Ric Santurri: All Buddy, All The Time
Wednesday, July 02, 2014
The elephant in the room that is RI politics has made his move. No candidate for any office in RI has higher name recognition than Buddy Cianci, except possibly Jack Reed. Cianci, a true heavyweight, with political instincts honed over a half century, is again the big story in RI politics.
The question for Buddy Cianci is whether he can pull off an improbable second comeback. Some disgraced pols manage to build a second life in American politics, but very few manage a third. When Cianci “Never Stopped Caring About Providence” the first time in 1990, the crime for which he had to ask the voters' forgiveness, assaulting a man who had allegedly been involved with his soon to be ex-wife, was more easily forgivable to that electorate almost a quarter century ago. To me, now and at the time, the bigger affront was Cianci using a Providence police officer as part of the assault. If a man has another problem with another man about a family matter, and they square off over it, that's one thing.
A sitting mayor using a uniformed police officer in the episode is another thing entirely.
Almost two thirds of the Providence electorate rejected Cianci in 1990, but the three way race broke perfectly for him. In his most brilliant electoral feat, Buddy managed to eke his way back into the mayor's office by a bit more than 300 votes. Once he got back in it, Buddy did what newly elected mayors unfortunately have to do – reward supporters. All those new hires and new contracts cost money, and the resultant tax increases alienated some of the political allies that helped him win in 1990.
Cianci again built a strong political organization, raising money from supporters and city vendors. His war chest and solid stewardship of the city during the prosperous Clinton years scared off any serious re-election challengers in 1994 and 1998. Cianci's grip on city politics was so strong that he could have been mayor-for-life if the Feds didn't come calling.
Mea Culpa II is a bit more problematic, with video of top aides accepting cash-stuffed envelopes, but Cianci has a way to spin Operation Plunder Dome. Buddy has claimed in the past that he merely was convicted of “Being The Mayor.” The one conviction secured by the federal government was on the RICO statute most difficult to disprove, racketeering conspiracy. In simple terms, Buddy was in charge and people under him committed crimes. Cianci certainly will have to answer for why he surrounded himself with people on the take, but he can trumpet the fact that he was never convicted of taking a penny.
In a field of virtual unknowns, the biggest thing going for Buddy Cianci is that no one doubts that he already knows how to be mayor of Providence. He's miles ahead of the field in that regard. Cianci loves to talk about the five things that a mayor must do to be a good mayor. Well, here are the two things Cianci must do to again get elected mayor. First, he has to admit his past failures and convince voters they won't happen again. Can Buddy Cianci run an ethical city government? He can, if he is committed to it and focused on it. One would think that a man has a lot of time to think about past mistakes when stewing in prison for a half decade. Cianci should propose an Office of Public Integrity, where citizens can go with complaints of any wrongdoing from city workers, elected officials, or vendors. Cianci must also pledge to hire people of high character.
Second, Cianci has to show the people of Providence that's he's done being vindictive. This might be as difficult as Buddy convincing people he can be ethical. Cianci will have to prove that he's moved on from the days of petty political vendettas. His recent dust up with Brett Smiley, where Cianci suggested he would take up Smiley's Any Time-Anywhere ethics debate challenge outside the Foxy Lady strip club, which was owned by Smiley's deceased father-in-law, might play well to Buddy supporters, but for those on the fence, it's not a good sign. Criticizing dead relatives is about as low as one can go in politics. This is no longer a radio talk show, Buddy. The last thing we need in Providence is a vindictive mayor. If Cianci is trying to convince people he's a changed man, bringing dead relatives into the political debate right out of the gate isn't the way to do it.
I had a downtown businessman tell me recently that he would sell his Providence business if Cianci wins in November. A Rhode Island businessperson deals with lots of hurdles. The last thing this guy wants to deal with is a hostile, vindictive mayor's office. I had my own Vindictive Cianci moment in 1998, when I was helping a Providence councilman at the polls in his re-election bid against a Cianci sponsored challenger. Mayor Cianci showed up at this particular polling place, and was holding court within an area of the polls where electioneering was prohibited. I called him on it, and Cianci went into Imperial Mayor mode, threatening me with increased city enforcement against me as a Providence property owner.
Cianci will have to make it clear to the electorate that he now understands that rules apply to everyone, from the ordinary Providence resident to the sitting mayor. It's an entirely different media landscape since the last time Cianci ran for office. With the use of social media, and the ubiquity of smart phones, where everyone is holding a video camera and voice recorder, a little incident like the one I mentioned above could become, instead of a private moment between a mayor and a guy he was trying to bully, a public incident, shared with many. Cianci will have to show a softer side; a wise, more patient, less petty, more grandfatherly Buddy. The next mayor needs to be a strong leader, but Providence needs a coalition builder, and not a bully.
With week one of the twenty-week Buddy Watch in the books, one thing is for certain. The next few months will bring high political theater to Rhode Island. Cianci is truly a master when it comes to electoral politics. Upon first glance, it seemed that the easiest road for him to get back to the mayor's office would have been in the Democratic primary, figuring that he would need only around 8000 votes out of 25,000 in a crowded field. Buddy wisely figured that one of the putative Democratic candidates, probably Lorne Ardain, would switch course at the last moment and run as an independent, which would have required Cianci to win two races; a primary in September, now against a field with only one candidates from the vote heavy East Side, and then again virtually heads up against Adrain in November. (Unfortunately for Republican candidate Daniel Harrop, GOP candidates in Providence have difficulty winning even 15 percent of the vote)
Now, Cianci will have to prevail only once. We've witnessed five decades of political savvy from Buddy, who first put together an improbable coalition of Republicans, reformers, and Italians-Americans to wrest the mayor’s office away from the entrenched Democratic machine in 1974 and save a sinking city. Are those political skills sharp enough to build a coalition forty years later, from a much different electorate? Those who have just entered the Providence political arena the past dozen post-Buddy years may not fully understand the Cianci mystique, his rare ability to truly connect with voters. Candidates and pundits who feel that Cianci will be out of touch with the changed Providence electorate do so at their own peril.
Related Slideshow: Buddy Cianci in Pop Culture
Take a tour of Buddy Cianci's career from walk on roles on TV dramas to featured in pop art.
Shepard Fairey exploded on to the global stage when he designed the iconic "Hope" poster of President Obama, but he had rocked Providence when he attended RISD with his installations/graffiti cut- and-past on Buddy Cianci's re-election posters.
Photo by El-Pablo via Flickr
Nothing says Buddy Cianci like Buddy's own tell all autobiography. The post-jail book tried to even some scores and serve as a balance to Pulitzer prize winning investigative reporter Mike Stanton's, "Prince of Providence."
Buddy's book with the short title of "Politics and Pasta," failed to deliver the context and range of Stanton's book.
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