Like the city of Providence, I had a complicated relationship with Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci Jr. — the city’s longest-serving mayor, a convicted felon, a brilliant politician, and a charming rogue — who died today of colon-cancer complications at the age of 74.
I admired his hopeful vision for the city he inherited when he was first elected mayor in 1974, back when almost no one thought the decaying old industrial town had a future. I’m glad he served long enough to set his vision into motion—and lived long enough to see it realized in a beautiful, revitalized downtown.
As a young journalist in Providence during the first half of Buddy’s many years in office, I found that he could nearly always be counted on for a lively quote, an insightful political analysis, or a snarky quip. And “The Mayor’s Own Marinara Sauce,” with his photo on the jar, was good, too.
But I detested his corrupt, old-school methods for greasing the wheels of his political machine and getting things done (including many good things) with underhanded deals, the trading of favors, and the passing of envelopes. Although he was often charming and funny, he was also given to pettiness over slights and quick to seek retribution over personal and political grievances.
Many journalists I admire, including my old friend M. Charles Bakst, the finest politics reporter in the city’s history, came to loath Buddy. Another former colleague, Mike Stanton, eviscerated the former mayor in The Prince of Providence, a 2003 book about the events leading to Cianci’s conviction on a single federal conspiracy charge. (On a host of related corruption charges, a jury found Buddy not guilty.)
During my thirteen years as a reporter and editor at The Providence Journal, and another dozen at another New England newspaper, I produced a lot of stories about Buddy that I’m sure he didn’t like. In fact, my last big story before I departed from the Journal was an expose of systematic mail ballot fraud on Buddy’s behalf – a scheme so big that it may have provided him with his margin of victory that year.
And yet, Buddy was always cordial to me. The way he saw it, we both had our roles to play, and there were no hard feelings (although he did carry grudges against Stanton in particular and The Providence Journal as an institution).
After my first crime novel, Rogue Island, was published, Buddy invited me to appear on his popular Providence talk radio show – his new career after he served his time in federal prison. He kept me on the air for an hour, chatting about the book, Providence politics, and his glee about the decline of the Journal, a newspaper I once loved.
Since then, we talked on the air each time another one of my novels came out. Each time I snapped a photo of him reading my book and posted it online.
Lincoln C. Almond, a Cianci detractor whose career as Rhode Island Governor and U.S. Attorney for the state spanned the Buddy years, once grudgingly acknowledged to me that Buddy’s revitalization of the city was a good thing but added that “it came with a thirty-percent corruption tax.” Maybe so, I replied, but given what the city was before he took office and what it has become, I think most Rhode Islanders think it was worth it.
Warts and all, I’m going to miss him.