Love him or loathe him, Vincent A. `Buddy’ Cianci Jr., has long been Rhode Island ‘s political Rascal King. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay ponders the talk about another Cianci comeback.
F. Scott Fitzgerald said famously that there are no second acts in American life. The Jazz Age novelist never met Buddy Cianci.
For nearly a half century, Cianci has been a force in the politics of Providence and Rhode Island. One of the beauties and banes of our cozy, parochial slice of New England is that you can leave the Ocean State for thirty years and walk right back into the same conversation.
Nowadays some of that talk is about the improbable: That Buddy Cianci may try another comeback by running for Providence mayor. Cianci’s future has become a topic from Smith Hill to Federal Hill to the Capital Grille.
Some of this has been fueled, of course, by Cianci himself from behind his talk radio mic. (Where he gives whole new meaning to Theodore Roosevelt’s term Bully Pulpit). His most public booster is Joe Paolino, another former Providence mayor who has evolved from Cianci enemy to friend. Paolino, who in 1990 very publicly called Cianci a ``crook’’ now says Cianci is what City Hall needs.
``He knows how to work the levers of power, ’’ says Paolino. ``He knows how to get things done.’’
Ok, let’s put aside, for a moment, the two felonies that pushed Cianci from office, once in 1984 and again in 2002. The opposition research can start with Cianci’s breezy memoir, `Politics and Pasta: How I prosecuted mobsters, rebuilt a dying city, dined with Sinatra, spent five years in a federally funded gated community and lived to tell the tale.’’
Cianci’s book is a lesson in how to govern a city through the old machine style: the politics of reward-and-revenge, the-ends-justify- the-means. ``In politics, giving jobs is known as patronage. I neither invented patronage nor perfected it. Patronage was being used by the Chinese before Christ was born. I never sold jobs; I bartered them. Politics is simply the art of trade and barter and I had jobs to work with.’’
He recounts how he captured the support of city employee unions during his 1990 election campaign when he won a three-way race with about 34 percent of the vote. Cianci boasts: ``I had given retired union members paid health insurance a decade before state workers got it. Teachers in Providence in Providence had gone from being among the worst paid in the state to among the best. Police and firefighters had gotten substantially improved benefits.’’
So Cianci acknowledges that he bought the support of city employees with the taxpayers’ money. When he took office a second time in 1991, the city’s retirement plan was funded at a 57 percent rate. Today that pension plan is at 32 percent. It would be even worse without changes that the current mayor, Angel Taveras, has negotiated with city union leaders.
If he runs, Cianci is going to try to make voters believe that the legacy of his 20 plus years as mayor is a revived downtown. But facts are stubborn things. What they show is that Cianci’s favor factory led to a bloated city workforce and pension and health care commitments that have nearly driven Providence to bankruptcy.
Then he writes that as far as corruption goes, he was no different than other politicians. ``The perception is that it’s the officials running the departments who have the most opportunity for corruption. In fact, it’s the midlevel employees who have the power to choose who gets contracts, jobs, licenses and tax benefits that can be worth a lot of money and there are people willing to pay them to make the right decision. I’m not defending it, I’m explaining it. Corruption exists on all levels of government, from commissioners to low-level employees.’’
Cianci states that his federal felony corruption conviction in 2002 came because people misunderstood his role as mayor. ``I got in trouble because people believed I knew everything that was going on in the city. They got that idea because that was the impression I wanted them to have. I wanted voters to believe that I was the ultimate hands-on mayor but in fact the city had as many as 6,000 employees and obviously no one could know everything that was going on.’’
He would lead voters to think his administrations got a reputation for corruption because rogue employees, in say, the parks department, were stealing lawn mowers. Fact is, the FBI taped his top aide and close confidante, Frank Corrente, taking a $1,000 cash bribe in an envelope. It didn’t look like his first time.
Cianci insists that he never took a bribe. Yet he says that ``no political system can prevent corruption. People don’t want to believe it but it is ingrained in the system.’’
There are many Cianci supporters in Providence who say he was unfairly convicted because the government never proved he that he directly took bribes. Yet, the trial presented a roadmap of a City Hall that was out of control, where an awful lot of things were for sale. When he was sentenced to prison, Federal Judge Ernest Torres called him a "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde."
If he runs, Cianci will have to make this case: that a 73-year old former mayor who was twice forced from office , and is being treated for cancer, is the mayor of the future. Is the man who never lost an election for mayor in the 20th Century really the answer to the city’s 21st Century problems?
Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:35 and 8i:35 and on All Things Considered at 5:50. You can also follow his political analysis and reporting at our `On Politics’ blog at RIPR.org