The Third Act

06.22.14

Can America’s Favorite Ex-Con Mayor Win Again?

Buddy Cianci is the poster boy of U.S. political scandals. But that may be ancient history in Providence, where the still-beloved figure may seek one more go of it in City Hall.

In the Museum of American Political Scandals, if it ever gets built, there will be exhibits on Bill Clinton and Eliot Spitzer and Anthony Weiner and Larry “Wide Stance” Craig and Marion Barry. And there should be an entire wing dedicated to The Buddy Cianci Story.

The addition could be made out in the likeness of one of the old vaudevillian theaters in downtown Providence that Cianci saved from the scrapheap in his 21 years as mayor there—a baroque, ornate thing with painted ceilings and gold-plated columns.

There should be enough room to showcase his first two-and-a-half terms, a reign that began in 1974, when Cianci, just 33, ran as a Republican in an overwhelmingly Democratic city in the year that the Watergate scandal led to a Democratic tsunami.

Cianci made ads that look now like ‘70s police procedurals. “Take a good look at the face on your TV screen,” the ads intoned, labeling Cianci “The Anti-Corruption Candidate.”

His tenure ended when Cianci, who had a reputation as one of Providence’s most active ladies’ men, summoned to his home a friend he thought was having an affair with his ex-wife. (Both denied it.) Over the course of three hours, Cianci poured liquor on the man, threw an ashtray at him, punched him repeatedly, burned him with a lit cigarette, and threatened him with a fireplace log while demanding hundreds of thousands of dollars of payoff.

“I saw a lunatic, simply stated,” the victim, a contractor from nearby Bristol, told police. Facing a long prison sentence, Cianci pleaded no contest to the charge in order to avoid jail time, and was forced to step down.

Then there should be an extension to the Cianci wing, for what became known around town as Buddy II. “I am the two-timing mayor of Providence,” Cianci likes to quip, and six years after the Fireplace Log Affair, Cianci was back, winning election as an independent, then winning twice more, the last time unopposed.

Asked about how to manage a city at a time when there is no cavalry coming from the federal government to help, Cianci said simply, “sometimes all it takes is sheer force of personality.”

As Providence blossomed into a Seattle of the East in the ‘90s, with its brick-building stock getting converted into lofts for the postgrad art-school set, Cianci again reigned as its crown prince, in a whirlwind of parades and ribbon cuttings and school graduations. “I’d attend the opening of an envelope,” he says now. He was out on the town nearly every night, pulling up in his limo, breezing past lines of waiting diners to hold court at the choicest tables, leaving without paying. “The cost of doing business,” one restauranteur told a Cianci biographer.

That show ended in operatic fashion in 2001, during the unforgettably named Operation Plunderdome, when federal officials were determined to clean up what they saw as rampant corruption at City Hall. Two tax officials went to prison and four city staffers were indicted, as was Cianci. The mayor faced 17 charges of corruption, but only ended up getting convicted of one, a RICO violation, a charge that until then had been mostly used to put mob bosses away. Cianci spent four-and-a-half years in prison. The sentencing judge said, “There appear to be two very different Buddy Ciancis. The first is a skilled and charismatic political figure, probably one of the most talented politicians Rhode Island has ever seen, someone with wit, who thinks quickly on his feet and can enthrall an audience.” The second Cianci, the judge said, “presided over an administration that is rife with corruption at all levels” and “engaged in an egregious breach of public trust by engaging to operate the city that Buddy Cianci was supposed to serve as a criminal enterprise to line his own pockets.”

Cianci has always maintained his innocence, and after the sentencing told one reporter that if there were two Ciancis, “How come I didn’t get two fucking paychecks?”

Now 73, out of prison, Buddy Cianci is very much considering doing the unthinkable—adding a new addition to that wing of the museum, and running for mayor of Providence one more time.

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Vincent Buddy Cianci former Mayor of Providence at book signing of his latest book at Barnes & noble in Warwick RI (Jesse Nemerofsky/ZUMAPRESS.com)

But first, he would like to clear up a few things.

“If I did the kinds of things I was accused, of, I mean, it’s like Mario Puzo wrote the fucking story!”

All of those scandals of the past, “were blown way out of proportion by the local press. They couldn’t get me at the ballot box. I went to jail because I was convicted of one charge, which was conspiracy to commit RICO, and I was found not guilty of the RICO! So there were 29 charges, and 28 I was found not guilty on right away. The judge [told the jury] that they did not have to know that a crime was committed, just that he was part of an organization where the crime was committed. That he knew or should have known. Now how the fuck you going to beat that? You can’t beat that.”

To hear Cianci tell it, an administration that was once described a criminal enterprise, and the most corrupt in the history of the state, was undone because one aide, and not a particularly close one, accepted $1,000 in cash from an undercover FBI agent. Later in an interview he revised the crime downward, saying that the aide was distracted by a phone call when the agent left the cash, and tried to wave him off. The press was very liberal, back in those days, “so they find every little thing that is wrong and try to maximize it,” he said.

“There are 7,000-8,000 workers in City Hall. Some guy down the hall took a G-note. You think I knew about that? Now, I challenge anybody to find somebody that put a dime in my pocket. We built malls. We got involved with casino gambling, and there was never any accusation of doing anything wrong. It’s like John Kennedy said: The lies I can handle. I can prove it’s not true, and all this stuff. It’s the myth. The myths are too much. And it’s all a myth. The stories keep expanding.”

Cianci was sitting in a café at the Venda Ravioli, a market in the Little Italy neighborhood of the town he grew up in, the one he can never leave. He looks nothing like the brawling, expansive prince of before. Back then, Cianci chose from one of several toupees that sat in front of his bathroom mirror—a windswept one for late-night fire and crime-scene visits; a flat, sedate number for courthouse appearances, etc. Now, he is mostly bald. He looks at a visitor over spectacles perched over the edge of his nose. The round face and belly, evidence of a man with seemingly insatiable appetites, are gone too, replaced by a shrunken, more slender older man.

If there were a few rogue actors freelancing underneath, there was not much he could do about it.  The City Hall he inherited, both times, were full of Democrats. He had to build coalitions to get something done, he says. If that meant putting some city councilman’s loyalist on the planning board, so be it. If that meant a state senator’s vote was needed on a building project, he made sure that the addition to her house passed the historic districts council.

“I mean, what goes on now, it’s the same fucking people doing the same fucking thing. I mean, just today there was a story about they fired three tax assessors because they were taking people off of the rolls. Now, if it was my administration, BOOM—they would have had the Navy SEALs in there, the CIA, everybody.

“And I am not trying to minimize. We weren’t angels. But there was no money involved. The people who surrounded me in the mayor’s office, we weren’t into that shit.”

Not angels? Does that mean Cianci is owning up to it all? Not quite.

“It’s a part of human nature that you are going to have people in positions who take advantage of that position. And when you are in public office, expect to get caught in the crossfire, especially if there are RICO statutes. You are going to get nailed even if you don’t know what the hell is going on, and that is what happened to me.”

Asked if he did anything wrong, Cianci responded simply, “I was not guilty of conspiracy to take a bribe.”

OK, but how about the incident with his ex-wife’s supposed lover?

“Oh yeah, well I was guilty of that. But let me tell you: I never hit anybody with a fireplace log, first of all. If I pick up this coffee cup, and you think for some reason that I am going to throw it at you, that is placing you in reasonable apprehension of bodily harm, OK? That is what I was charged with. I didn’t hit anybody with anything. Except my fists.”

He has, he insists, mellowed.

“Some people say they would have done the same thing again. I am not saying it was the right thing to do. It was not the right thing to do. But I did it. I paid the penalty for it. It was 1982, ’83. C’mon, it was 30 years ago! I am 73 years old. I am not about to take on Rocky Marciano in the ring, you know.”

Cianci sipped a double espresso and at a slice of Italian cake, topped off by another cup of coffee, paid for by the former head of the International Laborer’s Union, who happened to be sitting nearby. Everyone came up to him, calling him “Buddy” or “Mayor” and with a memory of some party he went to with, a song they sang together. People who look ancient of days call their mothers on the phone to say they saw him. Business owners wonder when he is going to stop by. Women call him “My Buddy” and stop to kiss him, asking if he remembers them.

“Tell me before I forget,” Cianci replies, and when they do, he remembers a graduation, an uncle, a Little League tournament.

Here, and everywhere he goes, people want to know if he is really running. At a celebration for the 40th anniversary of a day-care center that Cianci helped keep afloat when he was in office, a burly old aide, who notes that he stood behind Cianci when he was sworn into office on Jan. 6, 1976, wraps him in a half hug.

“So are you going to run? Everybody keeps speculatin’. I gotta talk to you privately about that sometime.”

“Tell me quick,” an elderly black woman whispers in his ear. “Are you running?”

The deadline if he wants to make the ballot is in two weeks, but Cianci genuinely sounds like somebody who doesn’t know what he will do. He cites a poll “some people did for me” that shows him way up on his opponents, and that by a nearly two-to-one margin Providence residents think the city was better off under him.

Friends and longtime Providence political watchers all say that he sounds like he is leaning toward a run, but no one knows for sure what is happening in the mind of Buddy.

“I wouldn’t bet my house on it, but I think he is going to run,” said Joseph Paolino, a former Providence mayor himself and a close friend. “I think it is who is he about. He is pretty much defined by Providence.”

As for Cianci’s rather sordid past, “I think people here are forgiving. And it all pales considering the problems this city is facing now.”

On this point, Cianci agrees.

“There have been books written about me, documentaries. It’s all there. The only thing they don’t have from me is a fuckin’ stool sample!”

There is the question of Cianci’s health. Although he insists he feels up for it, Cianci was diagnosed with rectal cancer in January. He goes to the hospital practically every day for what he called a quick shot of chemo.

And although Cianci would dwarf his opponent in terms of name-recognition, there are no guarantees. Politics have changed a lot in the decade since he ran, and Providence has, too. He said he would be willing to throw in $1 million of his own money, but he would come in with no infrastructure, and most of the institutional support already locked up elsewhere.

“If he runs, all you are going to see on your television are pictures of Buddy in an orange jumpsuit, the ‘city for sale’ stuff. I think his best day is the day he announces, and it all goes down from there,” said Scott Mackay, a political analyst with Rhode Island Public Radio. “I think he seeks vindication. He doesn’t like the way he went out last time.”

On this point, Cianci disagrees.

“I wouldn’t run to make history. I don’t need to get even. I have a great life. I have three grandkids I get to spend a lot of time with. I like to go out on my boat. I’ve got a radio show that is very lucrative. I own some buildings, I do some TV, I’ve got a good stock portfolio,” he said, rubbing is fingers together to show the money that he would presumably lose if he had to give all of that up to run for mayor. “And that radio show, let me tell you, it is not a heavy lift.”

If the radio show provides Cianci with some easy cash, it also, along with his daily TV commentaries and weekly television show, allows him to be something of a powerbroker in local politics. Cianci is constantly running into local pols at events or calling them on the phone, and rare is the conversation that ends with him not saying, “Well, we’ll have to get you on the show one of these days.”

And the radio show also gives the former mayor a chance to rail against the political class that he feels has let Rhode Island down and undone much of his good work. On a recent Thursday, Cianci was in high dudgeon as the state legislature was preparing to pay back a moral obligation bond that the mayor and many other conservatives thought they should default on. Corporate taxes were being lowered, but not, he told listeners, by enough. “As they say in Italian: Roba da matti! It’s crazy stuff!”

The phones lit up at this. “You see how easy it is to get them riled up?” Cianci whispered, off air.

To hear Cianci tell it, in the last 13 years Providence is a city that has gone to seed. Garbage not picked up, potholes not filled. City residents’ self-esteem has even suffered. In truth, Providence had made it through a tough stretch a lot better than similarly sized New England cities have, even as Rhode Island suffers from the nation’s highest unemployment rate and the city crawls out of a more than $100 million deficit that a previous administration left.

“There is no vision. This place is at a standstill. There is nothing going on but the rent,” Cianci said. “It used to be alive. And people know it.”

Not only is Cianci not sure if he will run, he is not even sure, if he does, that he will run as an independent, which he is by registration, or the Democrat that he is by temperament. He hinted that it would depend, in part, over which gave him a better chance to win. The former allows him to take the summer off and scoop up Republican and unaffiliated voters for a November election; the latter means that in a multi-candidate field, he could win with little more than 25 percent of the vote.

He does not think much of the current Democratic field. When asked about then, he singles out the two leading contenders and runs through a long list of seemingly corrupt deals and bad decisions that he says they have been a part of.

Politically, Cianci is something of a throwback to a time when conservative, ethnic politics dominated urban centers. If Mike Bloomberg came to symbolize a mayor with a global reach, and Rahm Emanuel one whose aim is modernize a hidebound municipal workforce, and Bill de Blasio a mayor who treats the city as a progressive experiment,  Buddy Cianci’s goals, should he win, are to fill potholes and sweep the streets.

“I don’t care about social issues. I don’t have a foreign policy like the mayor of New York has,” he says. Sounding like a New Democrat of the old school, he wants to cut taxes, even on Providence’s richest residents. He wants more charter schools, but not in a way that that will offend the teachers’ unions. He wants to consolidate services, closing police and fire stations if necessary.

It is beyond dispute that Cianci bent the city to his will when he was mayor. After coffee at the market (and after checking store shelves to see that they have enough jars of the marinara sauce that bears his name and face and that he hawks around town), Cianci climbed into the shotgun seat of his waiting souped-up Lincoln Town Car (bearing his initials, “VAC” on the license plate) for a tour around town. To tour Providence though is really to tour the life and works of Buddy Cianci. The entire city can seem like a singular monument to his decades in office. Here is the community center we built. Here are the apartments. There is the Providence Place Mall, which Cianci willed into existence at the moment when retail shops were fleeing the downtown. His administration literally moved rivers to get some of this stuff built.

“When I became mayor this town was dead,” Cianci said. “You could throw a bowling ball down Westminster Street and not hit anybody. Even the Bible Society moved out of town!  There wasn’t no where to go but up. People were downhearted, they didn’t have any hope. We went out and we told people they were a lot better than they were.”

Cianci told his driver to stop the car at Garibaldi Park in the Federal Hill section of town. As he stepped on the curb, two guys in a dump truck started honking their horn. “Hey, you gonna run for mayor? I’ll vote for ya!” Cianci waved. The park, he explained was created by razing an old bathhouse that dated from the time when the neighborhood was a Portuguese enclave. He found an old statue of the Italian general rotting somewhere across town and moved into the new park, to “mock” the new neighborhood, he said in his still thick Rhode Island accent. “It was a Portuguese neighborhood. They had nothing to do with Garibaldi,” he said. “They’d kill you now if you tried this.”

But if Cianci were to win, he would run Providence in a new era of city-making. He likes to talk about the long sweep of urban history, with the postwar suburb boom hollowing them out. Now though, many cities, Providence included, have almost the opposite problem. Too many people of means want to live in the urban core. Housing grows beyond the ability of middle-class people to pay. Public schools remain the refuge of those who have no other place to go.  Attracting major retailers is no longer the major issue, but helping locals one survive is.

“How do you frame this guy as the mayor of a 21st-century Providence?” asked Scott Mackay.

As Cianci tours Providence, he points with pride to development projects that were carried out to completion thanks to a partnership with the federal government. Now cities are largely on their own, as austerity and gridlock grip Washington.

Asked about this, about how to manage a city at a time when there is no cavalry coming from the federal government to help, Cianci said simply, “sometimes all it takes is sheer force of personality.”

And it is that personality—brash, confident, dismissing of detractors, and as wrapped up in the lifeblood of the city as possible—that is Cianci’s calling card, and that follows him everywhere he goes.

Cianci got back in the Lincoln, and headed to a graduation ceremony at a theater downtown that had been restored during his administration. Backstage, a young woman, who was just a child during the first two Cianci tenures, patiently waited to hand him her card. She wanted to volunteer on a possible future campaign. As for two decades of scandals, jail time, and rumors of corruption, “I don’t give a shit about that,” he said. “He is the only politician we have ever had in this town who cared about us.”