TGIF: 21 Things To Know About Rhode Island Politics & Media

Jan 29, 2016

The inimitable Buddy Cianci passes from the Rhode Island scene, making waves even after his death. Thanks for stopping by for my weekly column. As usual your tips and comments are welcome, and you can follow me through the week on the twitters. Here we go.

1. Larger than life personality? Check. Off-the-charts glibness and wit? Big time. Serial trouble with the law? Yeah, that too. The strength of Buddy Cianci's persona can be seen in how he was influencing state politics even after his unexpected death Thursday. For many Rhode Islanders, Cianci was a man of the people and entertainer-in-chief, a lovable rogue who got things done, elevating Providence and its image, in a seamy political world. As one Buddy supporter told me after Cianci announced his second comeback bid in 2014, "I think everybody in this state's politics is corrupt to begin with, but that's the way of the world." Still, even if many questioned the strength of the federal case that landed Cianci in federal prison in 2002, the Plunder Dome trial highlighted troubling problems at City Hall, in Providence schools, and in the police department. Those woes represented a marked contrast to Cianci's refrain about paying attention to the fundamentals of government: "Most people in Providence live, you know, they live in a house, from their back door to their sidewalk," he told a public radio interviewer in 2014. "I mean, they want their potholes filled, their lights lit, their streets plowed. That’s what they’re looking for. And they’re looking for some entertainment and culture, too." Cianci delivered the entertainment in spades. His emeritus role as an afternoon talk-show host at WPRO continued that tradition. Assessing the legacy of Cianci's impact on Rhode Island's capital city is a more complex case.

2. Everyone in Rhode Island has a Buddy story, or so it seems. My personal favorite unfolded in the summer of 1999 -- a few months after the FBI had unveiled the Plunder Dome investigation that ultimately landed Cianci in prison. I was working for the Providence Phoenix at the time, and went to City Hall to interview the mayor for two stories, one about the impact of Providence Place on downtown and the other on the myriad problems in the Providence Police Department. "What do do you want to talk about today?" Cianci said, as he greeted me in his office. I said I'd explained to an aide the focus of the two stories I was pursuing. "Doreen said you only wanted to talk about the mall," Cianci insisted. I maintained that he knew the full expected course of our conversation. So it went, as we debated this back and forth for a minute -- until Cianci pounded a fist against his massive desk before shouting, "I'm the one who sets the rules here, not you!" I gave the mayor the hairy eyeball, and launched into my questions on the mall. When those were done, he said, "What do you want to know about the cops?" Cianci answered all those questions, too. The bully-turned-charmer proceeded to spin anecdotes on an array of subjects during a long and leisurely conversation, including how he broke the Great Garbage Strike of 1981 by posting police officers with shotguns on the back of trash trucks. "Thing was," Cianci said, turning toward me with a conspiratorial grin and a dramatic tone, "the guns weren't loaded!" Ah, Buddy. 

3. It's on: the revamped truck toll proposal is due to be taken up Thursday by House Finance. A comparison provided by the governor's office shows that the cap to cross the state on I-95 will drop from $30 to $20; median toll cost will shrink from $3.50 to $3; the toll-backed revenue bond will go from $600 million to zero; and total interest drops from $578 million over 30 years to $204 million over 15 years. In a nod to suspicion about tolls being extended to passenger cars, state officials now say that would require voter approval. The RI Trucking Association responded with a more muted note of protest (“Although we continue to be fundamentally opposed to tolling, we recognize this bill is very different than what the governor had proposed last year," RITA President Chris Maxwell said in a statement.) Yet some observers continue to ask about what will happen if tolls fail to produce enough revenue to pay back a GARVEE bond and GARVEE refinancing. The governor's office says that's non-issue, though, since GARVEE bonds aren't backed by toll revenue.

4. Here's a look at some of the media coverage of Cianci's death: his biographer, former ProJo reporter Mike Stanton, notes how the same guy who told to go play in traffic later apologized -- as they were sharing drinks in a downtown gay bar after midnight, no less. (“It’s life in the Renaissance City,” his photographer joked. “More like ancient Rome,” quipped Buddy.) .... New York Times ace Dan Barry, ex of the ProJo, captures the melancholy of Buddy's story ("Short, compact and faintly menacing, Mr. Cianci walked about Providence with the swagger of a man who left his imprint on the skyline and even the pavement of the city. But his strutting could never quite shake the tragic air that enveloped him: a gregarious man who seemed lonely; a supremely gifted politician whose ego and foibles had brought him low; a walking coulda-been.") .... Dan McGowan from WPRI.com: "Cianci remained shockingly tapped into Providence politics. He might have been my biggest competitor. He knew everything" .... Scott Mackay says Cianci's passing marks the time to say goodbye to his political approach .... A ProJo editorial: "He will be remembered as a tragic figure, an immensely gifted politician and communicator with a seemingly limitless future who could not control the personal demons that ended up destroying his reputation and his opportunities to do greater good." .... Edward Siedle: "Buddy may not have always acted with the public’s best interests in mind, but, by today’s standards, he would likely be considered Rhode Island’s least dangerous politician. Any corruption he may have been involved with amounted to chump-change. He never dared to sell the state out to Wall Street, costing billions." .... Stephen Eide of the Manhattan Institute's Center for State and Local Leadership: "Best known for being a two-time felon, Cianci was nonetheless often an effective mayor. Providence would not have come as far as it has without him."

5. Restaurateur Bob Burke on Buddy Cianci: "To borrow from Dickens: he was the worst of mayors, he was the best of mayors .... There are those who loved to love him, those that hated to love him, and those that loved to hate him, but at the end of the day he was the best guilty pleasure this city has ever had .... I always thought that if Machiavelli, Mussolini and Fellini could have gotten together and fathered a son, he would be Buddy. The guy was a walking Greek tragedy and comedy all rolled into one human being."

6. Congratulations to Bill Malinowski on the sale of his book, Chasing the Ghost: The Life and Times of Charles Kennedy to J. Boylston Publishing. Kennedy had a spectacular criminal career, pulling off major heists, before turning to trafficking marijuana and cocaine (and spending more than a decade in prison), and he was part of Gerard Ouimette's crew. Malinowski, who took a medical leave from the ProJo due to ALS (see #3), hopes the book will be published in August.

7. At least six people on the journalistic side, and two or three from advertising, are leaving the Providence Journal as a result of the newspaper's latest buyout. Last week, we noted the departure of Deputy Executive Editor Susan Areson. Also leaving are Pamela Cotter, assistant manager editor for breaking news and new media (heading to Swipely to lead communications; photographer Mary Murphy; arts reporter Bill Van Siclen; and features staffers Steve Smith and Mikki Catanzaro.

8. Buddy Cianci was a media icon in addition to being a politician. He was a bankable radio talker, and his death leaves a big void in WPRO's lineup. Of course, Cianci also had a stormy relationship with The Providence Journal, often disparaging the statewide paper as "The Providence Pamphlet." Not surprisingly, Cianci used to fantasize about buying the ProJo -- a story I wrote about in 2003. Excerpt: Cianci seemed serious enough a few years ago when he ran into a member of the Providence Newspaper Guild at Murphy's, a downtown bar, and expressed his interest in buying the Journal in cooperation with the Guild. "It wasn't much more specific than he thought he could line up some major backers," says Guild administrator Tim Schick. "We attempted to follow up, but there was never any [additional] contact made. He never got back to us." Another hint of Cianci's aspiration to become a media mogul came during a September 2000 roast of Phoenix columnists Phillipe and Jorge at Rhodes-on-the-Pawtuxet. ProJo columnist Bob Kerr, the master of ceremonies for the event, recalls how Cianci told him "that when he bought the Journal, the first thing he would do is have me pick up his shirts every morning. He also said, although I did not hear it, that he was going to change the name of Fountain Street to Cianci Way, so the Journal would have to put his name on the letterhead."

9. Providence Ward 2 City Councilor Sam Zurier said the city's finances "are in very serious condition," but during tapings of this week's RIPR Political Roundtable and Bonus Q+A, he downplayed Alan Hassenfeld's recent use of the B-word and said the outlook on a property tax increase in Mayor Jorge Elorza's next budget remains a bit unclear. "There are a lot of moving parts this year because it's a revaluation," Zurier said in the latter segment. "Property values have probably gone up, so you might be able to get more revenues without increasing the rate, even though everyone's bill has gone up ... It's a little too soon to tell how they're going to make all the pieces fit together and what the impact is going to be on which class of taxpayers." 

10. Strong reporting by RIPR's Elisabeth Harrison, who finds how ambiguity in the law for reporting sexual abuse may have been a factor in the St. George's case.

11. Are Rhode Islanders too negative? That might be a great discussion for a tavern (or a public radio show), but assessing the mindset of voters can be a thorny area for politicians. ("The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America," Jimmy Carter said in his 1979 "Malaise" speech.) Governor Gina Raimondo nonetheless waded into the negativity topic, during a discussion with reporters Tuesday in the cafeteria of the Department of Administration building. When it comes to using university foundations to fund the state's new chief innovation officer or a trip to Davos, she said, "Unfortunately, there's a suspicion of things that are different .... We have to take a step back and over-explain things" to discourage people from "immediately going to the small and losing sight of the big."   

12. Providence School Board President Nick Hemond came of age in the city after Plunder Dome and became fast friends with Buddy Cianci after calling into the former mayor's radio show. It was back in 2007, not long after Cianci had returned to the airwaves. The topic was "something to do with Classical," recalls Hemond, an alum of the high school. "He kept me on through two commercial breaks," and asked to meet for lunch the next day. "I gained a friend who I'll never forget," Hemond said, a wiser, more mature Buddy who mentored him on politics and the importance of civic engagement. Ultimately, Hemond said, "I learned a lot about what to do and what not to do." 

13. Dan Kennedy has troubling news about newspapers: "Digital display advertising has become so ubiquitous that its value keeps dropping. Print advertising still pays the bills, but for how much longer? The Internet has shifted the balance of power from publishers to advertisers, who can reach their customers far more efficiently than they could by taking a shot in the dark on expensive print ads. The result, according to the Newspaper Association of America (as reported by the Pew Research Center), is that print ad revenues have fallen from $44.9 billion in 2003 to just $16.4 billion in 2014, while digital ad revenues—$3.5 billion in 2014—have barely budged since 2006." This downward spiral explains why papers like the ProJo keep cutting costs. As Kennedy notes, it also underscores the ongoing question of how public-interest reporting and other forms of traditional journalism will be sustained in the digital age.

14. Former ProJo reporter Ged Carbone, via FB, says he this week "put the final period on the first draft of a book, 'Brown & Sharpe: the Partnership That Shaped the World.' It is a multi-generational epic, a history of America from Andrew Jackson to George W. Bush as seen through the lens of a single manufacturing company. It's 117,323 words long, 2 years and 2 months in the making. I think it takes less time to make a baby elephant."

15. Councilman Zurier says it's unrealistic to think Providence can court development without tax breaks, although he points to Providence Place as an example of a particularly excessive tax subsidy. "We're dying from that," Zurier said, on Bonus Q+A, of the 23-year tax break granted to the developers of the mall. "The tax assessor, I spoke with him about the mall the other day. He says every time he walks by it, he cries. Right now, that's $700 million value -- that would be $25 million a year [in tax revenue]. It could wipe out most of the problems we have. That doesn't enter the tax rolls until 2028. In the meantime, it produced 1,600 new jobs, that is generating income tax for the state. There's also sales tax. I believe that the state gets $6 or $7 million of sales tax from that [but] that one, I wish the incentives had been balanced differently."

16. Overdoses remain a serious problem in Rhode Island and other states. Despite that, there are few resources for Rhode Islanders grieving a loss due to overdose, reports RIPR's Kristin Gourlay.

17. Although General Electric chose Boston for its new headquarters, Governor Raimondo touted her networking skills for putting Rhode Island in the hunt, the governor said in her lunch with reporters this week. She reached out to Douglas Warner III, a former J.P. Morgan Chase & Co chairman, who serves on the boards of Yale University and GE. Raimondo said talks are continuing about trying to bring some GE jobs to Rhode Island, although it could be months before more news develops.

18. On Saturday, January 30 -- a day before the 97th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's birthday -- the PawSox will host an appearance by Branch Rickey III, the grandson of the GM who championed Robinson's role as the first black Major Leaguer in 1947. At least 42 students from Pawtucket area schools and youth organizations are expected.  

19. Will Richmond reports on how the 24-year-old mayor of Fall River, Jasiel Correia II, hopes to forge closer ties with the City of Providence: "For those concerned that Correia is going to Providence instead of bringing people from Providence to Fall River, that's an issue that will take care of itself through good relationships. If Correia can spin the charm that helped get him elected to Providence business leaders, they'll be jamming up the parking spaces outside Government Center in the future."

20. Johnathan Berard is returning to Rhode Island to head the state chapter of Clean Water Action. He's most recently worked at Bluewater Baltimore and Twentythree Media.

21. NPR's Steve Inskeep goes deep in a conversation with billionaire Charles Koch, one of the leaders of the contemporary conservative/libertarian movement. (Koch and his brother David have vowed to spent almost $1 billion to influence elections this year.) Excerpt: The Koch organization actually spends so generously that it is believed to rival the official Republican Party in its importance. But the notion that government benefits are essentially bribes offers a clue to Koch's view of the world. Koch insists he opposes tax breaks and subsidies that are backed by both political parties. He says he even opposes subsidies that bring extra profits to companies within his Koch Industries empire. Meanwhile, the New York Times reports on what happened to New Yorker writer Jane Mayer after she wrote a book about the Kochs.

This post has been updated.