I don’t normally have a soft spot in my heart for repeat-offending corrupt politicians or instances of recidivist venality. Or at least I try not to make a habit of it. But to every rule there’s an exception and this one brings me to look with an admittedly bizarre regret on the recent corruption conviction of Providence Mayor Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci.
I’m not from Rhode Island and I don’t live there now. But I spent the better part of my twenties living in the Providence — specifically, from the end of 1992 till the beginning of 1997. And for a couple years I even lived a couple blocks from the Mayor’s ‘Mansion’ down on Benefit Street. So I lived there long enough to get a feel for the place.
I didn’t follow the case against Cianci at all or how good a case the Feds made against him. But frankly it hardly matters. It doesn’t take too much effort to imagine what the bill of particulars likely was.
But the hilarious, bizarre and probably — to anyone who hasn’t lived there — inscrutable truth is that Cianci was just an incredibly good Mayor. Not just for the entertainment factor but equally in terms of rejuvenating the city. Yes, yes, yes … he had some previous run-ins with the law, no doubt over some troubling decisions about public contracts and okay, okay there was that incident in which, while serving as Mayor, he and a few of his goons kidnapped the lover of his estranged wife and knocked him on the head with a firewood log and did some unfortunate things to him with electrodes. But, really, didn’t that just show that he felt things deeply?
Of course, later there were various public dramas like when Cianci’s buxom peroxide blonde girlfriend jilted him, hightailed it to some island in the Caribbean with her new man, and left Buddy in a sorrowful funk which lasted, if I recall, for some time and left the residents of the three-hundred-and-fifty year old city worried about him for some time.
As you can no doubt see, some of this is tongue-in-cheek. But not all of it. Cianci was a great Mayor. Or at least a terribly fun one who did a lot of good things for the city. Certainly everyone in the city loved him. And he was disproportionately responsible for the renaissance Providence experienced in the 1990s. When I lived there he ran for re-election essentially unopposed.
Cianci was first elected Mayor as a Republican in 1975. He resigned in 1984 after pleading no-contest to charges stemming from the the wife’s boyfriend incident. Then he took a turn at Talk Radio before staging a political comeback in, I think, 1990. He’s been Mayor ever since. Later in his mayoralty he ran as an Independent, but in effect — in terms of the coalitions which elected him — as a Democrat.
There’s really no way to explain to an outsider the sort of popularity Cianci enjoyed. (To say that he was a cartoonish or parodic figure is rather an understatement. I think the best I can do to describe him is as a mix with equal parts Ed Koch, Vito Corleone and Boss Hogg.) But much of it is rooted in the idiosyncratic and bizarre political culture of Rhode Island which somehow manages to compress all the cliches of the history of American urban machine politics into one medium-sized city in one miniscule state. To say that Rhode Island is corrupt is rather like saying that Washington, DC is political. But the state’s politics is generally divided between mainly venal and predominantly ethnic machine-type pols like Cianci on the one hand and insufferable good-government blue-bloods on the other. And the state’s electorate more often than not chooses the former.