The Ballad of Buddy Cianci

No one predicted that Providence’s ex-con former mayor would come back for a last shot at his old job. But Buddy Cianci refuses to just fade away.
buddy cianci

Photograph by Leonard Greco

For the next six minutes, Buddy Cianci will stare at a sheet of paper and read me his campaign’s internal polling statistics. This is not what I had hoped we would be doing today. “Cianci could win the general election today running as an independent,” Cianci explains, sitting behind a desk at his election headquarters. His glasses, which do a nice job of magnifying his basset hound eyes, are right now located halfway down his nose. His atrophied frame is enveloped in a musty blue blazer. His rug, his squirrel, his trusty toupee: long gone since he checked into prison more than a decade ago. The self-evaluation continues: “His past problems do not disqualify him from elected office.”

That really depends on whom you ask. But right now I need to get him to stop reading me polling data, so I ask him what he thinks of his Democratic opponents, who at this stage are still scrapping for the right to face him, an independent, in November. “Everybody’s got a right to run,” he tells me. “Qualifications are: You have to be 21 years old and a voter in the city.” He is trying to keep a straight face. “And you have to be out of jail for three years. They all meet that qualification.” He can’t keep it together. A chortle breaks through.

Cianci’s been out of jail for seven years, so: bonus points. But that’s not long enough to prevent his prodigious criminal past from dominating the narrative of the 2014 Providence mayoral election, which has inspired, and will continue to inspire, non-local reporters to catalog what is surely the last great comeback campaign of one of our last great political characters. The charming rogue, spiritual heir to Boston’s James Michael Curley, soul cousin to Louisiana’s Edwin Edwards, is here in the flesh, still kicking at 73, and available for comment. “I know what you want,” Buddy tells me. “You want me out there shaking hands, tellin’ somebody how much I love ’em. ‘I remember! You painted my house! You fixed my sidewalks! All the way!’ I know what you want. This isn’t my first rodeo.”

But Buddy doesn’t want to put on a show today. He wants to read me his poll numbers. “Reason to vote against Cianci: part of a plea bargain.” This refers to that time in 1984 when he pleaded no contest to assault and battery and assault with a dangerous weapon. He notoriously used a glass ashtray and a lit cigarette, and allegedly threatened the man with a fireplace log. He was forced to resign from office for a first time. “Seventy percent say: not a good reason to vote against Cianci.” The news gets better. The federal racketeering conviction, the one that in 2002 got him booted out of Kennedy Plaza for the second time, and sent away for four and a half years to a penitentiary in New Jersey: “Twenty-two percent say it’s a good reason to vote against me. Seventy percent say it’s not.” Vincent A. Cianci rests his case.

There’s no real way to determine the reliability of these numbers. But there’s also no real reason to doubt them. Cianci barely won his first comeback attempt, in 1990, but then kept winning for the next decade. And, since retiring as Fort Dix correctional facility inmate No. 05000-070, he has commanded a top-rated talk-radio show in Rhode Island. “Providence has never rejected Buddy Cianci,” says Ted Nesi, a political reporter for the local CBS affiliate. “He’s only been removed from office by law enforcement. Repeatedly.”

Still, maybe he’s trying to prove something to me. After all, Cianci’s election-season throne, only recently christened when I visit it in mid-August, is looking decidedly unmayoral. Cianci’s desk is littered with pieces of paper, little cigarette shards, a stray iPad. He barks at his driver, George, to grab me something to drink. When it turns out there is only water, Cianci gamely suggests we “pretend it’s vodka or something.” When a chunk of plaster falls off the ceiling, he offers an embarrassed shrug. “Place has ghosts.”

Or maybe he’s trying to prove something to himself. After we’re done with the polling exercise, Cianci lets out a gnarly hack of a cough, and I ask him about his health. In January he was diagnosed with colon cancer. He did chemo for half a year, and now he says the disease is gone. He’s dropped from 225 to 173 pounds, though he insists the weight loss was voluntary. All of this—the daily treatments, the physical diminishment—is set against the backdrop of the death of his only child, Nicole, from a drug overdose two years ago.

“‘You’re gonna die, but not from this,’ they said. I guess I can tell you the same thing. You’re gonna die. Everyone’s gonna die.” I tell him I try not to think about it. “Well, you can’t be afraid of death,” he says reassuringly, like a dad checking under the bed for monsters. “I just think you gotta understand that it’s part of living.”

Then, suddenly, he changes his mind. “ Everybody’s afraid of dying. The question is: How do you inoculate yourself, you know, to believe it’s okay?”

 

The redemption story is one of the surest tropes in political journalism. In exchange for access and cheap pathos, the reporter lets the politico explain, at length, why the voter should forgive him. Former Congressman Anthony Weiner, before he digitally manipulated himself out of contention, earned two such magazine spreads last year as he plotted a mayoral run in New York. Mark Sanford, the ex–South Carolina governor with the Argentinean paramour, got one too, when he embarked on his own comeback campaign. Ditto 87-year-old former Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards, who was jailed for corruption and now lives in splendor with a 35-year-old blonde and their frozen-sperm toddler.

Cianci’s comeback, though it is being chronicled similarly, has a different feel to it. Weiner and Sanford begged for forgiveness. Edwards, who was guilty of political, rather than sexual, misdeeds, brazenly claims that his little bit of corruption was pretty good for his state. Buddy, by contrast, still professes his innocence. He’s not on a redemption tour, because he doesn’t believe he has anything to atone for.

Take his first conviction. Cianci, a former criminal prosecutor, first eked into office in 1974 as a Republican running on an anti-corruption ticket. A decade later, convinced that his then-wife, Sheila, was carrying on an affair with a local contractor named Raymond DeLeo, he invited DeLeo over late one night to his home, a sweeping carriage house on the East Side of Providence. Why DeLeo accepted, who knows, but when he arrived he was treated to an evening of verbal and physical abuse, as Cianci hurled himself (and objects) at his victim, using his city police detail to keep DeLeo from leaving. These are the charges to which Cianci pleaded no contest. Still: “That was a domestic thing, blown way out of proportion,” he says now. “It was almost mythic, you know. Logs! It was a fight, period. Lasted three minutes, if that.”

At the time of his assault on DeLeo, Cianci had recently signed a law forcing elected officials to resign if convicted of a felony. The law had been part of an effort to screw over some of his enemies on the city council, but now Cianci was hoist on his own petard. So he stepped down, hopped on talk radio, and bided his time until a winnable mayoral election materialized. It was during his second reign, known as Buddy II, from 1990 to 2002, that Providence enjoyed a legitimate rebirth. Rivers were quite literally moved to facilitate the growth of a vibrant downtown, centered around weird, New Age-meets-Old World tourist rituals (gondolas! WaterFire!); a hip and crucially tax-exempt arts district; and good old-fashioned consumerism, in the form of Providence Place, a.k.a. the Largest Carpeted Mall in New England. For all of that, Cianci credits himself with “raising the self-esteem of the people to heights they never thought they could achieve.”

While Cianci conducted his symphony, the FBI was patching together a wide- ranging sting, Operation Plunder Dome, which ultimately resulted in the conviction of nine of Cianci’s underlings and associates for accepting bribes and kickbacks. Cianci, initially indicted on 30 criminal counts, was ultimately convicted only of violating the RICO Act, invented to prosecute mob bosses who had subtly presided over a criminal enterprise without ever directly getting their hands dirty.

For Cianci, a former mob prosecutor, this was an ironic way to go down, and he never accepted his sentence as legitimate. The New Yorker’s Philip Gourevitch, who wrote a sympathetic profile of the mayor after he was convicted, saw Cianci after the trial and told him, “They didn’t get you for anything, but they hit you for everything.”

Buddy himself puts it like this: “I was found guilty of committing a crime that I was found not guilty of.”

Whatever the merits of the conviction, a healthy cohort of Rhode Island’s political establishment is aghast that Cianci, the twice-convicted, once-jailed felon, would run for office again. “I would say he was probably the most corrupt individual I ever came across,” says former Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Almond, an old-school WASP who served in the ’90s and early aughts, during Buddy II. Almond is hard of hearing, but was so intent on slamming Cianci that he had me recite my questions by phone to his wife, who then repeated them back to him. “He’s a compulsive liar. He will say anything and do anything to get credit for things that he had nothing to do with.” (Jon Lovitz’s Saturday Night Live character “The Pathological Liar” was modeled on Cianci.)

Almond no doubt falls into the Anybody but Buddy camp, but the spiritual leader of the effort is a retired Providence Journal columnist named Charlie Bakst. I meet Bakst a couple of days after my first meeting with Cianci, at a coffee shop he frequents on the East Side. This is a small city in a small state. When I arrive, it’s pouring rain and a small gaggle of politicos, by chance, happen to be sitting directly behind Bakst. One of them is the lieutenant governor. The other is a former U.S. attorney named Margaret Curran, who happens to be the person who brought the case against Cianci in 2001.

Once we sit down, Bakst, 70, hands me a couple pieces of literature. The first is a letter he wrote on behalf of a Cianci challenger—a young, gay East Sider named Brett Smiley—whose campaign then mailed it around Providence. The outside of the envelope reads, “URGENT: HELP STOP BUDDY!” Inside, the letter advises, “Providence must not become a national laughingstock.”

The second piece of literature is The Prince of Providence, the totemic biography of Cianci, written in 2003 by then-Journal investigative reporter Mike Stanton. Bakst pulls it out of a plastic shopping bag and tells me to flip to page 330, where Stanton quotes a column Bakst wrote in 1990: “Buddy Cianci is bright, energetic, and funny,” it reads. “So why is the prospect of his return as mayor—even his running for mayor—so troubling? Perhaps it is because elections should be appeals to the conscience and ideals of the community, to the best within us, not to the dark side of society that makes celebrities out of criminals and embraces as heroes those who abuse the public’s trust.”

I hand the book back across the table. “If I were writing a column today, you know, I could have written that exact same paragraph,” Bakst says. “There was this story, and then there was this story again, and now in real time, we’re living it again.”

 

A few hours after meeting Bakst, I head to an event at Cianci’s headquarters, a former Boy Scout lodge that Hillary Clinton’s campaign occupied during the 2008 presidential race. The place is now decorated like a sports-memorabilia store, except that every framed photograph is of Buddy Cianci. The event, nominally a forum for campaign volunteers to pick up lawn signs and the like, draws about 300 people in the midst of a flood advisory, and quickly turns into an archetypal Buddy pep rally, dominated by blue-haireds and beefcakes.

The hall has been filling up for about an hour when Cianci arrives, ambling out of the black sedan that George has theatrically steered across the front lawn of the property. The theme of the night seems to be “The Future,” so, naturally, Cianci makes an appeal to his past. “People say, ‘The progressives are in town, the progressives are in town.’ I was the original progressive mayor!” he says, citing his championing of spousal rights for gay couples. “That was back in the early ’90s! I mean, some of these guys weren’t even out of the closet then! But we were doing it. They weren’t. And we were fighting their battles while they were afraid to say what they were!”

You can see the thought bubbles form. They read, “Ummm….” And then you can see them burst, because what more proof do you need that the Buddy Show, in all its improbable and politically incorrect glory, is back? When I catch up with Cianci after the speech, he’s floating. I tell him I spent some time earlier in the day with Charlie Bakst. Cianci cackles and tells me that Bakst used to steal lamb chops from the Biltmore and stuff them in his pockets, 15 or 20 at a time, the little ones. (Bakst denies the claim.)

A little later on, Cianci will tell me, unsolicited, that Jorge Elorza, the Democratic candidate who will go on to win the primary, revealed to him that he slept through his own high school graduation, at which Cianci spoke, because “he was high.” (Through a spokesperson, Elorza called the story “a total fabrication,” though he added that he “didn’t pay attention to [Cianci’s] speech.”)

While Cianci holds court, over me, over everyone, an AP reporter named Michelle Smith is also at the event, up to some more serious business. She’s working on a story that, when it’s published in five days, will constitute the first scandal of the campaign, and perhaps Buddy Cianci’s first since returning from prison, in 2007. As it turns out, the marinara sauce he’s been hawking forever, which features a label that reads, “Benefiting Providence School Children,” hasn’t benefited Providence schoolchildren for quite some time now.

The flap lingers for a couple of local news cycles, if that kind of thing even exists anymore. But then Saucegate, before anyone thinks to name it that, all but disappears. Here’s one possible reason why: When you’re a twice-convicted felon and you’re still drawing 300 people on a Wednesday during a flood advisory, what possible difference can it make that your marinara’s claim of charitable donations happens to be a little bogus?

Buddy himself, after all, has admitted to worse. In 2011 Cianci released a memoir, Politics and Pasta. It is written as if he had no intention of ever again running for elected office.

“I admit that I used jobs as currency to get the support I needed,” he wrote. “I admit I used campaign money for everything from a personal helicopter to get around the state to paying for dinners, and on occasion I even used my influence to do favors for people. I even admit that I rewarded my friends and supporters and punished my political enemies.” And: “Well, maybe there was a little nepotism there, but he was extremely well qualified.” And: “You can’t buy your enemies, but you can rent them.” Et cetera.

Between Buddy’s book, Stanton’s book, and 40 years of collective memory, in other words, there isn’t much left unsaid about Cianci. “One thing about him, though, he’s vetted,” says real estate titan and former Providence Mayor Joseph Paolino Jr., who served in the ’80s, in between Buddy I and Buddy II. “He’s got cancer in the rectum! So nobody’s been more vetted than that.”

Paolino and Cianci used to despise each other, but got close when Cianci was “away.” Cianci has also reconciled with his ex- girlfriend Wendy Materna, the leggy blonde he dated early in his second stint in office. Now, Materna says, the two chat by phone regularly and recently had dinner together in Providence. I asked her why she forgave him. “He was the devil I knew,” she said.

 

There was supposed to be a Buddy Cianci movie. The director was going to be Michael Corrente, a Providence guy who had done Federal Hill and American Buffalo. Alec Baldwin, Oliver Platt, Paul Giamatti, and Russell Crowe were all going to play him, at one time or another. Corrente would tell reporters that Cianci was a Shakespearean figure, but the studios didn’t buy it, and funding never quite came together. The last time Corrente really tried to make it work, he visited Crowe to talk. Crowe wanted to play Buddy like he was the victim. Corrente wasn’t having it, and they broke off talks.

Besides, Buddy Cianci doesn’t interest him anymore. “He went from a guy going to prison for racketeering under the RICO Act to becoming a former mayor who has his own talk-radio show,” Corrente says. “If he had come home and not said anything, the mystique might have stayed. The more and more he talked, the more common he became, the more irrelevant.”

There is something to this. Buddy Cianci isn’t so much the devil you know as the devil you can’t avoid. Even when he wasn’t pulling the 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. shift on WPRO, he was ubiquitous. His home base is Venda Ravioli, an Italian market in Providence’s Federal Hill, where he sits outside and lets his fans come by to kiss the ring. “He’s almost like a tourist attraction,” says a local media figure who asked not to be identified. “I’ll see on Facebook, people constantly posting pictures with him, selfies, things like that.”

Down the street is his bar of choice, a dive called (of course) Tammany Hall. A few blocks away is the condo he’s lived in since he was released from prison. Even the Federal Hill establishments Buddy doesn’t visit find themselves haunted by him. “He’s very vindictive,” says the owner of Mediterraneo, Gianfranco Marrocco, considering the possibility of Buddy III. The two, once close, had a falling-out around the time Cianci went to jail, and don’t speak anymore. “He’s gonna torture me.”

The little world Buddy presides over, like all Little Italys, is an exercise in the suspension of disbelief. For a half-mile stretch of Atwells Avenue, taking in the old men with the houndstooth caps and the gelled-out Pauly D wannabes, it wouldn’t be so crazy to think that Providence was still his town, still the place that helped him bust open the Democratic machine in 1974 or prove that physical assault meant bubkes to the good voters of 1990.

Just before Cianci went to jail, the city turned majority-minority. The Hispanic population has risen by 30 percent since 2000. The white non-Hispanic population is down to 37 percent. The new way of winning elections in Providence, as its last two mayors have demonstrated, is to dominate the Hispanic vote and to win over the East Side liberals who are currently clutching their pearls at the prospect of Buddy III. Elorza, a Hispanic Democrat, is poised to replicate this strategy, which doesn’t bode especially well for Cianci.

At his campaign headquarters the first day we met, Cianci stopped at one point to show me some old photographs. I asked him if he liked to reminisce. “Not really,” he said, absently. “I like to think about tomorrow.” Then he forgot about tomorrow and lingered over the photographs some more. “There’s Jane Pauley. Billy Joel. There’s the governor in New Jersey who had to resign.” He fumbled for the name. Jim McGreevey, I supplied. Satisfied, he concluded the tour, showed me out, and told me to call him.

 

If you take it upon yourself to plumb the depths of Cianci’s past, you’ll discover, as Charlie Bakst has, that history indeed seems to be repeating itself: You’ll find the same canned quotes in the same colorful profiles, the same charming non-denial denials. You’ll notice that 24 years apart, he announced his improbable mayoral comebacks in the same fashion, on the radio, minutes before the filing deadline.

And so it follows that Vincent A. Cianci will take you to eat at the same restaurants he’s patronized his entire life, the same ones his own father, the celebrated Providence proctologist, used to frequent. The afternoon after the volunteer event, his restaurant of choice is the Old Canteen, a pink-walled, spaghetti-and-gravy institution in Federal Hill. “Every person that gets out of their car,” Marrocco says of the Canteen’s aged clientele, “it looks like it’s going to be their last meal.”

Inside, as a waiter fruitlessly tries to lead us to our table, Cianci proceeds to greet every single one of those people personally, as if playing a parody version of himself. What follows is an abbreviated transcript of the proceedings: How you doin’, how are ya, how are you, how you doin’, how are you, how are you, good to see you, always good to see you, hey, not doing bad, how are you, nice to see you, nice to see you, nice to see you, excellent, excellent, thank you, thank you, is that who I think it is?

Whether he actually knows everyone there is impossible to tell, and beside the point anyway. To a certain subset of Providence, Cianci’s permanent campaign, in and out of office, is a sort of comfort food. “He Never Stopped Caring About Providence,” went the Buddy II comeback slogan. About Providence, about himself, what difference did it make? The two seemed inseparable. A Providence without Buddy at the helm wasn’t much of a Providence at all.

For Cianci, it’s the inverse: Without the city under his thumb, what’s the point of being Buddy Cianci? “That’s his self,” Materna says, explaining Buddy’s desire to run again. “That’s his true self. That’s what feeds him.” Materna says she discouraged him from running, citing the cancer diagnosis. But as the signs of his mortality manifest themselves, Cianci’s survival instinct—his pathological need to rewrite the last bullet point on his CV—seems only to have kicked into higher gear.

As we drive from the Old Canteen back to campaign HQ, Cianci sits shotgun, micromanaging his driver throughout. George almost hits something and Cianci’s blood pressure spikes.

Watchoutwatchoutwatchoutwatchout. That’s all we need, to kill a reporter.”

Or the mayoral candidate in the passenger’s seat. “Oh, I bet you’ll write a hell of a story with me dead,” he says, staring ahead.

But George doesn’t hit anything. Without incident—at least for now—Buddy Cianci rides on.


Update: In a previous version of this story, we referred to Ted Nesi as a political reporter for the local Fox affiliate. He is a political reporter for WPRI 12, the local CBS affiliate, and also appears on WPRI’s sister station Fox Providence.


Simon van Zuylen-Wood Simon van Zuylen-Wood, Contributing Editor svzwood@gmail.com