POLITICS AND PASTA: HOW I PROSECUTED MOBSTERS, REBUILT A DYING CITY, DINED WITH SINATRA, SPENT FIVE YEARS IN A FEDERALLY FUNDED GATED COMMUNITY, AND LIVED TO TELL THE TALE
By Vincent “Buddy” Cianci Jr. with David Fisher
Reviewed by Steven R. Maher
Former Providence Mayor Vincent “Buddy” Cianci Jr. continues to fascinate.
Cianci was the last of the old-school ethnic politicians. In this colorful, highly anecdotal memoir, Cianci recounts his rise and fall as the Mayor of Providence.
When Cianci first became mayor in 1975, Providence was not a dying city. It was pretty much dead. An industrial wasteland whose industries had disappeared, it had little money, political corruption was pandemic, and the organized crime family led by Worcester native Raymond L.S. Patriarca dominated the city.
When Cianci left office in 2002 to go to prison, Providence was a thriving metropolis, with a booming economy, great restaurants, the attraction of events such as “Waterfire”, and was being described in national publications as one of the best urban areas to live in. How Cianci got the city there is a great story.
Cianci recounts his early childhood as the son of an immigrant doctor. He attended the “extremely prestigious” Moses Brown School, a place populated by upper class White Anglo Saxon Protestants. The social snubs he encountered as an Italo-American there scarred him for life: “[I] was the outsider who didn’t belong,” recalled Cianci. “At first I felt tolerated rather than accepted. It was a feeling I never forgot, and maybe more than anything else, it was that feeling that drove me to succeed.”
Cianci attended law school and became a “special assistant attorney general” under Attorney General Herbert DeSimone. In a high profile case he unsuccessfully prosecuted Mafia boss Patriarca. But it made Cianci’s name known. Because of his youth – he was thirty three when first elected Mayor – Cianci ran as a Republican where he did not have to pay any dues. Writes Cianci: “Because the Republican candidate had almost no chance of winning, pretty much anyone who could raise or put up enough money to pay for his campaign could have the nomination. So I knew I could get it.”
Unopposed in the primary, Cianci won the hard-fought general election by 709 votes. Like Barack Obama in 2009, he now had to face the reality of governing amidst the high hopes raised by his campaign rhetoric.
Cianci found the Providence mayor didn’t have a lot of power. It wasn’t as ceremonial a position as in Worcester; he couldn’t replace department heads without the approval of a Democratic controlled City Council. Cianci had four things going for him: control of the city inspection departments; control of what banks held the city’s money, particularly its large pension reserves; the ability to make political alliances’; and patronage. He exploited them brilliantly to get his way:
[Symbol] He made common cause with preservationists. Across America city governments were knocking down buildings as part of “urban redevelopment”. Cianci had the good sense to realize that Providence’s past could be part of its future. He repeatedly said no to tearing down historic if slightly decrepit buildings.
[Symbol] Cianci wanted to reopen the historic Biltmore Hotel and cut a deal with a development group to restore the hotel in exchange for tax increment financing. The owners of the building held out for too high a price. Cianci ordered in the city inspectors, who ordered expensive repairs. “I knew I wasn’t being fair, but so what?” says Cianci. “This wasn’t supposed to be fair fight. They were playing on my field and I owned the referees.” The owner reduced his asking price to $925,000, of which $300,00 went to pay back taxes.
[Symbol] The owner of Loews’s theatre wanted to tear down his building. Cianci refused to give him a demolition permit, and delicately negotiated Loews’s sale to a redevelopment group. When the owner held out for $40,000 he was allegedly offered in addition to the sale price, Cianci gave him a job for $25,000 as an “artistic consultant”. The building reopened as the Providence Performing Arts building.
[Symbol] In an innovative program, Cianci gave vacant lots to adjacent homeowners, putting them in the hands of peope who would care for them and at the same time restoring the properties to the tax rolls.
[Symbol] Cianci made a campaign promise to have Providence banks sell food stamps, instead of forcing citizens to go to distribution centers. Cianci called in Industrial National Bank President John J. Cummings and told him to either sell the food stamps, or he wanted millions of dollars in city pension funds in cash by 3:00 PM. Cummings agreed to sell the stamps. “[W]hen he [Cummings] died, the family called and specifically informed me I was not welcome at the funeral,” recalled Cianci.
[Symbol] When HUD offered a $9.1 million block grant to Providence, Cianci set up a committee composed of representatives of citizen’s groups to divvy up the money. Every time a group popped up, Cianci would co-opt it by putting a member of the group on the committee, which came to have 107 members.
Brushes with law
Cianci had two brushes with the law. In 1984 he was forced to resign after being convicted of allegedly assaulted his wife’s lover. Re-elected in 1990, Cianci in 2002 was convicted of violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization (RICO) act by running City Hall as a crime organization. Cianci noted that he was indicted on 26 counts but convicted of only one, being responsible for the corruption of others.Cianci says that he will deny any involvement in corruption until his dying day. “The whole indictment was a fiction,” he said.
If you’re considering a political career in Worcester politics, Cianci’s autobiography is a must read. He has sound advice on running campaigns and a good common sense approach to urban renewal.