Buddy Cianci used personality to put Providence on the map
By Associated Press | January 29, 2016, 8:45 EST
PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — Love him or hate him, Buddy Cianci put Providence on the map.
A master of both retail politics and publicity stunts, Cianci used his considerable charms and political instincts to win six terms leading Rhode Island’s capital city. Along the way, he and his trademark toupee landed countless appearances on national TV, inspired a musical and even put out his own line of pasta sauce.
Cianci died Thursday at age 74, the morning after he was overcome with abdominal pain while filming his weekly TV show. The cause was not released, but he was diagnosed with cancer in 2014.
Even after being forced to resign because he attacked a man (with the aid of a city police officer) with a fireplace log, ashtray and lit cigarette, he won his seat back, then lost it again when he was convicted of a federal corruption charge and sent to prison.
The judge who sentenced him called him a modern day Jekyll and Hyde: someone who did great things as the city’s biggest cheerleader, while simultaneously taking every opportunity to help himself and his friends, and exact revenge on his enemies.
Cianci grew up the son of a doctor and was educated at Moses Brown School, a private Quaker school on the city’s wealthy East Side. He said that as one of the school’s only Italian-Americans, he did not fit in, and wrote in his 2011 memoir that the feeling of being “tolerated, rather than accepted” drove him to succeed.
It was a feeling that followed him throughout his life. The city’s elites fell out of love with him after first delivering him to office in 1974. He ran then as a mob-busting prosecutor, a Republican intent on breaking up the entrenched Democratic machine.
Corruption ran rampant under Cianci, but his showmanship and personal connections with residents – who all called him “Buddy” – kept him in office. He knew how to play to the crowd, and get the most attention possible. He was a master at finding the loopholes, pushing the envelope and circumventing the rules.
One year, he was disinvited from the Bristol Fourth of July Parade, a voter and attention-rich venue attended by 100,000 people.
“Parades are to politicians as blood is to Dracula,” he wrote in his 2011 memoir.
Instead of missing the chance to shake that many palms and kiss that many babies, he took a helicopter into town and contrived to join a marching band, playing the whistle.
He created the “Mayor’s Own Marinara Sauce” and would hand out jars to every celebrity who came through town: Hillary Clinton and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia were among the recipients. He persuaded Cartier to display it in its store on Fifth Avenue in New York.
Reporters ate it up. He’d call them out of the blue to drop tips, or to offer a thought or two that he forgot to share the last time he was interviewed. He rarely turned down a request to talk, although would occasionally freeze reporters out when they wrote something unfavorable. Before long, he’d be back on the phone with them.
“He reveled in that contact, that back and forth,” said Mike Stanton, a former Providence Journal reporter who wrote “The Prince of Providence,” the definitive book on Cianci. “He was kind of the ringleader of the circus.”
Cianci joked that he would attend the opening of an envelope. People who are middle-aged now recall with fondness when Cianci paid a visit to their elementary school classroom, appeared unannounced at a neighborhood barbecue or attended their Little League game.
“It’s actually intoxicating. You wanted a tree planted on your street, I could give you a tree. There was a pothole on your block, I could get it filled. Your nephew needed a job, I could get him an interview,” he said in his 2011 memoir. “This was old-fashioned ward-healing local politics in action.”
But it often veered into patronage, palm-greasing and score-settling.
Just one example was what happened with the University Club, an exclusive East Side club that he had tried and failed to get into. Cianci got his revenge years later when the club tried to remodel, and the city withheld the permits. Desperate, the club’s leaders came to his office, prompting him to quip: “Be careful of the toe you step on today, because it may be connected to the ass you have to kiss tomorrow.”
Cianci got his membership, and the line ultimately inspired a song in 2003’s “‘Buddy’ Cianci: The Musical.” Characters in FOX’s animated show “Family Guy” attend Buddy Cianci Jr. High School.
In 2007, after he finished his “vacation in a federally funded gated community,” as he referred to prison, Cianci resumed life in the spotlight as a talk radio host and TV commentator. He took a break from that in 2014 when he decided to mount a comeback campaign for office, even though he had been diagnosed with cancer.
By then 73, Cianci hit the trail hard and kept up a hectic pace of debates, community meet-and-greets and late nights at his campaign office.
“It was a great, great love affair that I had with the city of Providence,” Cianci told supporters the night he lost with 45 percent of the vote. “That will never end, that will continue till the day I die.”
— Written by Michelle R. Smith