I never saw Joseph J. Solomon happier than when he was behind the wheel of his 1965 Cadillac DeVille convertible with his wife, Cindy, and their dog, Buddy, at his side. He loved making the rounds of Ward 4, where he served as councilman, on a warm
I never saw Joseph J. Solomon happier than when he was behind the wheel of his 1965 Cadillac DeVille convertible with his wife, Cindy, and their dog, Buddy, at his side. He loved making the rounds of Ward 4, where he served as councilman, on a warm spring day – the kind of weather we’ve had in the past week – stopping to chat with friends tending their gardens, out for a walk or simply enjoying the sea breeze at Conimicut Point.
Joe died peacefully at home last Thursday. He was 64 years old.
The last time I saw Joe was at the funeral service for the late Joe Gallucci. The two served on the City Council. They were political allies and friends. Although he no longer had an official role in government and serving as director of the Board of Canvassers, Gallucci was a presence in City Hall. Both Joes knew pretty much “everybody” who worked for the city. I’m sure Joe relied on Gallucci’s advice.
Gallucci surely played a role in the revival of the Democratic Party, Joe’s first major fundraiser after assuming the role of mayor when former Mayor Scott Avedisian left public office after 18 years as mayor to run the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority. Held at the Crowne Plaza, the turnout was spectacular, unlike anything in more than 20 years. It was a celebration of the return of a Democrat – the first since the late Gerald Gibbons – to the corner office. It was also a huge demonstration of confidence in Joe. Many city employees, longtime party members, former candidates for office, family and friends and those holding office in Warwick and the state were in attendance. It was an affirmation that Joe was at the wheel, he was driving. It was a role he relished.
As a member of the council, Joe focused much of his attention on financial matters. Being both an attorney and accountant, he drilled into contracts, leases and the purchase of goods and services. Steve Merolla and Ed Ladouceur were his closest allies on the council and remained so for a while during his tenure as mayor.
Joe was tight with the taxpayer’s money, always holding out for the best deal. In some respects, it was a double-edged sword. The former Aldrich Junior High School would be a charter school today if Joe had not held out for more money in lieu of taxes, and Conimicut Light would be independently operated as a bed and breakfast had he not insisted on soliciting comparative proposals. A frequent question after he was mayor, until it was evident the answer would always be the same, was what would become of the annex that was closed when a water pipe burst in January 2018. Joe’s answer was that he was not happy with the settlement offered by the RI Interlocal Risk Management Trust. He was working for a better deal.
On the other hand, Joe moved swiftly to renovate the Buttonwoods Community Center as city offices and to keep the promise made to then councilman and later City Council President Steve McAllister for a community room to be used by a group of seniors that met to play cards. He didn’t lose sight of what renovations would cost. Independent contractors answered his appeal with contributions of material and labor. City workers did most of the work. Buttonwoods was a huge improvement over the former Greene School, where city offices were quickly located when the annex was forced to close.
Joe was in command as mayor. He held the wheel firmly, his eye on the deals and those working for him.
Joe recognized the significance of low interest rates being offered by the RI Infrastructure Bank and what that could mean to the taxpayers. He bonded a three-year program to repave city roads that freed funds for operations while spreading out the impact on city finances going forward. It was the right move at the right time.
Joe’s father in-law, Walter Santos, played an important role in his life. Walter, who loved his cigars, served as the Ward 4 councilman for many years. Apart from playing a key role in the family, Walter mentored Joe in politics. Joe stood by his friends.
I talked with Leslie Derrig as we stood in line at St. George Maronite Catholic Church Monday morning to pay our respects to Cindy and Joe Jr. She told me how Joe was there for her when her husband, Bill, had a stroke, when Woodbury Union Church burned, and for the Conimicut Village Association. She also offered a side to Joe that I hadn’t considered: that he feared the state wouldn’t come through with promises of aid, leaving the city in the red. It explains why he trimmed jobs from the budget and postponed projects.
“When I say he was always there, he was there first as our councilman and our mayor, but more our compassionate friend,” she said.
Joe was a private man. During the 2020 campaign, his failing health was evident. He was stoic, brushing off questions about his health and focusing attention on other issues. Press releases and statements issued by his office became the preferred means of communication during the closing months of his administration. I wanted to do an interview highlighting his service to the community, but that never happened.
From the activity and the full lot at Legal Motors in Conimicut – something I didn’t see when he was in office – I was hopeful his health had improved and he had returned to his interest in cars, running a business and his passion to make a deal. I should have stopped in and said hello.
In the days following his death, there has been an outpouring of statements from elected officials highlighting Joe’s service and extending condolences to his family and friends. State and city flags have been lowered to half-staff. At public events such as the proclamation of the Gaspee Days celebration, Mayor Frank Picozzi asked for a moment of silence. Joe was remembered in comments by Cranston Mayor Kenneth Hopkins and Rep. Joseph McNamara.
The words posted by Joe Jr. are surely the most heartfelt. In part, they read: “To all of you who have reached out, thank you. To the many of you who have bravely opened up their own grief and experiences of loss of parent, I thank you for your kindness and willingness to share this with me – it has been an unexpected kindness.
“For all that my father lived his life in public, the life he lived in private was his greatest joy. Much has been said about his love of his family and it is absolutely true.
“He was my best friend, my inspiration and role model. I can’t begin to imagine life without him, but I also know that the best way to honor his legacy is to use all the lessons he taught me about life, love, family and public service. He was a great man who accomplished great things, but above all else, he was a truly great dad.”
The enduring image for me is not the Joe who stood before the City Council steering the meeting, the mayor who sat behind his desk overseeing his domain, but the man behind the wheel of that shiny black convertible Cadillac.