University News

Former mayor Cianci owns up to corruption

Senior Staff Writer
Friday, March 18, 2011

Sporting a tie of festive green, former Mayor Vincent “Buddy” Cianci strode down the aisle of Macmillan 117 to the enthusiastic applause of a smattering of students and community members.

Following a brief introduction by a Brown Bookstore official, the man who transformed the cultural and financial landscape of Providence during more than two decades in City Hall took the stage with a practiced ease.

“I can’t understand why you’re all here on St. Patrick’s day,” Cianci quipped, “But I can tell you, you left an awful lot out of that introduction.”

Though audience members clutched copies of his newly released work, “Pasta and Politics,” the renowned former mayor went to the microphone empty-handed.

It did not matter. Cianci, much like the book itself, was full of stories.

Trained as a lawyer, Cianci spent time in the army before running for office in 1974. From 1975 to 1984 and from 1991 to 2002, he served as mayor of Providence, earning him the distinction of being the longest-serving mayor in Providence history.

Ultimately, Cianci said, the book is not about Providence. Rather, it’s a mixture of personal anecdotes, the politics of the 1970s and 1980s and “this fabulous, wonderful life of meeting so many different types of people.”

Cianci began by recalling that in the 1970s, the city of Providence was in “dire straits.” Though its history was rich, Cianci said, its future prospects could not have been dimmer.

Running as the Republican candidate in a Democratically dominated state, Cianci thought he could do better.

To appreciative laughter, Cianci admitted that at the time he took office, he knew as much about being mayor as he did about flying a 747 or performing brain surgery. In other words — nothing.

“If I knew what it took to be mayor in 1974, I don’t think I would have voted for myself,” he said.

Things were hectic from the start. On the night of Cianci’s inauguration, several monkeys escaped from the zoo, and the police department phoned their new mayor, looking for advice.

“Do what you normally do,” Cianci recalled telling the police. “What do I know about how monkeys escape from the zoo?”

Cianci emphasized that his time in office was centered on three priorities — social work, risk-taking and entrepreneurship.

Among other things, the former mayor spoke to his role in rerouting the train tracks, forcing banks to provide food stamps and getting Nordstrom to invest in the Providence Place mall.

While taking questions from the audience, Cianci also addressed the gaping $180 million two-year budget deficit Providence is currently facing.

“It isn’t a matter of philosophy any longer,” he said emphatically, “It’s a matter of necessity. You’ve got to make the cuts.”

Cianci did not deny abuse of his mayoral power, a topic he speaks about openly in his book.

In response to a constituent request, Cianci said, he prevented B.A. Dario from demolishing Loew’s State Theater.

“Corruption might have been involved there,” he said, adding that it was not a phenomenon unique to his own mayoral history.

“There’s corruption in the city of Providence today, yesterday and it’ll probably be there tomorrow,” Cianci said. “Anybody who doesn’t think it exists is crazy.”

Cianci later offered to make Dario the official artistic consultant to the city of Providence with a salary of $20,000 a year to make up for the $40,000 that Dario claimed he was owed.

The theater owner demanded $25,000, and Cianci agreed. Why? Because he was the mayor.

“Now that’s what I should have gone to jail for,” he said to one of the loudest laughs of the night, “Not that other stuff.”

In the aptly named 2002 “Operation Plunder Dome,” Cianci was indicted on 27 charges and cleared of all but one — racketeering, or the conspiracy to run the city as a criminal enterprise.

“I will always maintain my innocence,” he said of the charge.

After spending four years in the Federal Correction Institute Fort Dix, the former mayor spoke authoritatively on jail life. One of the most important things that he kept in mind, Cianci said, was that you have to do your time. It does not help to think about what you could be doing or where else you could be.

Cianci said he never had any problems during his four years in the federally funded prison. Still, he recalled the first day of his incarceration, the official start to his sentence following “orientation,” as being the worst of his life. Some of his fellow inmates were murderers — as far as he was concerned, he was there for trying to gain membership to the University Club. When Cianci tried to gain admission to the invitation-only club and was denied a spot, he brought the club’s renovation requests to a standstill.

Following the reading, a long line of audience members waiting for signatures and photos snaked down the hallway of Macmillan.

Andrew Antar ’12, an urban studies concentrator, said he came to the lecture because he wanted a chance to see the Rhode Island icon before he graduated.

“He’s the man,” Antar said.

Helene Gordon, who has lived in Rhode Island for more than 70 years, said she thinks people have forgiven Cianci for the corruption because of all he did for the city.

“I just think he’s a very nice man,” she said.

According to Cianci, his proudest moment did not come from rebuilding Roger Williams Park, restoring the Providence Performing Arts Center or rerouting three rivers, but rather from restoring the confidence level of the city to a level most never imagined possible.

“In 2002, when I left,” he added, “people were proud to say they were from Providence.”