If you ask the mayor of Central Falls James Diossa what advice he’d give to a young person considering going into politics, his answer would be two words: do it.
At a recent appearance in front of a packed crowd of political science and sociology students from JWU’s College of Arts and Sciences, Diossa encouraged student involvement. “If any of you have even the slightest curiosity, I think you should do it,” he says. “I really believe you need to do it. There are a lot of folks in positions of power who are getting older. If we don’t have an influx of young people, from different backgrounds and with different thoughts on how to change government, we’ll have problems.”
Elected at the age of 27, he was the youngest mayor in this small mill town’s history, and faced huge problems inherited from the former administration. During his appearance at JWU, he talked about the issues he had to deal with, as well as how he was able to turn the city around.
A City in Trouble
Diossa walked into a situation that most people would run away from. The city had declared bankruptcy a short time before he took office, the only town in Rhode Island ever to do so. The state took over its financial management, and a few months later Central Falls’ former mayor was indicted on corruption and sentenced to federal prison for taking gifts from a political supporter who had received a lucrative no-bid contract with the city.
Diossa describes the situation at the time as “a very dark period” for the city. “There wasn’t any engagement with the community, and there was a leadership that wasn’t connected to the people — a leadership that made decisions very selfishly and with financials that had hit rock bottom.”
“What do you think? Should I do this?”
Diossa didn’t plan on going into politics. He was home from college during his junior year and “all of a sudden I heard this voice that just captivated me,” he says. “It was the voice of Barack Obama. And I was like, who is this guy? So I started Googling him and reading about him.” Inspired by Obama’s message, he decided to go to law school, “like every politician.”
After he graduated from college in 2009, Diossa took an internship with United States Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (RI, Dem). “During that time, we would cut newspaper articles out with anything that had to do with the senator and his work. And as I was cutting articles out, I saw an article in the local paper saying that the elections in Central Falls were open. So I thought, oh, that’s really cool, so I looked at my friend who was also interning, and said, ‘Hey, what do you think about that? Should I do this?’ And he said, ‘Yes, absolutely. Go for it!’”
Diossa decided to run for a town council seat. He called all his friends who had just returned from college and built a grassroots campaign team. “I had no clue how to run an election — no clue. Luckily, we had the Internet and YouTube videos and we Googled how to run a campaign. If I showed you some of my pamphlets you would literally laugh, we were clueless,” he says. “But we were motivated by this passion of wanting to get young people connected and involved in local government.”
Although the incumbent was heavily endorsed by the then-mayor, Diossa beat him by 17 votes.“It was so shocking to me that we won,” he says. “I ran to City Hall to make sure it was true because I didn’t want to be all excited and then find out that I lost.”
A Sharp Learning Curve
Diossa confesses that when he began his term, he knew very little about his role as a council member. “But I was determined to take it step-by-step. Learning the charter, learning the rules of the council and how the government functions.”
In his third month as a council member, he was asked to support the mayor in filing for receivership for Central Falls, because the city would be insolvent in a matter of two months. “I just had to vote no,” says Diossa. “How do you expect me to vote to go into receivership when I wasn’t presented with a budget or the audits? Give me more information so I can make a sound decision.” His colleagues on the council were “in cahoots with the mayor” and voted for filing for bankruptcy, leaving Diossa as the lone dissenter. Looking back, Diossa sees this as a huge positive. “It really brought a lot of attention to the city and I was able to ask more questions.”
The next year was when the former mayor was indicted on corruption. “There were state police all over the place. And I got a bunch of phone calls, saying, ‘James, you should run for mayor now.’” He ran against 4 other candidates and received 60% of the vote in the primaries and 60% in the general election.
Rethinking Justice and Restoring Trust
When elected officials betray the public trust, breaking laws for their own benefit, citizens inevitably lose trust in the government. They lose their belief in justice and fair play. They become disengaged. So Diossa knew that restoring his citizens’ trust was key.
“When I became mayor I knew that I had to be very visible and accessible at all times. I really used social media,” he says. “I tried to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner at restaurants in Central Falls. People could sit down with me, ask me questions.”
Since so many residents of Central Falls work during the day, he created an open-door policy on the third Thursday night of each month and welcomed any resident to his office. “People could literally walk into my office with no appointment. It has really helped.”
When Diossa came into office, he says he was very idealistic. “There were all these great ideas that I wanted to do, but we couldn’t afford it because we were broke. I really had to become very pragmatic about my decisions and how to be able to function in the government for the betterment of all the residents of Central Falls. We had to be creative. We applied for grants — any kind of grants — and we were very successful with that.”
Central Falls Today
Mayor Diossa proudly lists his accomplishments from the two terms he’s led the city. “We’ve literally become very clean,” he says. “If you drive by Central Falls today we have street sweepers out every single day. Our crime numbers have dropped dramatically. Over the last 10 years, our crime rate has gone down close to 40%, which is very good for us because we’re considered very urban.”
One recurring event that’s generated a great response from the community is salsa night, held once a month on a bridge in the city. “We bring a live salsa band, salsa instructors, food trucks and we have a good time for a few hours. It allows residents to meet people in the community and interact with other folks.”
Diossa says his greatest achievement is in the financials. “The thing I am most proud of is that in a city with an $18 million budget, we now have a $2 million rainy day fund. That’s big for Central Falls. I don’t think the city had a reserve fund for over 20, 25 years. Even though the residents may not see it, it allows me to sleep better at night. If we ever have a crisis or a recession, we have something that will keep us afloat for a few years before we have to ask the taxpayers for more money.”
His inspirational appearance, organized by assistant professor Kevin DeJesus, garnered high grades from students. “I loved his presentation,” says Samantha Dooley '22, of South Winsor, Connecticut. “My major is political science so I thought it was really informative. It was great to learn about all the work he was doing, and it really taught me a lot.”