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Scott MacKay Commentary: Goodbye To Cianci, And His Political Era

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Rhode Islanders will have a chance to pay final respects to Buddy Cianci later this week, when his body lies in repose at City Hall. Even in death, Rho...

Rhode Islanders will have a  chance to pay final respects to Buddy Cianci later this week, when his body lies in repose at City Hall. Even in death, Rhode Islanders debate the legacy of Providence's longest-serving mayor. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay shares his thoughts on Cianci.

Before Buddy Cianci was laid to rest, a dispute erupted over whether state flags should be lowered to half-staff to honor him. Gov. Gina Raimondo at first said she wouldn’t order the flags to come down. Within 24 hours she reversed her decision. You know, Buddy, even in death, would have loved this headline-generating frittata.

And so it goes. As the state marks its final farewell to Rhode Island’s rogue prince, the joust over Cianci’s legacy endures.  It will continue, spilling into a thousand conversations in the city’s taverns and diners and around Thanksgiving tables for years to come.

The man with that most intimate of nicknames – Buddy – never needed a surname. Not in Rhode Island. It was a cliché to say that he was a divisive politician; you either loved or loathed him. For many voters, there was no middle ground.

It was, of course, more complicated. If you were invited to a wedding where you didn’t know anyone and were seated next to Cianci at the reception, you’d be his best friend before the champagne toasts were hoisted. He was a sparkling wit, a world-class schmooze artist and the master of the one-liner. Two days before his death, a friend called to congratulate him on his Christmas Eve engagement to a woman 40 years his junior.

"I could marry her,’’ he quipped. "Or adopt her.’’

He was a mayor in the rascal king mode of James Michael Curley of Boston, Jimmy Walker of New York and Frank Rizzo of Philadelphia.

Behind the charm was the Jekyll and Hyde persona famously noted by the federal  judge who sentenced him to nearly five years in prison in 2002 on corruption charges.  Cianci was found by a jury to have run a city where just about everything was for sale.

Rhode Island voters have long had a tolerance for rogue politicians. Cianci filled that role on steriods, currying favor with supporters by ladling out jobs and patronage to friends. And ruthlessly punishing enemies.

After running as the anti-corruption candidate and winning City Hall in 1974, Cianci proceeded to load up the payroll with cronies, no-shows and even mobsters.  Guys named Cha Cha, Buckles and Black Jack collected city paychecks.

Cianci’s defenders always insisted that he knew how to get things done; their trope was that restoring downtown Providence to its glory days was worth a few bad apples and cash-laden envelopes at City Hall.

Cianci’s methods were from the era of the urban machine – the politics of reward-and-revenge. The ends always justified the means.

"Cianci doesn’t worry about how to pay for things; he just does them and figures out the rest later,’’ said Nicholas Easton, a former Providence city council president who had epic battles with Cianci before finally making peace.

In his 2011 book, Pasta and Politics, Cianci recounts how he wrested the support of city employee unions during his 1990 campaign, when he won election with about 34 percent of the vote. His boast – that he gave retired city workers paid health insurance a decade before state employees got it. Providence teachers went from being the worst paid in the state to among the best. And cops and firefighters were granted big benefit increases.

This, too, was Cianci’s legacy. When he took office a second time in 1991, the city’s retirement system was funded at a 57 percent rate. Today, it hovers around 30 percent. Cianci bought support of city workers with taxpayer money.

It’s indisputable that Cianci’s 20 years as mayor and his favor factory and bloated pension and health care commitments helped drive Providence to the precipice of insolvency.

Perhaps worse is the cynicism Cianci’s tenure as mayor engendered. He always insisted that he was no different than other politician. His only sin was getting caught.

"No political system can prevent corruption. People don’t want to believe it but it is engrained in the system,’’ he said.

His administrations also made Providence synonymous with sleaze, never a good reputation for a city trying to attract business. Who can forget the 1980s New York Times headline during the fall of Buddy I -- "A sense Of Rot Gnaws At Providence."

He tried gamely to lead voters to believe during his improbable comeback campaign of 2014 that his administrations got a reputation for chicanery because, say, rogue employees in the parks department were stealing lawn mowers. The truth is that the FBI taped his chief of staff taking a $1,000 cash bribe in an envelope. It didn’t look like the first time.

The stench of corruption followed Cianci as surely as the halo of cigarette smoke and the whiff of cologne that perpetually surrounded him. Providence voters wisely decided not to give him a Last Hurrah at the Beaux-Arts City Hall.

As we pay our final respects to Cianci, Rhode Island will hopefully be saying goodbye to his era and his methods. That would be a fitting legacy.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:40 and 8:40 and at 5:44 on All Things Considered. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at our `On Politics’ blog at RIPR.org

Scott MacKay Commentary: Goodbye To Cianci, And His Political Era
Scott MacKay Commentary: Goodbye To Cianci, And His Political Era