Providence Smiles on the Mayor
Buddy Cianci, Rhode Island's Smooth-Talking Outcast, Is a True Son of His City

By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 8, 2001; Page C01

PROVIDENCE, R.I.-- Maybe Buddy Cianci isn't the only American politician currently under indictment for bribery, extortion, mail fraud and witness tampering, but he's certainly the only pol who justifies his habit of smoking cigarettes by saying, with a straight face, that it's "good for the children."

See, every time he buys a pack of Merits, Cianci explains, a big chunk of the money goes for taxes, which pay for education, which is good for kids.

Obviously, Vincent A. Cianci Jr., the six-term mayor of Providence, is no slouch as a spin doctor. Here, for instance, is how he explains his landslide defeat as a candidate for governor in 1980:

"That was a huge vote of confidence by everyone statewide who wanted me to return to my duties as mayor of Providence."

Right now, Cianci's bellying up to the bar. In one hand, he's got a cigarette; in the other, a brandy snifter containing ice cubes and a brown liquid that he identifies, with a mischievous smile, as "water." He's 60, a short, stubby man wearing a black suit, a white shirt and a salt-and-pepper toupee -- the toupee that cops made him remove when he posed for a mug shot after his indictment in April.

Cianci is about to make a speech to 1,200 people at a dinner for Providence's Head Start program and he's trying to study his notes, but he can't because people keep coming over to shake his hand or hug him.

One is Elaine Edwards, a cook who reminds Cianci that he'd once crowned her daughter in a local Puerto Rican beauty contest. She wants to get her picture taken with the mayor.

Cianci summons his official photographer, then puts his arm around Edwards and smiles for the camera. Edwards walks away beaming. "He's an excellent mayor," she says.

Coming up right behind her is Bishop Robert Farrow, an African American Pentecostal preacher who says he has been Cianci's "spiritual adviser" for 17 years. "He was chosen for a job God has given him," Farrow says. "He's not just a political mayor, he's a visionary mayor."

Cianci's latest indictment -- there was an earlier one back in the '80s -- doesn't bother Farrow. "Even Jesus was accused," he says. "These charges have not been proven."

"Here's a supporter if I ever saw one," Cianci bellows from the bar. He's got his arm around Rita Kelly, an elderly woman who's wearing a "Re-Elect Cianci" button from 1990. That was when Buddy made his legendary comeback after resigning in disgrace following a conviction for beating his estranged wife's lover with a fireplace log.

"I support him 100 percent," Kelly says. She dismisses the bribery indictment with a curt sneer. "They're complaining about the money. That money was donated to him for his campaign. He wasn't using taxpayers' money."

"That's right," Cianci says, grinning broadly.

The Phoenix of Providence

Buddy Cianci is a legend in New England, the hero or villain of countless colorful stories that sound apocryphal even when they're true.

"He's such an extraordinarily larger-than-life figure," says Oskar Eustis, artistic director of Providence's Trinity Repertory Company and a connoisseur of theatrical talent.

Son of a Providence proctologist, Cianci (pronounced see-ANN-see) started his political career in 1974, running for mayor as a Republican in a city that hadn't elected a Republican mayor since 1938. Cianci, then 33, had made his name as a state prosecutor willing to go after New England Mafia boss Raymond Patriarca. Still, nobody thought he had a chance against the entrenched Democratic machine. But the machine was split in fratricidal battle, and Cianci, running as the "anti-corruption" candidate, defeated the incumbent by 709 votes.

He took over a decaying city. The textile mills were dead and the jewelry factories were dying. Providence was hemorrhaging humans, its population plummeting from 250,000 in 1940 to less than 160,000. The downtown was a wasteland of polluted rivers, rusty rail yards and cheesy strip shows.

But Cianci was bursting with optimism, a tireless booster of a town with few fans. He pushed through a new city charter, defeated a garbagemen's strike, lured new business to the city. In 1976 he was given a prominent speaking role at the Republican National Convention.

Then came his first scandal: In 1977, New Times magazine reported that a woman had accused Cianci of raping her at gunpoint while he was in law school at Marquette University in 1966. The woman filed a complaint with the police, according to the magazine, but dropped it after Cianci paid her $3,000.

Cianci denied the accusations, although he acknowledged in court documents that he had paid the woman $3,000 to keep her from filing a civil suit against him. When the article appeared, Cianci slapped New Times with a $72 million lawsuit, which was settled when the magazine paid Cianci $8,500 and sent him a letter of apology. He framed the letter and hung it on his office wall.

In 1978 he ran for reelection and won a narrow victory. In 1980 he ran for governor and got creamed, losing every ward in his own city. In 1982, facing a tough challenge in the Republican mayoral primary, he quit the party and ran as an independent.

"I ended up winning pretty handily," he recalls.

Actually, he won by only 1,074 votes, amid charges of election fraud.

Victory was sweet but short-lived. Soon, the Providence Journal was uncovering scandal after scandal in the city's Public Works Department -- bribery, kickbacks, no-show jobs, the theft of everything from city trucks to, believe it or not, manhole covers. The feds indicted 30 people, convicted 22 and sent 16 to prison. U.S. Attorney Lincoln Almond -- who is now governor of Rhode Island -- let it be known that Cianci was a target, too.

But the feds never nailed Buddy. They didn't have to. Buddy nailed himself.

On March 20, 1983, Cianci summoned a contractor named Raymond DeLeo to his house. The mayor wasn't happy that DeLeo was having an affair with Sheila Cianci, his estranged wife. Cianci expressed his unhappiness by smashing DeLeo with a fireplace log, hitting him with an ashtray, spitting on him, dousing him with whiskey and burning his face with a cigarette.

"I saw a crazed man," DeLeo told the cops. "I saw a lunatic, you know, simply stated."

Indicted for assault and kidnapping, Cianci first denied the charges: "These are merely accusations." But in April 1984, he pleaded no contest to assault and was sentenced to five years of probation in a deal that required that he resign from office.

"I resigned and I apologized and I paid the price," he says.

He launched a new career -- talk show host on Providence's WHJJ radio. Smart, fast and very funny, he was an immediate hit. But he longed for his old job and, in 1990, he jumped into the mayoral race, announcing on the air, "I am back."

He ran as an independent in a three-man race and squeezed out a victory by 317 votes.

Back in office, he served as chief cheerleader and wheeler-dealer of the rebuilding of downtown Providence -- luring businesses, building parks, hotels and a huge mall, providing city loans for restaurants and theater companies, setting up a special arts district.

It worked. Once the armpit of New England, Providence is now a tourist destination. Money magazine named it the Northeast's "best place to live." Girlfriends magazine named it one of the "best lesbian places to live." Utne Reader named it one of America's "10 Most Enlightened Towns."

Enlightened! It isn't an adjective ever attached to Providence before Buddy took over.

"He masterminded the renaissance that turned the city around," says Darrell West, a Brown University political science professor.

The people loved him. In 1994, running as an independent, he faced only token opposition. In 1998, he faced none at all, and West's polls showed his approval rating at 81 percent.

Buddy was riding high. Then the FBI showed up.

A Club and a Hammer

On April 28, 1999, a team of FBI agents invaded Providence City Hall, arresting the chairman and vice chairman of the Board of Tax Assessment and carting off crates of documents from five city offices.

It was the dramatic debut of Operation Plunder Dome, a federal investigation of corruption in the Providence city government. Aided by a businessman who secretly videotaped city officials in the act of being bribed, the feds soon convicted three tax officials and two lawyers and indicted Cianci's top aide for allegedly soliciting bribes.

For a while, Cianci made fun of the scandal. When one of the prosecutors got in trouble for showing some of the secret videotapes to friends after a night on the town, Cianci went on Don Imus's radio show and said, "I guess Blockbuster's was closed that night. . . . I wonder if he sold popcorn."

When prosecutors played a tape of a city official bragging that the mayor had taught him how to take bribes, Cianci said: "What the hell does he think, that I'm running a seminar? Stealing 101?"

But Cianci stopped joking on April 2 of this year, when the feds indicted him and five other men, charging them with conspiring to give and receive bribes in return for such favors as tax reductions, towing contracts, city jobs and the sale of city-owned property.

Those are standard urban corruption schemes, but one of the charges against Cianci is a bit more baroque: He is accused of extorting a free lifetime membership in Providence's tony University Club.

That charge is a delicious tale of snobbery and revenge. In 1975, shortly after he was first elected mayor, Cianci applied for membership in the club, which was a bastion of Yankee aristocrats. The club never even bothered to reply. When he was reelected, Cianci applied again. Still no reply.

In 1998, the club sought city permits to expand its squash courts, and Cianci, according to the indictment, ordered his inspection department to fight the permit request. At a meeting with club honchos, according to the indictment, Cianci threatened to turn the club into a bring-your-own-bottle joint if he didn't get a free membership.

When he got the free membership, the club got the permits.

Cianci denies all the allegations in the indictment. "I assure you that I'm not guilty of these charges," Cianci said the day he was indicted. "I'm going to fight this as far as I can."

Still, two Rhode Island pols named Lincoln -- Gov. Lincoln Almond and Sen. Lincoln Chafee -- urged him to step down.

"I'm not gonna step down," he says. In fact, he has already announced his candidacy for a seventh term in 2002. "I will continue to be mayor of Providence as long as the people will have me."

'Louisiana of the North'

The Plunder Dome scandal has inspired a lot of talk and a fair amount of snickering but not one bit of shock. Rhode Islanders are connoisseurs of corruption, epicures of the ethically impaired.

"People take a perverse delight in chronicling the local corruption," says West, the Brown professor. "It's part of the local entertainment."

Generally, there's plenty of corruption to chronicle. The state has been known as "Rogue's Island" since shortly after it was founded by Roger Williams in 1636. Cotton Mather called it "the sewer of New England." George Washington denounced its "scandalous conduct."

In the Colonial era, Rhode Island was a haven for smugglers and slave traders -- two-thirds of American slaves arrived on ships owned by Rhode Islanders. In 1809, the state was the scene of the United States' first bank failure, when a lending institution capitalized at $45 issued $800,000 in bank notes.

In the late 1800s, Rhode Island's Yankee textile barons imported Irish and Italian immigrants to work for peanuts in their mills. The Yankees were Republicans, led by Charles "Boss" Brayton, who was famous for defining an honest voter as "one who stays bought." In 1905, muckraker Lincoln Steffens investigated the place and concluded that "Rhode Island is a state for sale and cheap." In 1935, Irish Democrats overthrew the Yankee Republicans, but the policy of corruption continued unabated.

"I call Rhode Island 'the Louisiana of the North,' " says Patrick T. Conley, author of several books on the state's history.

Conley, who is also a lawyer and a former Cianci aide, can rattle off the scandals of the last two decades from memory: A governor who pleaded guilty to 18 felony counts. Two consecutive chief justices of the state Supreme Court who resigned while under investigation. Six Rhode Island mayors -- including Cianci -- charged with crimes. Plus a plethora of lesser rascals.

Rhode Islanders exhibit a touching tolerance for wayward pols. In 1985, when a used-car salesman who served on the Johnston town council was sent to federal prison for rolling back odometers, his friendly fellow council members voted to let him participate in their meetings via telephone. Alas, party-pooping prison officials nixed the plan.

In Providence, corruption is so ingrained that people sometimes forget that it's technically illegal.

"All I did was give kickbacks," says Tommy Ricci. "Is that a crime or what?"

Ricci, 56, is a construction contractor who got caught up in the Public Works Department scandals in the first Cianci administration and ended up doing four months in federal prison for tax evasion. A huge man -- 307 pounds, he says -- he's wearing an orange T-shirt that reveals a curious line of tattoos on his left forearm: a can, an eye, a screw, the letter U and a question mark.

"I paid people off for the jobs," he says, "but I did the jobs. It was just a business expense. Some people go to school to get jobs. I bought the jobs. Does that make me a criminal?"

He bought construction contracts in the Cianci administration the same way he'd bought them during the previous administration, he says -- by purchasing countless tickets to fundraising affairs.

"Here's how it worked," he says. "You do work for the city and they'd hold back your check, and you'd go down there and inquire about your check, and there would be a birthday party or some kind of fundraiser and they'd have a stack of tickets next to your name for $100 apiece or something like that. And they'd say, 'You want 'em? If you don't, we can't find your check.' "

He raises his palms in the universal gesture of befuddlement. "Am I a criminal or a victim?"

A Man With Plans

"I do have a sharp tongue," Mayor Cianci warns, smiling.

He's sitting behind a big black desk in his City Hall office, surrounded by pictures of himself with various notables -- Bill Clinton, Antonin Scalia, Colin Powell, a former president of Italy. On a shelf behind him sit jars of Buddy's own marinara sauce, which he sells to raise money for a local scholarship fund.

"I will not be discussing anything about Plunder Dome because of the judge's gag order," he says. "Except to say that I'm innocent of the charges."

He launches into a long monologue about how he rebuilt Providence. "We had to move three rivers. . . . We recaptured retail in one generation. . . . We have more artists per capita than any city."

He swivels his chair to gesture toward one great building project, walks to a window to point out another. Then he sticks a videotape into a huge TV and his face appears on the screen, talking about three more massive projects he hopes to complete -- running Interstate 95 underground to create parkland, transforming old mills into upscale stores and homes, turning a blighted waterfront into a marina. He lights a cigarette and comments on his on-screen commentary.

"This can happen," he says in his smoke-cured voice. "It's happening now."

The tape ends. He sits back down behind his desk and explains why he's so popular that nobody bothered to run against him last election.

"The people know me," he says. "I've been with them in good times and bad. I've held their hands when they've had tragedies in their families. I've done favors, written letters for people. I've gone to their Little League games, their weddings, their wakes. I go to the opening of an envelope."

He smiles. He can't resist comparing his ubiquitous presence with the more aloof style of his enemy, Gov. Almond. "He went to Hong Kong or Singapore, to South America to England and Ireland -- and nobody knew he was gone!" He laughs.

He delights in mocking his critics. He calls Conley, the local historian and former Cianci aide, "a bit of a rogue" and asks: "Which personality did you see? Because he has three."

Then he gets going on hisbete noire, the Providence Journal, the local paper, universally known as the ProJo, which has exposed scandals in his administrations for a quarter-century.

"You know what really irks me?" he asks. "You pick up the ProJo and you want to read the economics. Now, why the hell should I be taking advice about economics from a guy who's making $46,000 a year? My secretary makes more than that."

He laughs. "Most reporters I know -- not most but some -- want to be mayors or governors or senators, but they don't have the balls to run. They'd have to do a search to find one ball between them."

He smiles. "See?" he says, "I got a sharp tongue."

Last year, Cianci sold his house on the corner of Power and Benefit streets -- scene of the famous fireplace log beating -- and moved into a suite at the Biltmore Hotel, right next to City Hall. Newspapers speculated that he did it so the feds couldn't seize the house if he was convicted. He says the reason is more simple: It was lonely there. He has never remarried, and his daughter had grown up and moved away.

"I was going home to an empty house," he says. "I was paying taxes on a 15-room house and I hadn't been in 11 rooms in a year."

He hopes to serve one more term, he says, then retire, maybe write a book on urban governance, expand his spaghetti sauce business, take some time for himself.

When the interview is over, he escorts his inquisitor to a back door where a tiny, dark staircase leads to an unmarked door on the street.

"This," he says, smiling, "is the way you leave when you raise taxes."