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The Nation | DISPATCH FROM PROVIDENCE, R.I.

Hey, Buddy, the Party's Over and the Bill Is Due

Popular, charismatic and corrupt ex-Mayor Vincent A. Cianci Jr. left behind a costly legacy in the city he ruled for nearly three decades.

October 13, 2003|Elizabeth Mehren | Times Staff Writer

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Former Mayor Vincent A. Cianci Jr. -- better known these days as inmate No. 05000-070 at a federal prison in New Jersey -- took pride in calling his hometown "America's Renaissance City." Holding court each night at a fine Italian restaurant and residing in the presidential suite of the Biltmore Hotel, he readily claimed credit for transforming Providence from a mob-controlled backwater into a bustling metropolis.

But when Cianci was shipped off to prison in December to serve a five-year sentence for racketeering conspiracy, he left Providence with a decidedly mixed inheritance.

Many residents of the city he ruled for almost three decades professed to admire him so much that they would vote for him again, even if he ran for office from behind bars. His successors in city government, however, said the 62-year-old former mayor bequeathed an urban mess that could take years to clean up.

"I certainly would not describe it as a legacy," David N. Cicilline, the 42-year-old Democrat who followed Cianci as mayor, said recently.

"What I stepped into was a city that was very badly mismanaged," Cicilline said. "It was very inefficient and filled with employees who were hired for who they knew, not what they knew. There was a profound culture of corruption that was allowed to continue for decades. We have had to rebuild our city government from the ground up."

Cicilline cited a $60-million budget deficit -- about 10% of the city's annual budget -- as one of the most visible inheritances. He said "Plunder Dome," the lengthy federal investigation of Providence city government, made some companies leery of doing business here.

"That is one of the most terrible legacies: lost business opportunities," Cicilline said. "At every business event I go to, I have a different person tell me they were thinking of coming to Providence but stayed away because of the climate of corruption -- or that they left for the same reason.

"There was a sense that this was not an honest place to do business."

When he took office, Cicilline fired dozens of Cianci's political toadies and slashed jobs he said had no reason to exist. He hired a new police chief, instituted community policing and publicized the discovery of a secret taping system at police headquarters -- installed, Cicilline said, by Cianci operatives.

Unlike his predecessor, Cicilline promised not to accept or solicit campaign contributions from city employees. He also promised to hire city officials based on professional qualifications, not personal connections.

"What a novel idea," he said dryly.

Cicilline recently launched a program at City Hall called "Mayor's Night In/Mayor's Night Out."

Scores of residents dropped by for open office hours with Cicilline, many expressing a sense of betrayal after years of payoffs and kickbacks during the Cianci regime, the new mayor said. For the "night out" portion of his effort to open the lines of communication, Cicilline takes to the streets to talk to residents in their neighborhoods.

In his first six months in office, Cicilline has earned a 67% job-approval rating -- the highest of any Rhode Island official -- according to a new Brown University survey.

"The new mayor is getting Buddy numbers," Brown University political science professor Darrell West said, using the childhood nickname by which Cianci is known to supporters and detractors alike. "Cicilline is helping this city forget about Buddy Cianci."

But not everyone is willing to let go of the colorful, charismatic figure who became the longest-serving mayor not just of Providence but of any large U.S. city.

"Everybody misses him," said radio host Steve Kass. "I'll bet you a hundred bucks that if he ran for mayor again today, he'd win."

Bookstore owner Ken Dulgarian said he corresponds regularly with Cianci, who is working in the prison library in Fort Dix, N.J. Dulgarian believes Cianci remains a vibrant presence in the city where he rose from mob-busting federal prosecutor to mayor.

"This man, this mayor, for us here in Rhode Island, he is bigger than LaGuardia in New York," Dulgarian said.

One indication of Cianci's popularity is the success of a new, unauthorized biography of the longtime mayor.

While it is unclear whether being mentioned in "The Prince of Providence" is a mark of distinction or disgrace, Dulgarian said he often sees patrons in his store thumbing through the index, presumably to see if their names are listed.

Providence Journal reporter Mike Stanton was covering Cianci's corruption trial when the mayor heard Stanton was writing a book about him.

Stanton said Cianci demanded to know what kind of advance the journalist got from his publisher. When he heard the amount, Stanton said, Cianci fumed, "How could you sell yourself so cheap?" Stanton said he protested that "this really is not about the money for me." To which the mayor, according to Stanton, retorted, "Well, why isn't it?"

The exchange, Stanton said, typified the way "Buddy walked this very fine line between crime and comedy."

At City Hall, Cicilline acknowledged Cianci's showmanship, but said he had no intention of competing with his predecessor's flamboyant image.

"He was charismatic. He was entertaining. And he loved Providence," Cicilline said. "But we have real problems here."

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