As the longest serving mayor in Providence history, Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci Jr. is known both for his skills as a political showman and the criminal charges that twice forced him from City Hall. Now, at age 73 and almost done with his treatment for colon cancer, Cianci is considering another run for the top job in Rhode Island’s capital city. Because there’s a large field of candidates splitting the vote, the former mayor has a credible shot at winning. Yet a campaign by Cianci would also raise a national focus on Rhode Island’s checkered history of political corruption.
On a recent Wednesday night, more than 100 Buddy Cianci supporters gather at a Federal Hill restaurant to try to get Cianci back into City Hall. Well, not actually Cianci himself. The fundraiser in a tent outside Costantino’s Ristorante raised money to commission an official portrait of Cianci for City Hall. Yet the idea of an actual campaign by the former mayor is very much on the mind of supporters like Yvonne Shilling.
“I think he loves the city,” Shilling says. “He knows how to get things done. He was a heck of a good mayor for a long time. He did a lot for the city and he can do a lot more.”
Shilling is from Providence’s East Side and has been on the board of a nonprofit that helps refugees. She says that when Cianci was mayor, he was supportive of the group’s efforts.
“He always made sure that those people who were getting resettled, who couldn’t even vote for him, but he made sure we had grants, so we could help those people,” Shilling says.
The Buddy Cianci described by Shilling is informally known as “The Good Buddy.” But when Cianci was convicted of a single count of racketeering conspiracy in 2002, the judge who sentenced him likened Cianci to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
“Because there were two Buddys,” says University of Connecticut journalism professor Mike Stanton, a former Providence Journal reporter and the author of the Cianci biography, “The Prince of Providence.”
“There was the charismatic Buddy that wanted to be your friend, that would do anything to help you, was entertaining and made you feel good about your city,” Stanton says. “And then there was the other Buddy, who whether as he says he didn’t know about it or not, presided over a City Hall where there was a range of corruption, there was a range of people doing things that they shouldn’t be doing.”
When it comes to doing things that people shouldn’t be doing, Buddy Cianci is a legend, and not just in Rhode Island. He even captured the attention of Jon Stewart during a recent episode of the Daily Show: “No one does corruption better than the Northeast, baby. You got Serpico, Abscam … I think the mayor of Providence might have assaulted a guy with a fireplace log.”
Although he denies striking anyone with a fireplace log, Cianci was forced from office in 1984 after assaulting a man Cianci suspected of sleeping with his estranged wife. Cianci later staged a dramatic comeback as mayor, winning a super-tight three-way race in 1990, and then presided over the nationally hyped “Providence Renaissance.”
Critics point to how generous giveaways for public employees took place during his watch, although they also acknowledge Cianci’s skill as a cheerleader for Rhode Island’s capital city. But by 2002, Cianci landed a five-year sentence in federal prison after being convicted of a single count of racketeering conspiracy.
Since getting out in 2007, Cianci has earned a six-figure income as a TV analyst and radio talk-show host. Cianci lives at the upscale 903 complex, near the back of the Providence Place mall, and we spoke in a community room there. He looks his age at 73, but Cianci’s irrepressible nature is unchanged, and he says he’s gotten a clean bill of health from his doctors. As far as his misdeeds, Cianci maintains they don’t amount to more than some bad staff choices and the hurly-burly of practicing city politics.
He sums it up this way: “I could have made better choices.”
Cianci says wanting to get the last laugh on his enemies isn’t a factor in his thinking as he contemplates another run for mayor: “Would I do it? The simple answer is, yeah. Yeah, I’d do it if I had a reason to do it. I wouldn’t run for history or anything like that. I’d run if I could make a difference and I’ve been thinking a lot about that.”
Cianci’s message is that Rhode Island’s capital city and the self-esteem of its residents have slipped since his time in office, before the great recession. He credits Angel Taveras with doing a good job improving Providence’s financial condition, but says other things have taken a turn for the worse.
“When I look at the city that I love so much and that’s been so much a part of me,” Cianci says. “I see you know certainly the infrastructure has failed miserably between potholes and curbs and just crumbling infrastructure, which I think is really a shame. And also I don’t think there’s a lot of excitement in the city.”
Brown University political science professor Wendy Schiller says Cianci looks better and better with the passage of time to some Providence voters: “There’s a lot of nostalgia about Buddy Cianci as mayor. They liked the way Providence looks, they like what he did as mayor, and they feel the city will be well-run if he comes back.”
But Schiller says a campaign by Cianci could worsen image problems in a state with the nation’s highest unemployment rate, and where there’s still a whiff of wrongdoing from an as-yet unexplained state-federal raid in March that led to the resignation of House Speaker Gordon Fox.
“Certainly, if Mayor Cianci were to run again, it would be a big story in the national press,” Schiller says, “but I think for the wrong reasons, which would be that Rhode Island can’t escape its own corrupt past. And I think it would hurt Providence and Rhode Island’s reputation on the whole – not because he wouldn’t be a good mayor again, but because people remember that’s he a convicted felon.”
Cianci has won three of his six terms as mayor by razor-thin margins, so he’s a master of splitting the vote in Rhode Island’s capital city. Channel 12 pollster Joe Fleming says the field of five Democrats running for mayor could give Cianci his best shot of squeaking through again, this time as a Democrat.
“If Buddy decides to run, he’s only going to run if he believes he can win this race,” Fleming says. “He’s not going to get into this race to lose.”
But if Cianci gets into the race for mayor, it will probably become Rhode Island’s dirtiest political fight of 2014, possibly eclipsing the race for governor. Cianci’s old nemesis, the Providence Journal, has already editorialized against even placing a privately funded portrait of the former mayor in City Hall.
Among the candidates for mayor, Providence City Council president Michael Solomon has the biggest campaign account and the most endorsements in the race. Solomon’s campaign declined to make him available for an interview for this story, but Solomon shared his view on Rhode Island Public Radio last year on Cianci’s possible campaign: “Listen, I don’t want to move backwards. I think the city needs to move forward.”
So when will we know if Rhode Island’s legendary rascal king is really going to shoot for yet another comeback?
In classic Buddy fashion, Cianci says he’s aware he needs to make up his mind before the June 25 filing deadline for candidates.