Economic Development

How Much Reform Can Providence Handle?

The Wu Tang Scram of tofu, bok choy, Napa cabbage and cashews served at Julian's, a restaurant in Providence, Rhode Island, might not seem like...
by | November 30, 2009

The Wu Tang Scram of tofu, bok choy, Napa cabbage and cashews served at Julian's, a restaurant in Providence, Rhode Island, might not seem like a leading political indicator. But if you walk through Julian's at brunch time, you'll see a lot of dishes like it--and diners bearing tattoos and assorted body piercings--and you can't help but think about all the ways the city has changed in the past few years.

The thriving restaurant, a lively and defiantly funky spot, sits six blocks from downtown Providence on Broadway, the spine of the old Italian neighborhood known as Federal Hill. There are still Italian restaurants and stores in the neighborhood, mostly a few blocks north along the commercial corridor of Atwells Avenue, but this is not primarily a working-class ethnic enclave any more. The narrow streets of Federal Hill have filled in recent years with an eclectic mix of college students, young professionals, artists, digital-age strivers and others drawn by reasonable housing prices in a central location. The old Italian Federal Hill is increasingly a place where visitors go to stroll and eat.

When he was a practicing lawyer, David Cicilline, the current mayor of Providence, worked out of the office he shared with his father and brother on Atwells Avenue. But now, as Cicilline gears up to run for a third term, it is the neighborhood's--and the city's--newer look that commands political attention. After nearly seven years with an openly gay, half-Italian, half-Jewish reformer presiding over city hall, Providence has evolved beyond the insular town it was a couple of decades ago--"a place," as one longtime reporter there puts it, "that looked like the 50s, run by priests, labor bosses and the mob."

This is not to say that Cicilline will have a smooth path to reelection next year. An upstart former legislator who has won national plaudits for his determination to clean up Providence's crony-encrusted politics, he enjoyed widespread popularity and a boy-wonder reputation in Rhode Island throughout his first term. But he has had a rough second term. A mishandled snowstorm, a scandal in the tax-collector's office involving a bounced check written by his brother, a lengthy face-off with the firefighters' union that culminated this past summer in pickets outside the U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting in Providence--all have added to the political toll exacted by the recession, which has hit Providence hard.

To add a touch of Rhode Island gothic, the ghost of Cicilline's predecessor and foil as mayor isn't restlessly prowling the corridors of city hall, it's on the air every weekday from 10 in the morning until 2 in the afternoon. Buddy Cianci, the consummate showman who spent 21 years in two stints as mayor and still commands a loyal, if diminished, following, got out of federal prison in 2007 after serving five years on a corruption charge, and a few months later took a job on local talk radio. It is a position he uses regularly to lambaste Cicilline, often to the delight of city employees who got hired under the old Cianci patronage system. Cianci isn't eligible to run again for mayor until 2012, but at least two of his prominent allies, City Councilman John Lombardi and downtown developer Joseph Paolino, are mulling challenges to Cicilline next year.

There is no question that Cicilline's standing both within and beyond the city has sagged. Earlier this year, he gave up on the notion of running for governor in 2010. This past October, a poll taken by Brown University's Taubman Center on Public Policy found that Cicilline enjoyed only 41 percent voter approval, down from 62 percent three years ago. Even worse, only 30 percent of those surveyed believed he had lived up to his signature promise of creating a city hall free of cronyism and corruption. Criticism of his distant and occasionally high-handed style is growing, even among his sympathizers.

Yet despite everything, Cicilline stands a good chance of winning a third term next year, and this is a reflection of the ways in which the city around him has evolved. Providence is bigger than it was--unlike the rest of Rhode Island, it has been gaining population--and more ethnically diverse, more tolerant of alternative lifestyles and more of a magnet for the young, immigrants and people attracted to urban variety. While it has no huge corporate employers, its financial services firms, medical centers and prominent colleges and universities have helped to fuel a growing image of urbanity. Downtown nurtures a thriving arts and cultural scene, a notable restaurant culture and a growing cadre of high-tech entrepreneurs. Providence drew several billion dollars of private investment in the years before the recession--although virtually none since--and is poised, with the coming demolition of an old highway that currently cuts off a third of downtown, to see a new biomedical corridor take shape next to its heart. City government, despite the recent poll, is widely acknowledged to be a more transparent, merit-driven organization than under Cianci. The police department is winning national attention for a community-oriented style that has helped drive down crime, turned its officers into neighborhood cornerstones, and built strong ties to the nonprofit community.

Almost seven years into its reform administration, then, Providence would seem to have turned a corner without looking back. "There's no reason to dwell on the past," insists Dan Baudouin, executive director of the Providence Foundation, a business-funded nonprofit that works on redeveloping downtown. "That's all ancient history now." Yet Cicilline's troubled few years have made him vulnerable. So the city faces an intriguing question as it enters election season: Has Providence changed enough under David Cicilline to bury the politics of the past once and for all?

Cicilline is 48 but works out six days a week and looks like he's barely into his 30s. There is something of the fresh-faced Boy Scout in him, both in his demeanor and in his approach to people who want to do business with the city. When they hand him their cards, he tells them there are formal procedures that have to be followed. Ridding city offices of favoritism has been his constant refrain. The government he took over--indeed, that he campaigned against in his first run for mayor--was a remnant of the patronage-ridden organization that went out of style in most Northeastern cities long before it was finished in Providence. Cianci was a skillful and individualistic practitioner of old-school politics; a nominal Republican, he replaced the long-dominant Democratic machine with his own personal brand of leadership. "He didn't have a machine," says a veteran political reporter. "It was just the Buddy Party."

In The Prince of Providence, his painstakingly researched portrayal of Cianci's two long periods as mayor, Providence Journal investigative reporter Mike Stanton depicts a city government run as an extension of Cianci's personal likes and dislikes. He recounts the story of a restaurateur who'd run afoul of the mayor being told by Cianci that it was rumored he was selling drugs on the premises; when the businessman protested that it wasn't true, Stanton reports, Cianci responded, "Well, if I say you're selling drugs, you're selling drugs." The man moved his business to New York City. People who didn't go along with the mayor found their homes watched by off-duty police officers or saw their relatives kicked off the city payroll. In dealing with businessmen and others whose help he needed to resuscitate downtown Providence, Stanton writes, Cianci could be "eloquent in painting a vision of what cities should be, but heavy-handed in implementing his ideas ... bullying executives and trying to control everything."

Cianci's defenders argue that he was merely a strong-willed visionary determined to take a broken-down city by the scruff of the neck and lead it back to prosperity. And there is no question that Providence began its turnaround under Cianci. Yet when Cicilline took office in 2003, he found a city government that had underfunded its pension system by hundreds of millions of dollars, that had regularly agreed to unaffordable contracts with public employee unions, that was unbelievably backward in technology--the public works department had no computers, while in the Recorder of Deeds' office, staff looked up records in an old shoebox. The bureaucracy was shot through with people who had been hired because of their contacts, not their abilities.

In his first term, Cicilline brought in a new chief to reform the police department; built up the city's financial reserves; set out to negotiate new union contracts; and created "Provstat," modeled on Baltimore's "Citistat," to measure city departments' performance and to drive change within them. "Nothing had ever been counted," says Provstat's director, Pamela Cardillo. "Nothing had ever been tracked.''

Above all, whenever someone tried to recommend a hire or ask for a contract or a favor, Cicilline made it clear that agencies of city government now had clearly established rules, and were no longer required to check in with the mayor on everything they did. "There's a basic belief now that we're civil servants," says Thom Deller, who left the city's planning department under Cianci and then returned to serve as planning director under Cicilline.

You can get an instant argument going between partisans of the two mayors as to which one was more responsible for the city's revival in the middle years of this decade. "Anything I say about the former mayor or this mayor," says Bert Crenca, who runs a nonprofit for artists, "I've got 15 different groups I'm involved with on a daily basis that are either going to attack me or support me. It's a risky business speaking your mind in this town." Providence began its revival under Cianci, thanks in large part to his political power and ability to recognize creative economic development ideas, but it blossomed on Cicilline's watch. New hotels and condo towers went up; the international lottery and gaming company GTech came to town; long-vacant buildings were rehabbed; the downtown district known as Downcity flourished with new stores, caf├ęs, restaurants and galleries; Johnson & Wales University committed to a downtown campus.

Less visible, but no less significant, has been city government's changing style. Perhaps the best illustration is the police department, which chief Dean Esserman, Cicilline's most high-profile hire, reshaped dramatically from a headquarters-centered organization to one with nine districts whose commanders collaborate with neighborhood and community leaders. Officers assigned to specific schools work closely with after-school programs, and during the summer with the city's recreation department. There is a close relationship between police and other city agencies, especially Neighborhood Services. "We used to police like the tide," says Esserman, "day shift in, day shift out; night shift in, night shift out. Now, the police department isn't an anonymous blue force. We're engaged in the life of the community. Partnership is embedded in everything we do. Everything."

The city has followed this model in other endeavors as well. The Providence After-School Alliance, which Cicilline chairs, is a precedent-setting effort to work with foundations, arts and culture organizations, the universities and the business community to create after-school programming for middle-schoolers. Some 40 percent of middle-school pupils participate at least three times a week. "You can't go to the After-Zone unless you go to school," the mayor points out, "so it's having an impact on attendance and behavior." Similarly, Alix Ogden, the city's chief of operations, chairs a group of downtown business leaders and nonprofit executives focused on bringing life back to Kennedy Plaza, the central public space just outside city hall. "The city is able to do things it couldn't have on its own," she says. "By changing the way that city government is perceived and the culture in city government, it's really enabled us to work with people we hadn't before."

But for all its advances, Cicilline's admininistration has run into roadblocks as well. "David has created a kind of collegial process and brought in people who understand the collegial process and want to do it, rather than build and control turf," says Phil West, the former director of Common Cause of Rhode Island and a veteran observer of Providence and state politics. "It's working, but it's a cultural change that takes time: It's a block-by-block, office-by-office, department-by-department, ward-by-ward process."

In part, this is because city hall continues to be heavily staffed by Cianci loyalists who did not sign up for what Cicilline is trying to do. "Two terms," says David Karoff, an artist and nonprofit consultant in town, "is definitely not enough to make a clean break from the way things were."

Some of the bumps in Cicilline's path to reelection stem from this city-hall legacy. A huge snowstorm in December 2007, left the city paralyzed, with schoolchildren stranded on buses for hours in the cold, the highways gridlocked, and cars jammed on unplowable streets. A subsequent review commission found plenty of blame to go around--especially at the state level--but the city's emergency management structure was unprepared, and Cicilline took a great deal of flak, some of it lobbed gleefully by Cianci.

Then, last year, the Providence Journal revealed that Cicilline's brother John, a lawyer who is currently in prison for extorting money from drug-dealer clients, had written a $75,000 check to the city tax department to clear a tax lien for a client, and the check had bounced. The incident, and an independent audit, revealed deep problems in the way the city's tax collector--a Cianci-era hire--had been running the office. Cicilline fired him, and he has now sued, alleging that he was fired because he ignored pressure to go easy on Cicilline's friends who owed back taxes. While that charge appears to have little public resonance, the whole incident has left a sour taste in the city. True or false, it reminds voters of the Providence that many of them voted to escape from.

In the long run, though, what may turn out to be most troublesome for Cicilline is the same quality that has helped to make him an effective reformer: his stubbornness. "It's very difficult to have a discussion with someone who, when they walk in the room with a thousand people, they're the smartest person in the room," says John Lombardi, the city councilman considering challenging Cicilline for the mayor's office next year. "'It shouldn't be done because it's not being done my way?' 'I didn't think of it so it's not going to happen?' That's not the way it goes."

The most prominent example of Cicilline's obstinance is his long-running battle with the firefighters, who have been without a contract for a decade. The mayor argues the firefighters are trying to protect overly generous health and pension benefits that the city simply cannot sustain. "Those contracts resulted because my predecessors saw the political value of giving them things that are just not affordable," he says. "They betrayed the taxpayers of Providence." The firefighters, in turn, note that when Cicilline first took office, he pledged to settle with the union, but since then has shown little flexibility. This summer, what should have been a moment of civic pride fizzled when the union picketed outside the U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting in Providence. The episode drew unwelcome national press coverage and led Vice President Joseph Biden and other prominent members of the Obama administration to cancel their appearances.

Although the union did not win any points with the public, Cicilline was equally tarnished, says Robert Walsh, director of the National Education Association of Rhode Island and the chair of Cicilline's transition committee in 2002. "The backstory isn't not getting the contract done, it's not even having a mechanism for both parties to save face," says Walsh. "In a relationship-based system, there should have been a way for the union to save face, and the sense was that David's administration just wasn't going to do that."

Cicilline can be tone deaf to some of the nuances of political relationships. At the moment, he is embroiled in a battle to impose a $150 fee on the city's colleges and universities for each full-time student. "We've got to come up with a system which more fairly distributes the responsibilities of local government between the tax exempts and the residential taxpayers," he says. It is a move that cuts straight into the mayor's political base on the upscale East Side.

But Cicilline's frequent go-it-alone approach also has produced results. His agenda for a third term, should he win one, will focus heavily on improving the Providence schools; developing the city's port and the 20 acres of land that will become available when an aged stretch of I-195 is razed downtown; developing a new transit plan, including an effort to bring back streetcars; and improving the city's job-creation and anti-poverty efforts. What is notable is what is no longer on the agenda: fixing the police department, reforming the city bureaucracy, fixing basic city services--the residue, in other words, of the way Providence used to be run.

"Cianci gave great speeches," says Teny Gross, a civic leader who works closely with the police to stem gang violence. "Cicilline doesn't give a great speech, but you can hear that he cares. Some people miss the entertainment of Cianci. Cicilline is not entertaining. He builds systems."

And this, says Marion Orr, who directs Brown University's Taubman Center for Public Policy, is where Cicilline's strength lies. "When people look at it in a fair way," Orr says, "they may very well see opponents pushing in a direction they do not want to return to."

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Rob Gurwitt  |  Former Correspondent
robg@valley.net

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