|By Darrell M. West|
It was one of those only-in-Rhode-Island moments. Ten days after a jury unanimously convicted him of racketeering, Providence mayor Vincent "Buddy" Cianci Jr. marched in the Bristol, Rhode Island, Fourth of July parade. Despite temperatures in the nineties, people packed both sides of the street, applauding Cianci as he passed. One man even beseeched the mayor, "Buddy, why don't you run for town administrator in Bristol?" A few people booed and yelled that he deserved to go to prison. But their taunts were drowned out by cheers.
It was not exactly the reception you'd envision for someone who'd just been found guilty of organizing a criminal enterprise out of City Hall. You might have thought the state's taxpayers would be angry at the corruption revealed within city government and at the mayor's betrayal of the public trust. But then, Buddy Cianci is not your typical politician.
Cianci, the nation's longest-serving big-city mayor, remains immensely popular. His ability to avoid blame for his own personal crimes and the illegal activities within his administrations have earned him the nickname the Teflon Mayor. After he was indicted on more than two dozen corruption counts last year, a statewide survey by Brown's Center for Public Policy found that that his approval ratings actually rose by four percentage points. Sixty-four percent of Rhode Island residents believed the mayor was doing a good job - even as half those polled also considered him dishonest and 41 percent believed he was guilty. Even after the trial neared its completion, the mayor's job-approval rating stood at 59 percent statewide, making him one of the area's most popular politicians.
Ironically, Cianci began his career as a reformer. He was educated at Moses Brown, a Quaker prep school in Providence, and Marquette University, a Jesuit school. After serving in the army, he launched his legal career in the Rhode Island attorney general's office - working on the state's anticorruption task force, where he helped to successfully prosecute several local members of organized crime.
Cianci was elected mayor in 1974 as a Republican reformer fighting the entrenched Democratic machine. In those early years he faced a City Council on which the GOP occupied just two of the twenty-six seats. He quickly gained national attention as a rising political star and was selected to deliver a nominating speech at the 1976 Republican convention on behalf of then-president Gerald Ford. His statewide popularity, how-ever, was not as high: when he ran for governor in 1980, he was trounced by the Democratic incumbent, Joseph Garrahy.
So Cianci stayed with his power base. In the early 1980s the federal government began a major corruption investigation into Providence City Hall, and although Cianci was never charged, thirty city employees were indicted and twenty-two were convicted. Then, in 1984, after abducting and beating up his former wife's boyfriend, he pleaded no contest to an assault charge and was forced to step down. Temporarily.
Between the corruption rampant in his administration and his own assault case, most observers believed Cianci's public life must be over. The very next year, however, a local radio station hired him for a talk show, and the irrepressible Cianci became the state's most popular radio talk-show host. Combining political astuteness, a keen intellect, and a sharp wit, Cianci was a natural media personality. He could entertain, he could inform, and he could infuriate - often at the same time. The airwaves were the platform for a political comeback that a few years earlier would have been considered unthinkable. In a tightly fought 1990 battle, Cianci ran as an independent and won by a margin of 317 votes. He was back in control of Providence city government.
Throughout the next decade, Cianci governed with a split personality. The good Buddy performed wonders for Providence, helping to move rivers, restore downtown, and revitalize the arts, theater, and nightlife. Under his leadership Providence became a destination city, drawing tourists from around the world and raising Rhode Islanders' self-esteem. Buddy's Providence won national accolades, and week after week the television show Providence showcased its newfound beauty - as well as the mayor's skill at civic promotion.
But the bad Buddy was never far beneath the surface. Cianci remembered slights from years ago, raged against his critics, and was openly vindictive. When the posh University Club tried to reopen after a $1 million renovation, Cianci denied it a permit to do so, reminding club officials that years earlier they'd rejected his bid for membership. "The toe you stepped on yesterday may be connected to the ass you have to kiss today," he shouted at the club's directors.
For years rumors circulated of a pay-to-play system in Providence. If you wanted a break on taxes, you had to pay off city employees. A job on the police force or the city payroll? Five thousand dollars was said to be the going rate. Anyone who worked for the city or had a contract with it was expected to contribute to the mayor's election fund.
It all came crashing down this summer, when a jury unanimously found Cianci guilty of organizing a criminal conspiracy and convicted his former top aide, Frank Corrente, of executing that conspiracy through bribery and extortion. Two days later Cianci announced he would not seek reelection, bringing his nearly three-decade-long political career to an end. Half a dozen people within his current administration were convicted or pleaded guilty to corruption. All told, during his two administrations more than two dozen city officials went to jail on public corruption charges. Cianci, always colorful, could no longer count on his savvy and charm to save him.
STILL, CIANCI REMAINS popular, as his fans at the Fourth of July parade attested. Does his popularity mean Rhode Islanders tolerate dishonesty? Allegations of impropriety are as common as full-moon tides in the Ocean State, and sadly, those allegations have been proven true with alarming regularity. Over the past fifteen years one governor has gone to jail; the mayor of another of the state's largest cities has served prison time; and two state supreme court justices have resigned amid charges of unethical behavior.
The visibility of scandal and corruption in Rhode Island is partly a function of its size. In a state that is only forty-eight miles wide and thirty-seven miles long, and with a population barely more than a million, everyone knows everyone else's business. A scandal in any part of Rhode Island gains statewide and sometimes even national attention. But small size doesn't necessarily lead to political corruption. If it did, Vermont and Delaware would be hotbeds of it.
More significantly, Rhode Island, which was nicknamed Rogue's Island in the eighteenth century, suffers from the "popular rogue" syndrome. Just as Louisianans elected Governor Edwin Edwards and Senator Huey Long, and Bostonians supported Mayor James Michael Curley even when he was in jail, Rhode Islanders overlook corruption when the public official in question is seen as entertaining and effective. For years Cianci has endeared himself to Rhode Islanders with charisma and a quick wit. He sells the Mayor's Own Marinara Sauce to fund scholarships for needy students. Locals joke that the omnipresent Cianci would appear at the opening of an envelope. When a federal prosecutor took home a secret videotape of an alleged bribe being passed to Corrente in City Hall and showed it to friends for entertainment, Cianci quipped on Imus in the Morning, "I guess Blockbuster was closed that night."
Such is the paradox of popular rogues. Although ethically challenged, they can be effective. Cianci worked incredibly hard promoting the city and was a strong leader. As one person said in the newspaper the day Cianci's trial opened, "I think his hands are a little dirty. But he's a friendly guy and he's done a lot for the city." Cianci was a throwback to earlier periods in American politics when large cities were dominated by bosses and strong individuals. Chicago had Mayor Richard Daley, New York had Fiorella LaGuardia, and Boston had Curley. As a political personality, Buddy Cianci was the 800-pound gorilla who dominated the local scene. He provided good copy for newspaper reporters and pithy sound bites for radio and television. Few politicians are as skilled at communication and leadership. It is extremely unlikely that Rhode Island will ever produce another politician like him.
Entertainment aside, Cianci's most important accomplishment, and the key to the city's revitalization, was his success in taming the factionalism and fragmentation that are rampant in most large U.S. cities. Many large metropolitan areas suffer from infighting and fierce and generally uncompromising group competition. This makes it difficult for those cities' leaders to pull together for the common good. One of the reasons developers liked Providence under Cianci was that they knew if the mayor signed off on a project, it was going to happen. No small board or commission would delay the project, and no community group was strong enough to stop it dead in its tracks. With power concentrated almost completely in City Hall, the mayor's okay was the only one that mattered.
The downside of this power concentration, however, was the potential for corruption. During the trial of Cianci and his top aide, Corrente, numerous incidents of sleazy and unethical behavior were brought to light: illegal cash campaign contributions, the use of city employees for private work at the homes of government officials, and the hiring of unqualified political hacks and cronies. In the end, those practices had a tremendous cost in the form of high tax rates, poor public services, and doubts about the state outside its boundaries.
The task for Providence now is to leave this part of the Cianci legacy behind. Many U.S. cities have gone through a reform phase in which personnel practices were cleaned up, ethics rules put in place, and budget procedures formalized. To move forward, Providence City Hall must give citizens the confidence that the abuses of the Cianci period will never happen again.
Politics today requires a different type of government from the old style embodied by Cianci's iron rule. In well-run U.S. cities, bargaining and negotiation are the norm, and more people are involved in important decisions. The cult of personality that existed in Chicago, Boston, and Los Angeles has given way to reform-minded mayors who foster community leadership and cajole a variety of groups into supporting a particular vision. These new-style executives - Edward Rendell of Philadelphia, Richard Riordan of Los Angeles, and Martin O'Malley of Baltimore - may not have the name recognition of their more colorful predecessors, but their dedication to civic improvement is beyond reproach.
As Providence moves into the post-Cianci era, it will need the help of many people, including members of the Brown community. Academics generate new ideas about economic development, race relations, public health, school reform, and public policymaking. Brown's success is closely tied to that of the city. Historically, the University's presidents have served on community boards and have advised policymakers. It is a way for leaders in higher education to give back to the community and to help the entire area move forward.
Without Cianci's centralized rule, Providence politics will be more chaotic. More groups will be involved in public decision-making. Generating consensus on what the city needs to do will be difficult. But despite the uncertainty of civic life without its colorful mayor, there is absolutely no reason the capital city cannot continue to be a wonderful place to live and learn. All the things that made Providence a destination spot are still in place. It continues to have fine restaurants, theater, museums, and universities. None of these was created by Cianci, and all will endure long after he has left. It is the beauty of the city's renaissance that its progress is not dependent on any one individual but rests on the hard work of many individuals and organizations. As long as people stay united in the goal of moving the city forward, there is no reason the Providence renaissance cannot endure and even move on to greater success.
Darrell M. West, the John Hazen White Professor of Public Policy and Political Science, is director of Brown's A. Alfred Taubman Center for Public Policy. His most recent book is Celebrity Politics (Prentice-Hall, 2002).