Former Providence Mayor and two-time felon Buddy Cianci was on his way to a political redemption, until he lost the city's mayoral race on Tuesday. But don't count him out just yet.
The last time I saw Vincent "Buddy" Cianci in the Moses Brown School field house, he arrived by helicopter. It was 2000 or 2001, my senior year of high school, and the mayor of Providence, Rhode Island flew in to speak to an assembly at his alma mater. This was his thing, traveling by chopper and showing up in style, even though the state house is less than a mile away as the crow flies and only a tad further on city roads. Buddy lived to impress.
Cianci was the most compelling and successful politician the city ever saw. He helped revitalize the struggling metropolis, taking credit for moving rivers and building malls while heading an organization that some said resembled the mob families he busted as a prosecutor. He served as mayor from 1975-1984 before being forced to resign after pleading no contest to a felony assault charge.
He also drove the city into massive debt. According to a New England Monthly article titled "His Honor, The Felon" that ran in 1984, the city deficit grew from nearly $500,000 to almost $8 million during Cianci's first term as mayor and his second term saw a $3 million budget increase as Providence's bond rating dropped from AA to A1. "By any dispassionate standard, his financial administration of the city had been disastrous," the article wrote.
But the people of Providence loved his charisma and accomplishments, and he won again in 1991. "You know why I'm mayor? Because Providence has smart voters," he told The New Yorker's Philip Gourevitch at the bar in the Biltmore Hotel. "Yeah, I punched a guy in the mouth for fucking my wife. But look at the city. People come here from Boston to go to the zoo, go to the theatre, go to a restaurant. Used to be the reverse. Cities are about choices. Choices—having more shit you want to do than you can do. This hotel was about to be torn down when I became mayor."
The second reign lasted until 2002, when the FBI's Operation Plunder Dome resulted in the indictment of 30 people, 22 convictions, and 16 jail sentences. Cianci spent five years as inmate No. 05000-070 at Fort Dix, found guilty of one racketeering conspiracy charge. Judge Ronald R. Lagueux, who presided over part of the Plunder Dome trial, offered his thoughts on the endemic rottenness. "Clearly, there is a feeling in city government in Providence that corruption is tolerated. In this mayor's two administrations, there has been more corruption in the City of Providence than in the history of this state," he said, more than a decade ago.
That was more than a decade ago. Cianci, who has spent the days since his 2007 release as a highly rated talk show host, maintains his innocence. And this year, he ran for mayor again.
In early October, Cianci was at Moses Brown to participate in a discussion between himself and two other mayoral candidates. He had a chance to win again. Polls leading up to Tuesday's election show him closing on the Democratic primary winner, Jorge Elorza, an ex-Housing Court judge who had been endorsed by President Barack Obama, and who fashioned himself as the honest accountant the cash-strapped city desperately needs. Republican candidate Dan Harrop was a distant third in the race for the seat vacated by Providence Mayor Angel Taveras, who ran, unsuccessfully, for governor this year. "I think it's fabulous. He's just part of Providence. He's part of the fabric of Rhode Island history." Rhode Island-born TV anchor Meredith Vieri offered about Cianci's decision to run in 2014.
The twice-convicted, once-jailed felon ditched his trademark toupee while in prison but remains as charming as he is evasive. "He's such a charismatic guy, and he's so good at lying and obfuscating that he convinces people," said Mike Stanton, a former Providence Journal reporter who wrote The Prince of Providence, a book about Cianci, told me the day after the debate while sitting in a cafe downtown. "He makes people forget the past, except for his nostalgic view when things were better. He's not as he used to be but he's still a formidable candidate."
Cianci, a few months into recovery from a battle with colon cancer, lost 50 pounds and looked all of his 73 years. Less pit bull and more aging greyhound, he sat with slumped shoulders between Elorza and Harrop, wearing a red tie, shuffling the stack of papers in front of him as he searched for answers to the questions moderator Alisha Pina Thounsavath, a journalist and 1996 graduate of Moses Brown, asked during the conversation billed as "a chance to for our students to see democracy at its best."
Cianci, back in the school where he'd felt like an outcast as a child because of his Italian heritage, was a student cramming for a test, passing but not excelling, too often reciting canned talking points prepared by his staff: "Strong pre-K programming is a solid investment... for kids so they can be strong learners in the future, the earlier, the better," he intoned, joylessly. While there were flashes of charm—a story about a woman who was bussing her child to pre-K and Cianci's concern that "the only thing he's going to learn how to do is be a bus driver"—and neither of the other candidates distinguished themselves, the old mayor's appeal didn't shine through until his closing statement.
Then, showtime: Without the need to frame his remarks around education, the topic of the debate, Cianci was free to spin his story. The man who takes credit, deserved and otherwise, for revitalizing downtown Providence during his previous administrations, has a powerful ally in nostalgia. "The one thing people ask me all the time is 'What is the thing your administration contributed most to the city of Providence?' It isn't building Providence Place Mall. It isn't creating WaterFire. It isn't making it one of the best cities in the country because a lot of people contributed. I think what happened was we raised the self-esteem of the people in the city of Providence to levels they never thought they could achieve. That is where I want to bring this city again."
The pro-Buddy audience went wild. He was flying again.
Debate over, the candidates stepped down to meet their constituents. While Harrop and Elorza worked the fringes of the room, Buddy found himself mobbed. The recognition, notoriety, and support follows him everywhere he goes, and he loves the spotlight. He is Providence.
After 20 minutes of mingling, the last hand shaken, the last photo taken, Cianci finally let his handlers lead him away from the crowd. He walked out of the field house and into a waiting SUV emblazoned with Buddy's face and the word "Leadership" written across the door in huge letters. When I visited his campaign headquarters the next week, I talked to the former mayor's driver. He told me he hated driving Buddy's monstrosity, that it was too big and drew too much attention.
Cianci has always been a master of finding votes. In his memoir, Pasta and Politics, he recounts a debate from years ago:
Let me understand something, I said. Mr. Lippitt says he's pro-choice. Mr. Annaldo says he's pro-choice. Is that right. Both men nodded. Good, I'm pro-life.
Beginning at that moment, I had always been pro-life. Why not? Was it hypocritical I prefer to consider it political. Anyone who doesn't believe that politicians choose at least some of their positions based on political expediency hasn't read the polls, some of which tell politicians what positions they should take.
He and his campaign sent a mailer to 2,400 names provided by the Catholic diocese. The letters, touting Buddy as the only pro-life candidate, arrived on a Saturday with the intention that they would be discussed in church on Sunday. He won the election by 317 votes. Buddy didn't invent political expediency, but he played it harder and better than most.
In the past, he also courted Providence's large gay community and did so again in 2014. On a rainy Thursday night in late October, I watched him ham it up on-stage at a bingo night with a drag queen named Miss Kitty Litter. More than 800 came that night, a record in the 18-year history of Drag Bingo. Buddy draws a crowd. Many people arrived in Halloween costumes: Wonder Woman, butterfly wings, Waldo, a wet tee shirt, a light socket, Salvador Dali carrying a melting clock, the Pope, and at least two Tom Brady jerseys. Participants brought candy and other snack food before settling in at their pre-assigned tables. Prizes include rides from Lyft and dildos from Fleshjack.
Before calling his assigned game, Cianci made the rounds followed by a camera from Meet the Press and a reporter from the Boston Globe. He shook hands, charmed old ladies and young men alike, and stood patiently while potential voters put their iPads into selfie mode. A half a dozen of tutu-wearing coeds ran up for a photo. Half the audience wanted a brush with Rhode Island fame. The other half hoped the charade would end so they could play bingo. A young woman dressed as Frida Kahlo shook her head as Cianci and his entourage passed her on the stairs. "I do not want to be on camera," her friend in a Harry Potter outfit said. The mayor donned two strands of Mardi Gras beads a bingo player handed him. "Running with the Devil" played over the speakers.
When Miss Kitty Litter finally called Buddy up to the stage, he walked up to cheers Rocky theme music blaring over the static-y speakers. As one of the two primary sponsors of the night, he had three minutes to sell his message, in this case himself:
"Back when I was mayor, I looked for support of the LGBT community, and I'll tell you why," he began. "I was the first man ever to give benefits to domestic partners who worked in the city of Providence. That was a long time ago. I was the first mayor ever to march in the gay pride parade. That was back in the 1990s."
"As a matter of fact, some of you might have read in the papers that I was in the [Rhode Island] Supreme Court again, but it wasn't for anything bad. It was for something good. Back in the year 2001, I ordered a fire truck to go to the gay pride parade. There were three fire fighters who were supposed to drive it. They said no, that driving a fire truck in the gay pride parade was an insult to them and that I was interfering with their constitutional right, and their freedom of speech and freedom of religion. They ended up suing me. In that case, the wheels of justice grind real quickly in the state, don't they? "
"Thirteen years later, I find myself in Supreme Court because they wanted to make me pay because I violated their rights. The reason I talk about this tonight is because this community stood by me. They showed up in court. They supported me. And I appreciate that."
The crowd applauded, ignoring the fact that perhaps the wheels of justice spun slowly because he was in prison for five of those 13 years. No matter. The evening raised more than $15,000 for AIDS Care Ocean State and Meet the Press had b-roll for its "Addicted to Office" segment on Cianci.
Cianci, presumably, had a few more votes.
Selfies with Buddy.
If there's a leader of the current anti-Buddy brigade, it's Lorne Adrain.
"To me it's quite worrisome that there are so many people supporting Buddy at this point," the life insurance executive and former chairman of the Rhode Island Board of Governors for Higher Education told me in his office in the city's mill district, surrounded by photos of great men and a document certifying his successful climb of Mt. Kilimanjaro. "Let alone the corruption issues and the character issues, [people are] turning a blind or maybe an ignorant eye to the economics, the facts around decisions that he made, contracts that he did during the course of his administrations and what those contracts mean today."
Adrain, who had launched a campaign for mayor but latter pulled out with the explicit intention of harming Cianci's chances, was referencing the five to six percent annual "cost-of-living" adjustments city pensioners receive because of a 1991 contract signed while Cianci was in office. The COLA benefits cost the city somewhere between $35,000 and $50,000 per person in 2014, upwards of $6 million per year according to an op-ed Adrain published in the Providence Journal. For a city desperate for cash with a massive whole in the pension budget, resulting at least in part from being underfunded during past Cianci administrations, some see this as a major failing.
"These are decisions he made as mayor," Adrain said. "He would call it leadership. I would call it irresponsible fiscal management that has us in this box today and leaves us uncompetitive with other cities as a place to do business from a cost perspective. It leaves our residents paying more taxes and businesses paying more taxes than lots and lots of places of this scale."
After leaving the race, Adrain considered launching a formal Anybody but Buddy PAC but instead started a grassroots effort to get information out about Cianci to "persuadable" voters, creating a clearinghouse for facts, figures, and the old articles sent anonymously to his mailbox. He hoped it would be enough to convince the 20 percent of voters who were undecided to side with Elorza rather than the former mayor and convicted felon.
Then, like everyone else, Adrain admitted the power of Cianci's political prowess. "When my daughter Grace died 12 years ago when she was five years old, one of the most beautiful letters of condolence that I got was from Buddy Cianci," he said. "Now, I'm sure he didn't write it but so what? I got it from his office. For political reasons, for whatever reasons they were, he sent a letter. There were a lot of other people who I would have expected to send letters who didn't. He knows how to impress people. He knows how to shape their feelings."
Despite the negative Cianci sentiment, even Adrian, one of the mayor's biggest detractors thinks he might have a strong third stint. "My guess is that if he were re-elected, he would be under intense scrutiny and he would be very careful," Adrain said. "I suspect that he might even do a good job."
Wendy Schiller, an associate professor of political science and public policy at Brown University who watched the 2014 mayor's race from the beginning, agreed: "Is there room for redemption? Are people underestimating the extent to which Buddy Cianci wants to go out on top as a clean, honest, successful mayor? The whole point of running was to get back in there to show people that he could do a good job without being corrupt. That's an argument that you can make. He has an even stronger incentive not to be corrupt because that's the whole point of why he's running."
She also wondered how his goals align with the type of strong leadership Providence desperately needs. "If you are only mayor for four years, you want to be popular," she said. "You want to be the good guy. You want people to like you. Typically, cutting budgets, cutting benefits, and cutting workers doesn't make people like you. The very things that Providence needs, Buddy has no incentive to do."
There's also an undercurrent of fear that he would use his position to return to what he considers the good old days when he and his cronies ran the city. "I admit I used campaign money for everything from a personal helicopter to get around the state to paying for dinners, and on occasion I even used my influence to do favors for people," Cianci wrote in Pasta and Politics, an honest tome he wrote in 2012 that's frequently cited by his detractors. "I even admit that I rewarded my friends and supporters and punished my political enemies."
"I have definitely heard a number of people express fear of the way he would run the city and that he would use it as an opportunity for payback against all the people who would oppose him," Schiller said. "These are private business people and public officials. That's a genuine fear based on the way he used to run the city."
Adrain laughed at the question, admitting that he worries he'll wake up one morning with all the snow on his street plowed into his driveway. "[Buddy's] done really crazy shit," he said.***
Cianci will not get another opportunity to do "really crazy shit" from the bully pulpit of the Mayor's office. Despite backing from the teachers union as well as the fire and police departments and a decided advantage in fundraising, he lost the election Tuesday by 10 percentage points. Strong turnout from the city's East Side—home, according to Cianci, to a "handful of millionaires deciding what is best for the hardworking people who are the backbone of our city, our economy and our community" – helped Elorza beat the previously undefeated mayor.
Even Republican mayoral candidate Dan Harrop voted for his Democrat opponent. "I do not fear that an Elorza mayoral administration will make Providence the laughing stock of the nation," he told the Providence Journal in a prepared statement published the day before Election Day.
Cianci, always assessing his options as a politician, saw the defeat coming on Tuesday. While his supporters rallied and cheered that evening, spurred on by early exit polling that showed their man ahead in the south and west sides of the city, his personal pollsters privately informed him about his low chances.
Under a "Cianci for Mayor" banner in the Hilton Providence, Buddy conceded a mayor's race for the first time in his life. "The election is over and now we must come together as a city, a community of people who love their city, who want the best for their city, so that we can once again achieve the greatness that Providence once knew," he told his rabid following to cheers.
A half a mile east, Elorza held his victory celebration in the packed ballroom of the Providence Biltmore, the hotel Cianci saved from closing. The 37-year-old mayor-elect took the stage, waving to the adoring crowd standing just a few rooms down from the bar where Cianci held court on so many nights during his long reign, a drink in hand.
"One thing about Buddy Cianci is that he loves this city and no one can deny that," Elorza said. Then he began talking about the future.