A corrupt mayor’s kitschy comeback.
Providence, Rhode Island — Hanging in the plaque-adorned hallway of WPRO-AM, the local talk-radio station, is a first-place local news award for a 2002 series called “Mayor Indicted.” The series delved into the exploits of Providence’s longest-serving mayor, Vincent Albert “Buddy” Cianci Jr., who was found guilty of conspiring to extort $1.5 million worth of bribes from city contractors and many others in a racketeering scheme that the FBI labeled “Operation Plunder Dome.” Cianci was convicted and went to federal prison for four-and-a-half years, but, these days, he’s easy to find: For three hours every weekday, he sits directly across from the “Mayor Indicted” award, in a cramped WPRO-AM studio, taping the “Buddy Cianci Show.”
Politicians generally respond to scandal and public disgrace in two different ways. There’s the Bill Clinton school–countless hangdog apologies and pleas for a second chance–and the Marion Barry school–lashing out at critics and painting oneself as a martyr persecuted by the establishment. Cianci, however, has pioneered the third way of scandal rehabilitation. Since his May release from prison, the 66-year-old former mayor has been reveling in his bad-boy image. His producer plays Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison” to introduce the show after commercial breaks. Cianci and his callers frequently refer to his “vacation,” which, his producer helpfully explains to me, “means jail.” And, via sound effect, Cianci has introduced a regular character, a barking dog named Rico (after the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, under which Cianci was convicted).
The new Buddy–wisecracking, unplugged–is indistinguishable from the old, except he now bounds about sans his infamous toupee (which he calls a “squirrel”). He doesn’t spend his days on the radio bitterly attacking his enemies or flagellating himself for his misdeeds. Instead, he’s full of unapologetic one-liners–if he was racketeering, at least he was getting things done. (Cherry Arnold, who made a documentary about Cianci, told me his “management style” is characterized mainly by the attitude of “get it done and get it done now.”) Instead of protesting his innocence, he prefers to focus on building the Buddy brand, even carrying around a giant calculator to keep track of his profit margin. In addition to the radio show, he has been the subject of a book, The Prince of Providence, by Providence Journal reporter Mike Stanton, and a New York Fringe Festival musical, “‘Buddy’ Cianci: The Musical.” Cianci is writing a memoir (and plans to write two other books: one on “funny things” and one “more of a didactic kind of a book”), in which he says several publishers have expressed interest, and he tells me that a major studio wants to option his life story for a feature film. And, even if all this corruption kitsch fails to bring in the cash that he refers to as “dead presidents,” Cianci still has his day job: He’s a consultant for the luxury condominium complex where he lives with his daughter and grandchildren.
Even before he became the subject of scandal, Cianci demonstrated a knack for marketing both his city and himself. When he became mayor in 1974 (ironically, running as “the anti-corruption candidate”), he was just a 33-year-old prosecutor overseeing a dying factory town (“When I became mayor, even the Bible society was moving out!” he exclaims). But, in myriad small ways, he revitalized the city, once known as the “armpit of New England,” and turned Providence–and himself–into a brand. He installed gondolas along the Woonasquatucket River, expanded the city’s mounted police force (“Talk about good relations. When was the last time you saw anybody pet a police car?”), and marketed his “Mayor’s Own” marinara sauce. Less than a year after taking office, Cianci was a bona fide star, taking meetings with Gerald Ford at the White House and introducing Texas Governor John Connally at the 1976 Republican Convention.
But, eventually, Cianci’s individual brand became too big to be contained by his party, and, in 1982, he left the GOP and became an independent. Soon after, the charismatic mayor ran afoul of the law. In 1984, he was forced to resign after pleading no contest to assaulting a man he suspected of having an affair with his ex-wife, reportedly using an ashtray, a fireplace log, and a lit cigarette. Then, as now, Cianci launched a radio show that kept him “part of the public discourse.” The radio studio was “Cianci’s Elba,” in the words of biographer Stanton. Six years later, he ran again for mayor and won over the objections of state lawmakers who had passed a constitutional amendment (termed the “Buddy Amendment”) prohibiting anyone with a felony conviction from holding public office within three years of their conviction, parole, or probation.
Lunch with Cianci is like a scene out of “The Sopranos.” We enter a swank Italian restaurant downtown and join a round table in the back with six beefy men smoking cigarettes and polishing off a bottle of wine. “Mr. Mayor!” one of them yells, laughs all around. I ask one of the gentlemen what he does for a living. “I eat lunch,” he replies.
When he’s not holding court on the radio, Cianci continues to hold court here at the Capriccio Restaurant, with its high-backed chairs and smoke-filled rooms. “See, let me tell you what my theory of being mayor is,” Cianci says, taking a drag on his cigarette. He then spends the next 30 minutes regaling the table with the history of Providence and urban America from the 1970s (when “mayors were social workers”) through the ’90s and the present day, with mayors now acting as “entrepreneurs.” It becomes clear, as he talks, that Cianci thinks of his RICO phase as just an aggressive form of entrepreneurship.
After the feds indicted him on the RICO charges in 2001, Cianci ended up serving his sentence at the federal prison facility in Fort Dix, New Jersey. Prison was a difficult adjustment for Cianci, who cultivated discriminating tastes in good food, fine wine, and beautiful women during his mayoralty. But it had its upsides. “They’ve got great services there,” he jokes. “They even open up your mail for you.” He also says he had the chance to read almost 1,000 books, including the historical works of David Halberstam and David McCullough, which has inspired him to start a book club on his radio show, a la Don Imus (who frequently bandied on-air with Cianci during both of the men’s heyday). And he no longer takes things for granted. “I’ve got good friends,” he says, looking around the table. “They’re a little overweight, but that’s all right.” (“He taught us how to eat!” one of the men at the table shouts back.) Upon his release, Cianci was ordered to live in a Boston halfway house for three weeks. He didn’t enjoy the conditions or the company, which, he recalls, included a mouse inhabiting a toaster.
These days, Cianci is full of grand plans: He wants to broadcast a series of shows from China, establish a center for public service at a local university as a “repository” for his papers, and says he has raised $700,000 for a scholarship fund to send minority students to college (this figure, like the number of books he read in prison, has doubled since a spate of interviews he gave earlier this year). He also recently signed a deal to become the chief political analyst for Providence’s ABC affiliate.
Because of the “Buddy Amendment,” Cianci cannot run for office until 2012. And, according to Darrell West, a professor of political science at Brown University who published an academic paper called “Popular Rogues,” using Cianci as a case study, Buddy is in no hurry to seek elective office again. “He has the perfect platform now,” West says. “He’s very visible, but he doesn’t have to be responsible for anything.” But, while Cianci hedges about his political future (“I will always be available to my city or state for whatever they like me to do or ask me to do”), another run is far from unlikely. Cianci has the energy of someone half his age, and his pioneering form of scandal rehabilitation also seems to be working. Today, he says, people applaud him when he walks along city streets. West says, “People in Rhode Island are remarkably forgiving. [They] treat him like a rock star now. They don’t seem to mind that he’s a convicted felon.”
A little corruption is nothing to get ruffled about, anyway, especially if you can make a few dead presidents off it. “There are peaks and valleys in everybody’s life, and, unfortunately, I had a valley,” he waxes philosophically. “But you have to know the lowest of valleys in order to be on the highest peaks. That’s a big part of life. So here I am. Back again.”