Former Providence mayor Buddy Cianci was eulogized Monday after thousands of admirers visited City Hall over the weekend to pay their respects to the man who led the capital city for a total of more than 20 years.
During the funeral service, former mayor Joseph R. Paolino Jr., who served in between the stints known as Buddy I and Buddy II, recalled Cianci as a remarkably skilled politician.
"He had the charm and charisma of John F. Kennedy," Paolino said. "He shared Teddy Roosevelt's love of the spotlight. Like Mohammed Ali, Buddy always bounced back after a defeat. And similar to Frank Sinatra, Buddy had to do it his way."
Paolino retraced how he and Cianci, one-time foes, became close friends. He also touted the former mayor as an exemplar of resilience. "Every time he suffered a tragedy, trials, tribulations or tears, he got back up," Paolino said. "He had the tenacity to go against the establishment when it was necessary. He wanted to define himself."
A crowd of Rhode Islanders, including Governor Gina Raimondo, attended Cianci's funeral at the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, as a snowstorm blew through Providence. Burial of the former mayor will be private.
While Cianci's two criminal convictions are well known, mourners focused on other aspects of the former mayor's life.
The Reverend Bernard Healey said, "I believe it to be rather presumptuous, either to try to summarize or to judge any man's life. No one, not a politician or a priest, not a bishop, should ever be defined solely by their faults. Rather, with mercy, with love, we look to their many good works, we look to their contribution to the common good. As the longest serving mayor of this city of Providence, Buddy Cianci contributed much to this city -- a city he loved so deeply, so passionately."
Healey likened Cianci to Fiorello La Guardia, the first Italian-American mayor of New York City, who served three terms in the 1930s and 1940s.
"It was La Guardia who once said, 'It makes no difference if I burn my bridges behind me -- I never retreat.' I think that captures Mayor Cianci, in his grand guest to build a better city, to build a better city here in Providence. And he did so. He did so with his sharp and clever wit. He did so with his keen intellect and his unique political genius. These skills, these talents, combined with his deep passion, with his great vision of a shining city on a hill, helped him in capturing the many hearts and minds of the people this capital city, this Ocean State, and so far beyond."
On Saturday, the line of mourners started forming alongside City Hall before the doors opened at noon Saturday. Like most of those coming to say goodbye, Joe Iacoi of Westerly says he’ll remember Buddy Cianci for helping to improve Providence and make it a better place.
"I think Buddy had many good things that outweighed a couple of issues that we all know about," Iacoi said. "I think the man was just a genuine individual. We’ll never see anyone like him again."
The issues that we all know about include how Cianci was twice forced from the mayor’s office, in 1984 and then again in 2002, for separate felony convictions for assault and racketeering conspiracy. Yet the darker side of Cianci’s legacy wasn’t on the mind of those who came to see the mayor lying in repose at City Hall.
Joseph Buchanan is a longtime anti-poverty activist who says he clashed with Cianci in the past. Now, with Cianci having died January 28th at age 74, Buchanan takes a more philosophical outlook.
"Everybody has faults," Buchanan said. "You know, God said forgive and forget, and that’s why I’m here."
Some Providence residents fault Cianci for blowing up the city’s long-term pension liability, through unafforable benefit hikes. But not retired South Kingstown teacher Beth Reale. She came to City Hall to say goodbye to Cianci because she thinks he was a compassionate advocate for public employees.
"My friend and I are here because Mayor Cianci was the best buddy – lower case b – for the pensioners of Rhode Island," Reale said.
In Rhode Island, it seems as if almost everyone has a Buddy Cianci story. Ana Cruz said Cianci helped her when she faced discrimination as the only Latina in her job as a banquet waitress near City Hall.
"I didn’t know what to do, who to go to get help, and I came over to his office. I didn’t ask permission. I just walked right in there," she recalled. "He looked at me, he says, 'could I help you?' "
Cruz said Cianci became her protector and champion.
"I was a single mom with five kids, and he made sure that I kept that job," she said. "I didn’t believe in welfare, Food Stamps, no nothing, I wanted to do it on my own. And he made sure that that happened."
Some of those lining up on Washington Street didn’t know Cianci personally, but still wanted to say goodbye to him, including Mary-Beth Swiszcz.
"He is my mayor," Swiszcz said. "I moved here in 1980 to go to college and stayed. No one loved the city more than he did. I never met him, just, you know, watched him through the public eye and I just had a great admiration for him and his passion for the city."
Inside City Hall on Saturday, a private service was held near the second floor mayor’s office before the other mourners got a chance to view Cianci one last time. In classic Rhode Island style, the priest delivering the service, the Reverend Giacome Capoverde, had worked on Cianci’s unsuccessful 1980 run for governor.
This post has been updated.