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
An election is a warand "to the victor belongs the spoils." As I learned so well, that's thre real democratic process. After all, you'll never see a victorious politician tell his supporters, "I want to thank all of you who worked so hard for my election. However, in the interest of good government, I've decided to give all the jobs to those people who voted against me."
My name is Buddy Cianci. I spent almost three decades as mayor of Providencce...before leaving for an enforced vacation in a federally funded gated community.
When I first took office, Providence was a dying industrial city, and I helped turn it into one of the most desirable places to live in America. I did it by playing the game of hardball politics as well as it has ever been played. My favorite Frank Sinatra lyricc is "I did it my way," because that's the only way a mayor can run a city. As I used to tell my staff, "When you spend your weekends kissing elderly women with mustaches, you can make the decisions."
If you want to know the truth about how politics is played, you picked the right book. This is the behind-the-locked-door story of how politics in America really works. It's take me a lifetime of successes and failures to write it. It's all in these pages. I hve been called many things in my career: I've been "America's Most Innovative Mayor," a "colorful character," and a convicted felon. But no one has ever called me shy.
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Thomas Dunne Books
March 15, 2011
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Excerpt from Politics and Pasta by Vincent "Buddy" Cianci Jr.
No city in the United States is at the present time making greater preparations for the future than the city of Providence. Her citizens believe that she is destined to occupy an important place in the development of the nation during the coming years, and they have shown their faith by inaugurating a comprehensive series of both private and public improvements, which will put the city in the very front rank of municipalities.
The New England Magazine, February 1896
There are many people who think they know my whole story, the Buddy Cianci story. But they don't, not even close. Here it is, the successes and failures, the politics, the fireplace logs and all:
I became the thirty-second mayor of the great city of Providence, Rhode Island, on January 6, 1975. I was thirty-three years old, a former special-assistant attorney general and prosecutor for the state's anticorruption strike force and, let me be candid here, on the day I took office I knew as much about being mayor as I did about brain surgery. If I had known then what the job actually required, I wouldn't have voted for myself. I walked into that office completely inexperienced and unprepared--but confident. Believe me, I was confident. Maybe I didn't know precisely what I was doing, but I was confident I could save the city.
Like most aging Northeastern cities that had lost their manufacturing base, Providence was suffering terribly. We were pretty much out of business. The great city of Providence is one of America's oldest cities, founded in 1636 by Roger Williams as a religious haven, a place, as he called it, to find "God's merciful Providence." It had grown to become an important industrial center, producing textiles, jewelry, and precious metals, silverware, machinery, and tools. That was our history; our present was pretty depressing. The textile mills were shut, the factories were gone, the shipping industry was barely hanging on. Our downtown was practically deserted; the once grand hotel, the Biltmore, was closing; and, perhaps symbolically, the week I was inaugurated a crane was pulling out the grand piano from the second floor. The situation was so awful that even the American Bible Society, one of the last successful businesses we had, had packed its Bibles and moved out of town. Let me illustrate it this way: On the night of my inauguration the police got an emergency phone call that several monkeys were escaping from our zoo. You know you're in trouble when your monkeys are trying to get out of town. A New Yorker writer reported that after spending a night in Providence he was buying a train ticket back to New York and was asked, "One way or round trip?" When he replied, "One way," the ticket seller complimented his choice: "Smart bastard."
But I had tremendous confidence I could lead the renaissance that would restore Providence to its former grandeur and prosperity. While I had no specific plans, I had great dreams. I was going to rebuild the crumbling infrastructure, convince industry and people to return, and create one of the most livable cities in America. And I was also going to get rid of the one business that was still booming in Rhode Island: political corruption. I had vowed during my campaign that I was going to clean up the corruption, run the most ethical administration in the city's history, and deliver the services the good people of Providence were paying their tax dollars for and deserved. As mayor, it was no longer going to be the political business as usual.
I meant every word of it. However, that vow lasted about two hours into my administration. As I very quickly learned, experience and preparation, good intentions, and even intelligence have never been a prerequisite for political success.
So my first day as mayor of Providence, Rhode Island--by the way, if you've never been to Providence you are missing a wonderful experience; come for WaterFire--I was sitting in my beautiful office, admiring the chandeliers, the oriental rugs, the beautiful artwork on the walls, and the antique fireplace, trying to determine out what the hell I was supposed to do first. How do you start being mayor? I had run for office as a Republican, not because I had any deep political commitment to the philosophy of that Grand Old Party, the party of Abraham Lincoln, but rather because Democrat was already taken. I wanted to run for mayor and I knew I could get the Republican nomination. Actually, almost anybody could have had the Republican nomination, since for more than four decades Providence had been run by the Democratic political machine without any real opposition; nothing happened without the permission--and participation--of the city council. But with my election that had all changed! Or so I believed.
On that first morning of my first day in office when my secretary, Margaret McLacken, announced my very first appointment, I buttoned my jacket, centered the knot on my tie, and prepared to begin doing the business of the great city of Providence, Rhode Island. It was the dawn of a New Era. As it turned out, my first meeting was with the politically powerful Democratic boss of the Seventh Ward who had risked his political career by supporting my candidacy. "Bring in Mr. Rossi," I said.
A veteran Ward healer named Arthur Rossi walked in. Rossi was a big, heavyset guy, and walking a few steps behind him was a midget. The midget was a man named Bobby whom I'd met during my campaign. I didn't think Rossi was there simply to offer his congratulations; I may have been inexperienced, but I wasn't naive. What I couldn't figure out was what he was doing with a midget.
Rossi sat down and Bobby kind of climbed up onto the chair right next to him and folded his legs under him. After we exchanged pleasantries Rossi got down to political business. "Mayor, I told you I was going to deliver the Seventh Ward for you, right?"
"You definitely did."
"And did I do it?"
My intention to run the most ethical administration in the history of Providence was suddenly confronting reality. "Well," he said, "there's a certain few things I gotta get here."
Rossi pointed a finger at Bobby. "See him?"
This was long before anybody ever heard of political correctness. In fact, in those days political correctness meant taking care of the people who supported you. So I looked at Bobby and said, "Barely." In 1975 that was a joke you could make.
"Bobby's gonna need to make a buck and a quarter, buck and a half a week."
A hundred fifty a week? That was a pretty good salary in 1975. I didn't know what Rossi had in mind or his reasons, but this was my first lesson in municipal politics. "To do what?" I asked.
"I don't give a shit," he said. "Make him an inkwell on your desk. Long as he gets paid."
"Okay." The election was over, I had won, it was time for me to begin my education. "What else?" Rossi smiled, reached into his pocket, and took out his list.
I hired Bobby to work in our Recreation Department, paying his salary out of a federal CETA (Comprehensive Employee Training Act) program that supported employment for minorities and the disabled. It turned out that Bobby was a hard worker with a terrific personality and he endeared himself to everyone. Eventually he became the deputy director of the department, a position he definitely had earned. But slightly more than twenty-five years later, I was serving my sixth term--there had been that unfortunate interruption in my career when I was accused of assaulting my estranged wife's lover with a fireplace log, which wasn't true, I never hit him with it--anyway, Bobby came into my office again, and climbed up onto the chair again. I could see he was furious. By this time Bobby was no longer a midget; he had politically correctly become a "little person." And I was no longer a naive kid learning how to be mayor; I was the longest-serving mayor of a city with a population over one hundred thousand people in America. I was appearing frequently on national radio shows and television programs; I even was selling my own marinara sauce. "What's the matter, Bobby?"
He said, "They're fucking me, Mayor, I'm telling you they're fucking me."
"What do you mean? Who's fucking you."
"The retirement board. I put in for my pension and they don't want to give me my disability."
Adding a disability to a city pension raised it to about two-thirds of the final year's salary--tax free. But I couldn't believe what he was saying. "Your what?"
"My disability pension."
I leaned across the desk. "Bobby," I said evenly, "what are you talking about? Your disability is why we hired you in the first place."
I was elected mayor of Providence six times and served a total of almost twenty-two years before leaving unexpectedly--and unfairly--for a five-year all-expenses-paid vacation in a gated community at Fort Dix, New Jersey, where my neighbor was a Mafia killer. Let me admit this right here: I wasn't an angel; I played a tough game of politics and I played to win. Certainly I made mistakes and I have some regrets, but I never took a bribe, never put one dime in my own pocket. I was acquitted of eleven charges of public corruption brought against me and convicted of one charge, a RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) violation, a felony that had been created to attack organized crime. According to this charge, I was running the city government as a criminal enterprise. In other words, I was responsible for crimes committed by other people about which I had no knowledge. In fact, as a respected union leader and Rhode Island state representative, Steven Smith, explained so accurately, "They found him guilty of nothing but responsible for everything."
One of the prosecution's main witnesses against me was a real genius. He had been caught laundering money by the FBI and faced going to prison. Instead, he claimed that he had given me several bribes. In one case, he eventually testified, he had arranged for a young urban planner to pay me a five-thousand-dollar bribe in exchange for a nine-dollar-an-hour part-time job. With no benefits. Maybe I can move rivers, but convincing someone to pay five thousand dollars for a nine dollar-an-hour part-time job in the exciting field of city planning? Even I'm not that good a salesman. But this witness claimed that at my direction he had given the cash to one of my aides. Of course, when he was asked during cross-examination the denomination of the bills, he revealed with great confidence they were fives, tens, and fifteens.
But the city I left behind when I went to prison was better in every possible way than the city I had taken over in 1975. In 1994 The Livable Cities Almanac cited Providence as the "safest city" in the continental United States. In 1997 USA Today named Providence one of the nation's five "Renaissance cities." CNN cited Providence as "Perhaps the most dramatic downtown renovation in history." The New York Times wrote in 2000 that "Providence has become more like those vibrant European cities with rivers running through them." Money magazine selected Providence as one of the nation's best places to retire. I won my share of awards, too; in 1996 the American Association of Government Officials selected me "America's most innovative mayor."
While Cleveland's polluted Cuyahoga River had actually caught on fire, we had rerouted our three rivers and created a popular art project in which we intentionally set as many as one hundred bonfires in the river--and we even offered gondola rides. We had moved the railroad tracks, revitalized the arts community, and rebuilt our downtown--which included an ice skating rink two and a half times the size of the one at New York's Rockefeller Center, and the completely refurbished Biltmore Hotel. We'd built the 1.4-million-square-foot Providence Place Mall, which attracted many of the nation's most desirable merchandisers; repaved four hundred miles of streets; and improved and maintained seventy-five parks. We'd successfully preserved and renovated historic buildings and nurtured a restaurant industry that eventually included several of the finest restaurants in the country. We substantially reduced the crime rate, rehabilitated our neighborhoods, and attracted national conventions and the top touring Broadway shows to the city. By 1999 Travel and Leisure named our zoo one of the top ten in the country, which I'm assuming made our monkeys happy. But in my opinion, by far the most important thing I accomplished was that I raised the self-esteem, hope, and pride of the citizens in our city to a level no one had ever believed was possible. Rather than claiming they were from New England or Rhode Island, as they had been doing, our residents were proud to admit that they lived in the great Providence, Rhode Island.
And they gave me credit for the transformation. According to a Brown University poll, on the day I was indicted my approval rating actually went up four points.
The city of Providence has been the center of my life. It has been my passion. There hasn't been a day of my life when I haven't loved this place. I've had a remarkable life because of this city; I mean, how many people can say they've been to the White House for dinner, slept in Windsor Castle, and spent five years in a prison cell? As I said during the press conference when I announced I would be resigning, "It is a city of awesome beauty and splendor."
It never occurred to me growing up that I could become the mayor of Providence. I'm Italian, and Italians were not elected mayor; the Irish controlled the Democratic machine that picked the mayor. My family came from the village of Roccamonfina, which was just outside Naples. My grandfather Pietro Cianci immigrated to America in 1896 and settled in the Italian neighborhood of Federal Hill. Eventually he and my grandmother had thirteen kids, then they finally realized how that was happening, so they stopped. My father, Vincent, was born in Providence in 1900. The Cianci family embraced all the traditional immigrant values: family first, hard work second, education when you had time for it. The Ciancis were in every kind of business imaginable; they were contractors and cement workers, architects, and construction workers; they were in the car business, and during Prohibition my uncle Jimmy ran a famous speakeasy, the Coconut Grove. But my father was the only member of the family to go to college.
He wanted to be a doctor--who knows where that dream came from? After graduating from Cranston High School he spent two years in premed at Providence College, transferred to Harvard Dental School, and finally got his medical degree from Saint Louis University. With a little help from his family but mostly through his own hard work he paid his way through college and medical school, sorting freight for the railroad on the Mississippi River and driving cement trucks in the summers. At first he was a family doctor, a general practitioner, but eventually he specialized in proctology--believe me, I've heard all the jokes and I've actually been the butt of many of them--at Tufts. Dr. Vincent Albert Cianci was the immigrant success story. I can remember lying in bed at night listening as patients came to our house for help. I don't think my father ever turned away a patient, and I know he accepted poultry or eggs or fresh vegetables as payment.
My love of politics comes from my mother's family. Esther Capobianco's great-grandfather was the mayor of Benevento, Italy. His grandson Nicolo immigrated to America, to Federal Hill, just after the turn of the century. Eventually, he became an active member of the Democratic Committee in the Fourth Ward. My mother and father were a natural match; the young doctor and the beautiful business school graduate, both of them from highly respected families in the Italian community. They were married in 1937. I was born in 1941, and named after my father, Vincent A. Cianci, Jr.
But I was always Buddy. I don't know where that came from, either, although at the time it was a popular nickname. For much of my political career every time I walked into an event the band would play that old classic, "My Buddy." It was only years later that I found out it had been written about a dog.