Politics Was Buddy's Sport, But He Led Cheers For Others

Feb 7, 2016

Buddy Cianci, the longest serving mayor in the history of Providence, 21 years, and one of the most colorful and controversial politicians in the history of Rhode Island, will take his final spin through the city he loved on Monday en route to St. Ann’s Cemetery in Cranston, where he will be interred. Leaving from City Hall, diagonally across from the outdoor skating rink he championed, the funeral cortege will pass within blocks of sports venues, real and imagined, that figured prominently in his career.

The Dunkin’ Donuts Center, where he used to cheer the Providence Bruins hockey team and tout NCAA basketball and hockey tournaments. The rail approach to Providence Station, on which he envisioned a publicly financed 69,000-seat stadium for the New England Patriots. The vacant riverfront lot on the edge of downtown that he argued against as the site of a publicly financed baseball park for the Pawtucket Red Sox.

Unfortunately, the procession will miss the 33-acre campus of Moses Brown School on Providence’s East Side, where Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci, short and stocky, lettered in three sports long before he lettered in his lifetime sport, politics. Yes, Cianci enjoyed sports, especially if they generated publicity for his city.  And yes, he was Providence’s biggest cheerleader before he died on Jan. 28 at 74.

Buddy attended Moses Brown, starting in fifth grade. In Upper School, he played football and baseball and wrestled in the heavyweight division. In his 2011 autobiography, “Politics and Pasta,” he wrote that he made up for “my lack of natural ability with perseverance and intensity.” He recalled that football coaches Jerry Zeoli and Al DeRobbio explained that the way to beat opponents was to be tougher. “They taught me how to be tough when I needed to be,” he wrote, a lesson he practiced the rest of his life.

Cianci’s proudest moment as a jock occurred on the wrestling mat in the state championship semifinals. His opponent was bigger and stronger, but Cianci was quicker. They tied on points, and Cianci won on “riding time.” In other words, he controlled the match longer than his opponent.  “I never forgot the feeling,” he wrote of that triumph. “This was a real upset, something in which I took great pride.” As time passed, he embellished the story “so that my opponent continued to get bigger and tougher. . . . By the time I got finished building up the story, the kid was practically a legend.” Years later, on the campaign trail, Cianci ran into his old wrestling foe. Cianci’s ego was “well, somewhat deflated” upon learning that his “bigger and tougher” opponent had become a successful hairdresser.

In 1992 he convinced the owners of the Maine Mariners to move their American Hockey League franchise to the Providence Civic Center, giving birth to the Providence Bruins. Never one to shrink from a challenge, in 1997 Cianci led the charge to attract Patriots owner Robert Kraft to town. Kraft and his team, that is. Kraft was unhappy with Foxboro Stadium, home of the Patriots since opening in 1971, and unhappy with public officials who were slow to help him rebuild. Seeing an opening, Cianci began hyping his city. He pitched a 69,000-seat stadium to be built beside I-95 in downtown Providence on land now occupied by the 903 Building, where, coincidentally, he resided after his release from federal prison. Hartford also wooed the Patriots, and Kraft leveraged interest from both cities to gain concessions from Massachusetts. As we know, he ultimately built Gillette Stadium in Foxboro. Providence still gets a whiff of NFL action when visiting teams stay at the Omni Providence.

Eighteen years later, Cianci, by then an afternoon drive time radio celebrity on WPRO, weighed in on another stadium proposal, but from the opposite side. After Providence lawyer and lobbyist Jim Skeffington and partners bought the Pawtucket Red Sox, they sought state backing for a 10,000-seat baseball park on state-owned land downtown. Cianci used his radio show to question the use of so much public money for a private venture. He was not alone. State leaders, wary in the wake of the 38 Studios debacle that will cost Rhode Island taxpayers at least $75 million, did not embrace the investment opportunity, and the campaign fell apart with Skeffington’s sudden death from a heart attack in May. Now it appears the Pawsox will remain in Pawtucket.

Basketball games, hockey games, X Games, figure skating, boat shows, auto shows, fishing shows, road races, bicycle races, Buddy Cianci, in office or out, cheered them all so long as they drew the spotlight to Providence, his Providence. Monday, the spotlight shines on him one last time.