David Cicilline: Mayor of Providence
“Even if it’s not ethical or moral, there’s a comfort and a certainty,” Cicilline reflects.
“People want to be led,” Annaldo agrees.
Nobody understands that better than Cicilline. In attempting to lift Providence out of a financial abyss and transform it into a city that works for everyone — not just those with connections — he shadowboxes daily with the ghost of Buddy Cianci.
Cianci may be sitting in a prison cell in Fort Dix, New Jersey, having been convicted of racketeering conspiracy, but he remains a cult figure in Providence — the irrepressible schmoozer who took over a dying factory town in 1975 and, by the time he departed city hall for Fort Dix in 2002, saw Providence transformed into a trendy destination spot for Boston yuppies, Hollywood filmmakers, college kids, gays, artists, empty nesters, and tourists who came for the fine restaurants and the sense of history in the city’s wonderfully preserved architecture. The piece de resistance is downtown. Rivers were moved, railroad tracks relocated, Venetian gondolas imported, WaterFire (a public art installation with some 100 bonfires along the downtown waterways accompanied by music) launched, a skating rink and shopping mall constructed, and historic buildings renovated into residential lofts.
That Cianci, a former mob prosecutor and anticorruption candidate, helped accomplish all this despite being turned out of office for six years in the 1980s following a felony assault conviction (an ugly episode in which he accosted a man he suspected of sleeping with his wife) only added to his legend.
The fact that 30 people were indicted or went to prison for corruption during Cianci’s first administration raised few eyebrows. This was Providence, after all, the capital of a state that at the turn of the century was described by muckraker Lincoln Steffens as “a state for sale, and cheap.” Voters preferred to see in Cianci’s 1990 comeback the themes of hope and redemption that had inspired Roger Williams to found Providence in 1636 after he was banished from the Massachusetts Bay colony for his heretical beliefs.
Cianci pledged to make the most of his second chance. And through most of the 1990s, it seemed that he had fulfilled his and Providence’s — promise. Cianci became a national urban messiah; he was a frequent guest on Don Imus’s radio show, developed his own marinara sauce (Imus joked that it contained thumbs), received an honorary Tony Award, and earned a Screen Actors Guild card for playing himself on the hit TV series Providence. His reach at times exceeded his grasp. Returning from a mayors’ conference in San Francisco, he ordered his longsuffering economic development director to create a Chinatown in Providence. “I want pagodas!” he declared. People loved his vision, and his flamboyance. He was the longest running lounge act in American politics, squired around his city in a police-chauffeured limousine, a cigarette in one hand, a drink in the other. Drink vodka during a campaign, he told an aide; the voters can’t smell it on your breath.
But in 1998, the feds came sniffing around city hall once more. The FBI wired a local businessman and he spent a year meeting with Cianci associates, learning the language of bribery, and passing envelopes of cash to, among others, the mayor’s top aide and chief fund-raiser. A crooked tax official passed on advice he said he had received from Cianci: “Never talk on the phone, never get a check, but get cash when you’re one-on-one.î The probe, dubbed Operation Plunder Dome, resulted in a 30-count racketeering indictment against the mayor and several associates. After a six-week trial, the prosecution and the defense summed up their contrasting views of Cianci. The feds accused him of running “a city for sale.” The defense evoked the New Providence and depicted Buddy as a builder, not a destroyer. The jury then convicted Cianci of a single count — racketeering conspiracy — while acquitting him of the rest of the charges. One juror said later that Cianci knew about it but insulated himself, like a mob boss. The judge sentenced Cianci to five years and four months in prison.
Cianci’s conviction in 2002 scrambled that fall’s mayoral election. Until the jury’s verdict, David Cicilline had been the only major candidate who dared step into the ring against Buddy. Born on the South Side of Providence and raised in Silver Lake and Narragansett, Cicilline was politically astute from an early age. His father, Jack, a bright, idealistic lawyer, was the policy director for Providence mayor Joseph Doorley in the 1960s before becoming one of New England’s best known organized-crime lawyers. He befriended clients like New England mob boss Raymond L. S. Patriarca — an invitation for trouble as he discovered when the feds charged him with conspiring to arrange false testimony on behalf of another mobster. (A jury subsequently acquitted him.)
David Cicilline met Patriarca and other mobsters growing up, but it wasn’t his life. As a teenager in Narragansett, he would ask his parents to drop him off at meetings of the school committee and town council. In high school, he petitioned the school committee to offer Italian, citing an obscure state law. He went to Brown and then on to law school at Georgetown University, worked briefly in the Washington, D.C., public defender’s office, then returned home to open his own criminal-defense practice. He represented a lot of drug dealers and also handled a number of pro bono civil rights cases. Business was so good that he was able to live on the wealthy East Side and drive a Porsche and a Rolls-Royce. He was elected a state representative in 1994, carving out liberal positions on civil rights, abortion, gay rights, and gun control.
Even with Cianci at the height of his popularity, Cicilline was thinking about running for mayor. Cicilline had represented voters who, because of Cianci’s felony conviction, had challenged his right to return to office after the 1990 election — a case that went to the Rhode Island Supreme Court. In the late 1990s, Chicago-born Matthew Jerzyk, a student at Brown, discovered Cicilline’s zeal after Jerzyk photographed some Providence cops forcibly shoving a handcuffed suspect into a parked car and was arrested himself. Cicilline, who represented him pro bono, told Jerzyk that what had happened to him happened to poor people in Providence every day. “Stay in Providence and help me change things,” he said.