Great big city mayors stand out because of they are devoted to their city as if it were their bride and wear their love for their city on their sleeves. William Donald Schaefer in Baltimore or Ed Koch in New York for example. While they are not necessarily a dying breed as evidenced by 44-year old Eric Garcetti in Los Angeles, we lost one yesterday with the death of Vincent “Buddy” Cianci of Providence.
Growing up in Providence in a family with roots in the Irish political machine, I still remember the shock that came in 1974 when the 33 year-old former prosecutor squeaked out a 704-vote victory over Mayor Dorley ending a 150-year run of Irish mayors. As a new mayor, Buddy was indefatigable, he was everywhere, crashing weddings (including a political rival’s) or anything where there were hands to shake. It became legend that Buddy would go to the opening of an envelope.
Buddy became Mayor during a bleak time in the city’s and state’s history with the closure of the Naval Base in Quonset and the continued migration of manufacturing jobs out of state. Providence’s downtown retail base was losing the fight against new suburban malls and the city’s population was in the middle of a steep post-war decline.
Buddy, with the help of a lot of people including state officials and the state’s influential Senator Claiborne Pell, literally reshaped the city as the Providence Foundation video below demonstrates. A downtown that had been built over the Providence River, now opened up to an inviting waterfront.
There was a dark side to Buddy. Allegations of rape from his law school days and rampant corruption in his administration. Twenty-two city workers and contractors were convicted of corruption charges, including Cianci’s chief of staff and city solicitor. Then, in 1984, it all came to an end when Cianci pled guilty to charges stemming from the kidnapping and assault of a former fundraiser who slept with his wife.
Buddy wasn’t done, however, and won election as Mayor in 1990. He was reelected again in 1994 and ran unopposed in 1998 until he was indicted under Operation Plunderdome. Buddy was acquitted of 26 of the 27 counts, but convicted of running a criminal “Pay-to-Play” conspiracy for which he served five years in Federal prison. In a state with a history of corruption, Buddy’s conviction did little to diminish his popularity in the city.
During this second tenure as Mayor, Buddy cemented the rebirth of downtown Providence, stealing a minor league hockey team from Maine, opening Providence Place Mall and orchestrating the establishment of the famed WaterFire festivals on the downtown waterfront. Buddy was a proud booster of this transformed city and a great salesman for the city he loved (and his famed marinara sauce that he once gave to visiting Pope John Paul II). Under Buddy, Providence became known as the Renaissance City and a tourist destination – something unthinkable when he first took office..
Buddy died yesterday of cancer at the age of 74, leaving a lasting legacy and enduring love from the city he served.
His legacy also includes street artist F. Shephard Fairey, who as a student at Providence’s famed-Rhode Island School of Design replaced Cianci’s image on a campaign billboard by the school with Andre the Giant as part of a school project. The attention the incident got, including from the Mayor himself, made him realize the power of street art which he then pursued successfully as a career.
I remember the last time I spoke with Mayor Cianci. It was at my graduation ceremony and the Mayor commended me for my speech saying, “I have a feeling I’ll be seeing you around.” At that time, my plan was to go to school in Washington, D.C. and return to Rhode Island an enter politics, so I cockily assured him, “you can count on it.” I never did return to Rhode Island, but the one time I entertained running for office, there was one candidate I looked at as a model as I forced myself to attend everything, everywhere — and that was Buddy.
May he rest in peace.