Russell Moore: Buddy Still Favorite in Mayoral Bid

Monday, September 15, 2014


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In the aftermath of Jorge Elorza's dramatic upset victory over City Council President Michael Solomon in the Democratic Primary, the conventional wisdom is that Vincent "Buddy" Cianci, the iconic former mayor, is in deep trouble in his bid to retake City Hall.

The thinking goes something like this: Elorza's popularity on the East Side, coupled with the fact that he's a new, fresh face in politics, will make him enticing to voters and allow him to put together an East Side/South Side Coalition that catapulted Mayor Angel Taveras to victory in the Democratic Primary four years ago.

Nothing could be further from the truth. And as progressive hero Ayn Rand beckons us in her novel "Atlas Shrugged": let's check our premises.

Checking premises

First of all, Solomon didn't lose the race because he lost to an East Side/South side coalition. He lost the race because he failed to run up the score in neighborhoods like Mount Pleasant, Elmhurst, and Federal Hill (where he lost). Had Solomon carried those neighborhoods decisively, he'd be taking on Cianci instead of Elorza.

Secondly, Elorza actually was defeated in the south side of the city by Solomon. Everyone makes a big deal about identity politics, but the fact that Elorza is Latino didn't put him over the top in the city's south side, which is a deeply Latino area.

And there's really no reason to doubt that that dynamic will change on a going forward basis either. Cianci has been courting the Hispanic population since the days when they used to make cheese by hand. So it wouldn't be a surprise to see Cianci defeat Elorza there either.

Taveras' train broke down

The conventional wisdom seems to be that Solomon's electoral weakness had something to do with a loan from the city that he and his partners failed to repay (Solomon was a minority partner in the company) and clerical errors on his ethics filings. I reject that notion.

Solomon ran his campaign based on the premise that voters are happy with the current direction and progress in the city under the last two administrations. Solomon practically joined himself to Angel Taveras at the hip, not only endorsing him, but featuring his close working relationship with the Mayor on the lion's share of his advertisements.

But what if Providence voters really aren't that crazy about the direction of the city of Providence? After all, the city seems to have more public relations issues than the NFL. Providence has the third highest commercial tax rates in the country, ridiculous property taxes, the highest car taxes in the state, reports of violent crime in almost every news cycle, and potholes that make city roads look like those of Berlin after World War 2.

A terrible alliance

Further, Taveras paid his close friend Michael D'Amico $200 an hour to give him financial advice on the budget, used taxpayer money to allow his top staff to park for free at the Biltmore hotel, and vindictively closed the Davy Lopes Pool because a city council member didn't want to go for his tax increase a year ago. When all those points were made clear to voters via mailing by Democratic Gubernatorial candidate Gina Raimondo, it made Solomon's alliance with Taveras a liability--not an asset.

Buddy Cianci knows all this. Whereas Solomon tied himself to Taveras, Cianci will attempt to tie Elorza to Taveras, arguing that he's just the next handpicked candidate in line from the group of "elitists", in Cianci's words, that have been running Providence ever since Cianci left office. 

The sum and substance of Cianci's campaign message will be this: did you like Providence better when I was in charge, or when the people who succeeded me took over. If Cianci can stay on message and hammer that question home, he'll once again become our capital city's mayor.

That's because, to the dismay of the people who have been running city hall over the last 12 years, they may learn that people feel like things were better under Cianci's leadership, despite the ethical questions that surround his candidacy. 

Then Cianci will be able to run up huge margins in his Elmhurst, Mount Pleasant, and the surrounding areas, while performing better on the East Side, where people have underestimated his support.

Nobody cares

There's also this notion out there that the Democratic candidates on the ticket will line up behind Elorza. But that won't make much of a difference, because we saw in the primaries from last week--nobody cares.

What they do care about is which candidate can be trusted to fill a pot hole, keep crime out of the news, and hold the line on taxes. 

With that in mind, here's a memo to Buddy's adversaries: underestimate him at your own risk.

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A native Rhode Islander, Russell J. Moore is a graduate of Providence College and St. Raphael Academy. He worked as a news reporter for 7 years (2004-2010), 5 of which with The Warwick Beacon, focusing on government. He continues to keep a close eye on the inner workings of Rhode Islands state and local governments. Find Russell J. Moore Twitter @russmoore713.


Related Slideshow: Questions Buddy Cianci Must Answer to be Providence’s Next Mayor

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Staff recruitment?

When GoLocal first started looking into the possibility of Buddy entering the race, we asked of his former staff, "Where are they now?"  

Buddy's been out of office for 12 years.  Anyone of voting age then is now over 30.  And anyone who was a Buddy disciple had to move on, forge a new career path, or retire.   Much like the voting block -- who is Buddy's new base of support from a staff perspective?  Can he snag young social media savvy professionals -- what do they know of Buddy's legacy?  Can he lure folks away from secure positions for a high degree of uncertainty? 

Buddy's got the headquarters, and is undoubtedly putting a team in place, but seems to be keeping a low-profile as the primary campaigns heat up.  Watch to see if he can pull any defectors from the losing Democratic campaigns who see Buddy as the more viable way into City Hall than their former opponent who just beat them.

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Age and Illness?

It's no secret that Cianci is 73, and has been battling cancer.  Listen to him on the radio, you might think you're hearing man twenty years younger.  See him in person, however, and you see a man who has been through...a lot.  Noticeably slimmer and more subdued, Cianci cuts a contrasting figure to his younger days.

Don't count out the razor-sharp Cianci to use this to his advantage -- that this is the kinder, gentler, grandfatherly Buddy who plans on swooping back in to show the younger generation how to be Mayor, with his experience. 

The question will be if he truly has the health and stamina for the grueling sprint to the finish between the primaries and Election Day in November -- and whether hi opponents will bring that up in private circles, or outright in public. 

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Laugh Test?

The felonies.  The toupee.  The fireplace log, lit cigarette, and ashtray.  They're all products of Buddy's past, and more often than not, a punchline of a joke. 

No doubt Buddy's got the ability to laugh at himself -- and quickly dismiss critics pointing to his criminal record -- but do Providence voters want the glad-handing Mayor with his larger-than-life baggage as Providence looks to emerge from the the recent recession and precarious financial standing?  

Voters have seen the self-depricating side of Brett Smiley in his man-with-a-plan ad, but don't expect Buddy to play up his follies to the same extent.  He'll cut to the chase and speak to his track record and what he did while in office -- and what he plans to do if elected again.  So who will be laughing come November?  Stay tuned.


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Providence as U.S. Joke?

As far as self-image goes, the Economist's recent Buddy piece, "Freshening the Armpit of New England," didn't do much for the national perception of Providence.  "Can America's Ex-Con Mayor Win Again?" quipped the Daily Beast.  And how can one forget the Business Insider dubbing Cianci the "Poster Boy of Political Scandals."

While Rhode Island as a whole tries to shake the constant bottom-of-the-U.S. rankings for business and the economy, Providence has worked hard to shed the underachieving image, and was most recently awarded citation from the National Conference of Mayors for being an exemplary mid-sized city.  Buddy is running on the platform that he turned Providence around before, and he can to it again.  The questions is, will voters give him the chance?


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Can he win?

Perhaps the biggest question now is whether Buddy can win.  When he entered the race as an Independent -- and former Democrat Lorne Adrain made the switch to join him in the unaffiliated ranks -- the prospect of a four-way finale seemed to be in Buddy's favor, having to capture a seemingly do-able share of the vote.

Now with Adrain out, and whispers that Republican Dan Harrop might not stay in the race until election day, the prospect of a three-way battle and possibly a two-one -- could be keeping the former Mayor up at night...or he could be too busy raising money to meet the winner of the Democratic primary an his general elections challengers starting September 10.  Either way, Buddy's chances of getting back in the race have slimmed, but he can never be counted out.


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