Whether you love him or hate him, it’s difficult to imagine anyone who has ever had more impact on the City of Providence than the late Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci Jr. The longest serving mayor in Providence’s history, he left his imprint on the entire city. There wasn’t a neighborhood that he didn’t touch, and he led the revitalization of a dismal downtown into a cultural, retail and dining center. Every evening he attended multiple events throughout the city; every year he opened the Little League season, personally greeting every team and he never missed a graduation. He once mused that he thought he had personally met over 80% of the residents of Providence.
Yet for all the obvious passion for his job and his city, Buddy’s actions, real or imagined, polarized the city as well. To those who liked him, he was seen as cooperative and compassionate. To those who didn’t, he was confrontational or worse, simply a convicted felon. His redeeming feature was that he was colorful. He’d often arrive late at a function, but he’d generally stay late and pretty soon “owned the room.”
The division between devotees and detractors never disappeared even when the mayor was in prison. The Providence Preservation Society was taking nominations for 50 people to honor as part of their 50th anniversary in 2006. Though incarcerated in New Jersey, Buddy was nominated in recognition of his lifelong commitment to preservation. He had worked with B.A. Dario, the owner of what is now PPAC, and saved it from the wrecking ball, for example. When told of his nomination, three members of the PPS Board threatened to resign if he was given the award. Almost simultaneously, three other members of the Board threatened to resign if he didn’t get it. In short, he did.
That’s what makes summarizing the life of someone like the mayor so difficult. Everyone had their own unique “Buddy story” to tell, some amusing, some appreciative, some downright negative. Barbara Harris and Seth Kurn relocated to East Side over 30 years ago from Boston. During their first week, they were invited to Fox Point for brunch when their host hurriedly interrupted the meal to introduce them to the mayor. There, proudly astride a very large horse, was Buddy eager to stop and chat and welcome them personally to the city. “We’ll never know why or how he got there,” recalls Seth, “but he did.”
A Polarizing Persona
To his supporters, Buddy was the lead champion for the city, a voice for minorities and a brilliant leader with great vision who was able to secure hundreds of millions of dollars of federal and private support for projects ranging from rebuilding the zoo and building a skating rink to getting lead paint removed from low income homes. Despite his naysayers, and there are many, just about every major initiative over the last 40 years had his imprint. True, his role may be somewhat inflated, but is that atypical for any politician? Al Gore still takes credit for inventing the Internet. The list of his achievements over his 21 years in office certainly included being the front man or at least a major player in negotiating the Providence Place Mall, attracting the Providence Bruins, saving PPAC from demolition, developing our midnight basketball leagues and improving playgrounds, parks and new open spaces throughout the city. Never short of pitching big ideas, he offered bold plans for the city and often admitted one of his biggest regrets was not being able to transform the waterfront into a thriving seaport with residences, businesses, hotels and restaurants.
To his detractors, however, a rather different story is told. To them, he was Darth Vader on steroids helping to create a national perception that Providence was a city for hire; a corrupt demagogue who used bribery and strong-armed tactics to create a criminal enterprise. And while there will be debate about his true legacy for the foreseeable future, it cannot be denied that his track record certainly includes myriad well-documented missteps, both personal and political.
A bedtime primer on much of this view remains former Providence Journal reporter Mike Stanton’s well-researched book The Prince of Providence. Yet ironically on the day that he died, the Journal’s lead story was “Believing in Providence,” a story about the Providence Foundation and everything that they had done in changing the city. The story actually reads like a eulogy to Buddy but never mentions him, yet it was his vision, leadership and ability to find the resources that got just about everything in the story accomplished.
One story that illustrates Buddy’s character as well as his rapier-like wit, took place at a dinner at Vartan and Claire Gregorian’s house when he was president of Brown with the publisher of the Journal, his wife, Buddy and another guest. The conversation was WaterFire-centric, with one of the guests going on and on about Barnaby Evans and what his WaterFire had done for the city. Buddy was visibly seething but managed to keep his composure until he finally cracked and blurted out, “Now let’s be clear, if the city and state hadn’t moved the rivers and the railroad tracks and created this amazing venue, Barnaby Evans would just have been another arsonist on Track 3.”
To say Buddy’s relationship with the Journal has always been contentious is an understatement, and it actually seems to have continued even after his passing. The old joke he used to tell was that if he was seen walking across the Seekonk River by a Journal reporter, the headline in the paper the next day would be “Cianci can’t swim.” In private conversations Buddy would rail against the editorial bias of the paper which he said stemmed from their not accepting the ascension of the city’s first Italian-American mayor, a fact that certainly has traction in some areas of the city, if not the East Side.
The vitriol has continued, even up to the final days before Buddy’s funeral. Bob Whitcomb, former editorial page editor of the Journal, was never a fan of Buddy and shared his negative thoughts of the departed mayor publicly with GoLocalProv.com, “The public is immature – a lot of it is that they like the entertainment quality. I think Providence came back in spite of, not because of, Buddy. There were companies that were scared away. He was a carnival barker. The better stuff would have happened anyway – the city would have come back.” And then there were the almost daily editorials against Buddy during last year’s mayoral campaign. The tone of much of it was perceived by many as over the top. Said one local observer: “Buddy will be on the defensive until the Journal runs out of commas, since he’s never referred to as anything but ‘Buddy Cianci, Convicted Two-Time Felon.’”
Interestingly, since his passing, some of the out-of-town press seems to be a bit more balanced, or at least nuanced, in its reflection on this larger-than-life, and in some ways tragic, persona. In the NY Post he was labeled “the beloved rogue mayor” of Providence. One of the more interesting pieces was published in The New Yorker the week after Buddy passed away. Written by Philip Gourevitch, a writer for the magazine since 1997, he recalled his time covering the RICO trial in Providence that ended in Buddy’s conviction and sent him off to prison for five years. The government’s case against the mayor was, in his words, “as corrupt as anything he or his crooked cronies were charged with” as Gourevitch discredited each of the prosecution’s “star” witnesses and the unjustness of the RICO statute.
Journeying Through Politics
Buddy took his first steps on a lifelong political odyssey in 1972 when he moved to the East Side to begin planning a run for mayor of Providence. A number of journalists in the last week have opined that Buddy entered the race expecting to lose but developed enough name recognition to then run for Attorney General. Not true. Buddy never entered a race he didn’t think he could win. He was a strong believer in polls and used them with precision. He knew all the crosstabs and what they meant and, like any savvy politician, they would occasionally influence his position on how strong or soft his support would be.
Two years later, Buddy Cianci, now running as an anti-corruption Republican, made a deal with the long-time number two Democrat, delivered a strong turnout in three of the predominantly Italian wards as well and, aided by solid support from the East Side, was elected mayor. His election as a reformer was generally welcomed, but Buddy was acutely aware of a noticeable amount of ethnocentric chauvinism from the city’s business elite that he felt followed him throughout his career. When “they need something, they will call,” he would often say when referring to business leaders who were happy to be welcoming if they or a charity they were involved in needed something. On the other side, it was the overwhelming East Side support for Jorge Elorza that sealed his defeat in last year’s mayoral election, his first and only defeat in Providence.
Reminiscing About Our Mayor
Buddy had a great sense of humor and could be self-deprecating. He was the subject of many East Side Monthly April Fool’s issues and not only took them in great stride, he wouldn’t hesitate to inquire when he wasn’t a target. When we purchased Providence Monthly from its founder Greg Ferland, Buddy was there to help us launch a product he thought would be a useful addition to his city, even going so far as to pose as Santa Claus with three attractive elves on one of our first covers. And when RISD undergraduates asked him to coach their hockey team, Buddy jumped at the opportunity. When asked what he knew about coaching hockey, he shot back, “it’s RISD, what the hell do they know about hockey?” The team, known as the Nads, had a great following with their distinctive cheer “Go Nads!”
Providence was on its way to becoming Worcester when Buddy was first elected, a town that was famously maligned by The Wall Street Journal as a “smudge on the way to the Cape.” There was little civic pride, little growth and no excitement. To ignore his unique role in creating the city’s renaissance, is a mistaken attempt to rewrite history in our view. The greatest irony is that many of his harshest critics have benefited financially because of the work that Buddy accomplished.
What is perhaps the greatest loss will be the institutional knowledge of the city. Buddy knew better than anyone where the bodies were buried – hell, he put some there. But he understood the subtleties and nuances in making a city run. One famous example: He knew how to clear snow the right way, a lesson that he learned the hard way. Dan Healy, Buddy’s first director of Public Works, was constantly getting calls from the mayor as he crisscrossed the city from event to event criticizing and berating him and his department for the conditions of the roads, trash, signs and anything else he saw in his travels.
When the first major snowstorm hit, Healy was summoned to the mayor’s office at the end of the day. When he got there he was not chastised because Buddy had been periodically looking at Kennedy Plaza and the streets were down to pavement. Healy was now “his man!”
That night when Buddy was chauffeured home, even his route was clear. Healy was a hero… for about an hour until Buddy started to get complaint calls. He then discovered that Healy had had a snowplow circling Kennedy Plaza so all would look great to the mayor and that he had gotten Buddy’s driver to give him his route home to the East Side and had plows lead the way.
So, what made Buddy so much the lightening rod that caused people to love him or hate him? Clearly the man was capable of incredible kindness and of outrageously poor behavior. Talking to many of his former staffers, a recurring theme is one of bemused frustration. “You just wish he had someone with him who would just quiet him down. ‘Buddy, you don’t need to pick up that fireplace log.’ ‘Buddy, you’ve made your point with the U-Club, just let it go.’”
He was a complex man. He could light up a room when he wanted to, but could often be seen eating alone at a favorite restaurant. He could find the funds to keep a non-profit alive or he could respond to a slight by a restauranteur and try to shut the place down. The good news was that after his incarceration (a “bump in the road” he called it), he seemed to be mellowing out in his later years. The shame of his unexpected passing is that he appeared to be on the road to relaxing senior status. He had great ratings on his radio show. He was engaged to be married… finally. And he had plenty of stories to tell and advice to give.
While Buddy often had a long memory of recalling slights real or imagined, he also had the capacity to forge strong relationships with people who accepted his style of leadership. Joe Paolino went from being a rival and adversary to a very close personal friend. “For the last ten years we spoke almost every day,” Paolino reminisced. “I’m happy that he will be lying in state in City Hall, which is more than appropriate given his service to the City. He would have been very pleased by the tremendous outpouring of support from the church with the Bishop leading his service.”
Paolino said Providence “lost its greatest champion” when Cianci died, adding, “he gave his heart to Providence.”
Another person who has seen all sides of Buddy is Carolyn Benedict-Drew. Before she became Director of Policy for David Cicilline, one of Buddy’s harshest critics, she had been the longtime executive director of the Family Service of Rhode Island, one of the oldest and largest social agencies servicing the children and families of the city. “It was the late ‘80s and we were trying to buy our building on the corner of Wickenden and Hope. It wasn’t easy, but he helped negotiate down the price and came up with the hundreds of thousands we needed.” She continues, “At my retirement party several years later, he referred to me as being like a nun. ‘Me a nun, what are you talking about?’ I asked. His response: ‘You come to me with a basket and ask me to fill it up. Then a little bit later, you come back again and ask me to fill it again.’ We laughed, but I will say whenever we needed his assistance or advice, he was the first one there to help us while encouraging others to join. He never forgot those from broken families or those in need.”
In the end, it’s not so much what Buddy actually did but how he was able to get a city and many of its residents to believe in what Providence could be. He was always our biggest cheerleader and somehow got us to begin believing in ourselves. Though in many ways flawed, his commitment to the city he loved is undeniable. And with his passing, the burning question going forward will be who will be the next champion with the skill set and passion to reignite the enthusiasm that Providence once had and cannot afford to lose.