sacrifice its future by literally paying for its past--with steep pension cuts and massive tax increases. Diossa's uncle, Cesar Zuleta, is hopeful but realistic. "It's going to take more than a year to get out from under this mess, no matter how you put it," he said.

Another underlying effect of a city in bankruptcy is the mass exodus that results from it. "A lot of my friends left for college and never came back and that was one of the reasons why this city wasn't growing," Diossa said. In May 2010, there were 174 city workers, a number that's since decreased over 30 percent. And while buildings and businesses may reopen, what's most difficult is restoring the public's faith in the system. "I have made strides but I am aware of the work that remains, especially in people realizing their voices are finally being heard. I am humbled by this opportunity. My priority is rebuilding Central Falls," Diossa said.

For many, Diossa represents newfound hope that the "City With a Bright Future" may once again live up to its motto. "Traditionally the 'American Dream' meant buying a home, a car, providing for your children, " said Cuervo. "But the fact that a son of immigrants who came here, worked hard to get ahead in life, sent their child to school... and that son then returns to his hometown, gets involved in a process to better its collectivity... I think that's the truest representation of the modern-day American dream."

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