The Life and Times of Buddy Cianci

He ran Providence for 20 years and went to prison for five. In his new book, the former mayor wants to set the record straight.
by | April 21, 2011
 

Governing caught up with former Providence mayor Vincent “Buddy” Cianci, who just released his new book , 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 started his career as a prosecutor who tried cases involving organized crime. That spotlight helped catapult him into politics, where he was elected to the mayoralty as a Republican, despite the overwhelmingly Democratic makeup of the city. Cianci, who served as mayor from 1975 to 1984 and again from 1991 to 2002, is recognized for having helped launch the transformation of the city by revitalizing its downtown, promoting its arts district, and championing historic preservation.

Cianci is equally known for his legal troubles. In 1984, he was found guilty of assaulting a friend whom Cianci believed was having an affair with his wife. Though Cianci didn’t do time in prison, the conviction cost him his job – temporarily. Cianci made a comeback, but he would again find himself in hot water. In 2001, a grand jury indicted Cianci and others in his administration on a slew of corruption charges. His conviction on a single count -- racketeering conspiracy -- put Cianci in prison for more than four years.

Today, Cianci is still a fixture in Providence, as he hosts radio and television programs. Oscar-nominated director David O. Russell is rumored to be considering a film about Cianci’s life. And Cianci hasn’t ruled out an attempt at another comeback.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and length.

Governing: You’ve been in politics for a long time, so I was surprised to see that this is actually your first book. Why write your story now?

Cianci: Frankly, I wanted a little closure to my time when I was away at the gated community. I didn’t want to write a book while I was there. I waited a while. I said to myself, "I’ve had a storied life, a lot of anecdotes," and I wanted the book to be something people could look to and say, "This is how politics really works." It’s the stuff you wouldn’t read about in the newspaper – the arrangements that have to be made. The deal-making that has to go on.

Governing: One of the most interesting parts of the book is when you discuss the role of patronage in politics, and how it’s something that’s sort of built into the system. How did you use patronage?

Cianci: When I first ran I was a Republican in a Democratic city. I won because the Democrats were fighting. How I won was taking the disgruntled Democrats and bringing them into my fold.

I was a Republican in 1974. That was like being Ayatollah Khomeini at the American Legion Convention. I knew the Republican Party didn’t have the kind of base I needed to win. I had to make arrangements with disgruntled Democrats. When I did that, there were some exchanges that had to be made. No politician ever stands up on election night and says, "I want to thank all my supporters, but in the interest of democracy, I’m not going to give them consideration, I’m going to hire my enemies."

You’re always looking for something, whether it’s a job for their kid in the summer, a job for their relative.  And by the way, there’s nothing wrong with patronage if someone’s qualified. It’s not a dirty word. Your jobs are the currency of politics – except for [actual] currency, of course.

Governing: In the book, you write that you hadn’t set foot in city hall until you registered to be on the ballot. Why did you run?

Cianci: I was an assistant attorney general. I was prosecuting cases. I made a name for myself. Basically, I didn’t like what was going on in the city. I ran for office because I felt like I could make a difference. People say that all the time. It was also the fun of it all and the challenge of it. You get into it, and you start enjoying it. You start meeting people. You get that ego building. Sometimes you start believing your own press clippings. That’s where you get into trouble.

I truly believed I could make change. I saw an opportunity because the Democrats were fighting. One thing built on another. I enjoyed the job. I enjoyed making the difference. I had fun as mayor.

Governing: In the book you reveal you did a lot of things for purely political purposes, including your stance on abortion, your choice of political party, and even staying in your marriage as long as you did. After 20 years, did you ever get sick of putting on an act?

Cianci: If it was an act, I stayed on Broadway longer than My Fair Lady. I never got tired of it because every day is different in office. There are different problems you confront. I look at my mayoralty in three different ways. One, I look at my mayoralty as social work. The cities in the northeast emptied out… lifestyles changed. Then, in addition to that, the city was in tough economic shape. [I was] getting homeless shelters built and community centers built.

The second part of my mayoralty, in the 1980s, had to do with risk-taking. We invested in infrastructure. We created that whole downtown by redirecting three rivers that went through the city and opened up a vast area so we could develop it.

That brought me to the third part, the entrepreneurial. We partnered to recapture retail. We brought it back downtown. We built the Providence Place Mall. Life was very interesting then because we could use all types of economic tools. We got involved in historic preservation. We made the very first arts district in the country. When I was mayor, the first day in office, the monkeys were escaping from the zoo. We decided to fix that place up.

People always ask, "What’s your biggest contribution as mayor?" It was raising the self-esteem [of Providence] from the lowest of the low to levels you never thought they could achieve. It was a Renaissance city. It had come from dire economic straits.

Governing

: There’s a part of the book where you describe your battle with the sanitation workers, which famously resulted in your hiring outside contractors to do the job and having to place armed cops on the trucks to ensure their safety. You were taking on public employee unions before it was in vogue.

Cianci: I said to them, "You can put two men in a spaceship and send them to the moon. You don’t need four on a garbage truck."  I got invited to Windsor Castle to give a speech on privatization. Margaret Thatcher was trying to privatize British Airways.

Today, we have these mayors who are wonks. They’re Kennedy School of Government guys. I used to tell [new mayors that] if you get even a parking ticket, let the press know up front. Number two, always make sure when you take office, if you get in trouble, make sure when you respond to something you always stay within the four corners of the statement you’re making. And if you’re going to run against someone popular, don’t run against that person – run against an institution.

The big problem with guys today, they appoint a committee for everything, and they’re wonkish. They don’t teach snow removal at the Kennedy School of Government. When you are at the local level, there’s no Democratic way to plow snow or a Republican way to build a home for the elderly. It’s [about] getting it through, getting it done.

Governing: Obviously, the part of the book people will be most interested in are the two big cases against you: the assault and the racketeering conspiracy.

Cianci: John Kennedy once gave a speech at Yale. I’m paraphrasing here, but he said something like, "The lies I can deal with, but it’s the myth that goes on and is what’s difficult to refute."

[Regarding the assault]: None of that [stuff] happened. Nobody urinated on him. Nobody really put a cigarette out on him. I threw it at him from 15 feet away. I didn’t throw a log at him. I threw it at a fireplace.

Being a public figure, they’re not going to be easy on me. I placed this guy in "reasonable apprehension of bodily harm," even though I didn’t hit him with the log.

The other conviction – I was indicated on 25 or 30 charges. I’m surprised they didn’t include cattle rustling in it. Basically, I was convicted of one charge, conspiracy to commit RICO. I knew that was going to happen when the judge gave instructions to the jury.

They have guys there taking $500. One guy David Ead, I put on the tax board, and I did that because he was vice chairman of the Democratic Party. How did I know he’s taking $400 for fixing someone’s taxes? I didn’t know about it.

Governing: How were you treated in prison? Did your status make you a target or help you win friends?

Cianci: I never had one bad incident. My position gave me celebrity status, in a sense. The bad part is, because you’re a high-profile guy, they make sure you have a job that’s high-profile like cleaning floors in the mess hall and washing dishes. Everyone has to go through the mess hall, and they see me washing pots and pans.

It’s the anticipation of going to prison that’s the tough thing.

You can have a lot of fun in prison, but I wouldn’t recommend it. The warden -- he wasn’t trained as the entertainment director on the QE2. You can’t let the time do you. You’ve got to live in the environment in which you’re at. Other people got through it, so you can get in through it. I always proclaimed my innocence, to this day. I was convicted of one charge that I think was bogus.

Governing: You’ve always had a sense of humor and cracked jokes, even during your scandals. Why?

Cianci: You can bury your head in the sand, but it is what it is. Sometimes you make mistakes in life. You regret what you did, but hey, it’s done, and you’ve got to make light of it. You have to be serious, but there’s no reason you can’t find humor in situations. If you take yourself too seriously, you’re going to find yourself looking at your shoes all the time. Life is too short.

I thought I would be self-deprecating, and it endears you to people. I thought that was a quality people would like. I used to make fun of my toupee – I’d call it "the squirrel." I’d never have prepared speeches. Nothing could be more funny than to tell the story of what happened to you that particular day. I feel it makes you closer to the people.

Governing: What public office are you running for next?

Cianci: I don’t know about that. I’m in New York promoting the book. I’m meeting with people who want to make a movie of the book. I do radio. I do television on ABC, the local affiliate. I have my own show every single day. And I’m in the real estate development business. Life is good.

Who knows if I’m going to run again? You don’t ever say never. I don’t like what’s going on in the city, the squandering of money.

Governing: Do you think this book will make people more likely or less likely to vote for you?

Cianci: I don’t know. We had a book launch and there were almost 1,000 people. They keep doing these polls, and I keep winning them. When I was indicted, I went up four points. That was years ago. I still stay in the public eye.

I think the reason these polls have good favorability ratings is a lot of people remember what went on in the city during my administration. They remember those halcyon days when things actually got done in the city.

Now my audience is a younger audience. It’s like a folk figure or something.

I love politics. I love the give and take of it. You can get a lot of things done.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. You can enter an anonymous Display Name or connect to a social profile.

More from View