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David Cicilline: Mayor of Providence

David Cicilline: Mayor of Providence
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From Yankee Magazine March 2005

THWAP! David Cicilline, the mayor of Providence, Rhode Island, drives a gloved fist into his sparring partner’s gut. SMACK! WAP! BAP!

A pair of red Everlasts flashes in the dim early-morning light. Twice a week, Cicilline begins his day in a boxing ring, channeling the pent-up frustration of governing this rambunctious city through short bursts of fury. It drains away the tension that accumulates during the endless days of picketing firefighters and squabbling city councilors, not enough money, and problems that defy easy solutions: poverty and underachieving schools, unplowed streets, and angry taxpayers. POP! THUMP! POP!

Gasping for breath, the mayor throws a left, a right, another left. The sharp crack of each punch reverberates through the dusty gym. At 43, his upper arms are thick and powerful from weight training. He wears baggy gray shorts and a white tank top. Posters of old fighters and bygone fights line the walls. Heavy punching bags dangle from the ceiling on chains, like sides of beef in a slaughterhouse. The gym, a second-floor walk-up in the old Italian neighborhood of Silver Lake, belongs to Tiger Ballelto, a local lightweight contender who also runs a construction business. Tiger took his nickname from his grandfather, a reputed mobster with a violent past who was gunned down at the Bella Napoli Cafe in 1955 in front of several witnesses who didn’t see a thing, this being Providence, the onetime capital of the New England Mafia.

Cicilline grew up in this neighborhood of tenements, churches, and social clubs, an incubator not only of mobsters and solid working-class folk who lived the American dream, but also of politicians from the legendary John O. Pastore, the first Italian American elected to the United States Senate, to Cicilline’s predecessor at city hall, Buddy Cianci, the maestro of the Providence renaissance until a federal corruption probe landed him behind bars.

Like his changing city, though, Cicilline does not fit the traditional profile of an ethnic pol. If Silver Lake is becoming more Latino, then Cicilline — who speaks some Spanish — represents a new generation of politician, a mayor who was elected with significant support from the growing Latino community. If Providence is more multicultural — an ethnic stew spiced with arts and culture, a renaissance city with a vibrant gay community — then Cicilline has all the demographic bases covered. He is the half-Jewish, half-Italian, openly gay son of a mob lawyer. He graduated from Brown University, where he, John Kennedy Jr., and William Mondale (son of former vice president Walter Mondale) organized a College Democrats chapter, and he has a future in national Democratic politics. Some note that David Nicola Cicilline’s initials spell DNC.

Cicilline goes eight rounds this morning, tbree minutes apiece. In between, he leans back against the ropes, sweat glistening on his skin and soaking his tank top. Midway through the workout, Andrew Annaldo, chairman of the city board of licenses, comes in and begins stretching. The two men swap stories about politics. Annaldo had been up at the State House the night before, where one of the hot topics was the comeback bid of a former House speaker, John Harwood, whose downfall offered a cautionary tale about power and hubris, including allegations from a female aide about oral sex.

“Did you hear where John Harwood says he wants to restore decorum to the State House?” says Cicilline, smiling and shaking his head. “This is a guy who was getting sex in the basement. Unbelievable! Only in Rhode Island.”

Cicilline and Annaldo lament that there are legislators who, a few years after turning the speaker out, now seem to yearn for his strong hand again.

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