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David Cicilline: Mayor of Providence

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.

Cicilline organized his campaign for mayor more than a year before Cianci was convicted, when the oddsmakers figured Buddy would be tough to beat — in court and at the polls. Cicilline braced himself for a bare-knuckles fight. Cicilline declines even today to talk about some of the things he says Cianci said to him privately when they would meet on the campaign trail.

With Cicilline out of the closet and a gay community representing a significant voting bloc, the politically astute Cianci flew the rainbow flag over city hall, championed gay rights, and served as marshal of the Gay Pride parade. Joked Cicilline, “He spends more time in gay bars than me.”

Then, two days before the June filing deadline for the 2002 election, Cianci was convicted. Thirteen people who had waited in the wings rushed to city hall to file their papers. In September, Cicilline convincingly won a four-way Democratic primary and cruised to victory in November. Cicilline had vowed to put an end to corruption and cronyism, to give Providence a fresh start. Although he didn’t emphasize the fact that Providence (population 176,000) was now the largest city in the country with an openly gay mayor, the doubts began immediately, fueled by what one aide calls “the testosterone of Providence politics.” Cicilline was a nice guy, the naysayers said, but was he tough enough?

But Cicilline was comfortable enough in his own skin to lampoon the sexual stereotypes. Shortly after taking office, he was the mystery guest at the Providence Newspaper Guild Follies, a large, formal gathering of Rhode Island’s political elite, sashaying onstage in a flowing white fur coat, flanked by two bare-chested male “aides.” Having removed Cianci’s wet bar from the mayor’s office, Cicilline joked that visitors could now have “tea with a queen.”

A few hours after his sparring session, Cicilline sits in his office, refreshed in a dark suit with a blue-and-white-striped shirt and yellow floral tie.

He likens his job to “trying to rebuild an airplane in flight.”

“I underestimated the resistance of many to changing the culture of government,” he says. “Clearly, the system was broken. But change is difficult. People get comfortable. People come to me who are behind on their taxes and say, ‘Can’t you just take care of this?’ I explain the process, how you have to file a petition with the tax board. They look at me and say, ‘In the past, I got it taken care of.’ ”

Cicilline tells a story about a local nightclub owner who came to see him to complain that the cops were hurting his business by checking for underage drinkers. He wanted the inspections to stop. When Cicilline made it clear that there were rules that had to be followed, the man snapped, “Everybody has underage drinking.” Then, pausing at the door before he stormed out, the club owner said, “Ya know, the other guy woulda taken care of it.”

If his approach alienates some, Cicilline believes it is the path to transforming Providence into a city that works for everybody. He trumpets the accomplishments of his first two years in office. A leaner, more efficient government that relies on computer data and strong department chiefs instead of stand-up guys. A more honest and professional police department that has increased neighborhood foot patrols. A groundbreaking agreement with Brown, the Rhode Island School of Design, and two other tax-exempt colleges in which the city will receive $50 million over the next two decades for services it provides. Precedent-setting labor agreements with the teachers and city employees to share health care costs. Billions of dollars in new development, including the corporate headquarters for world lottery giant GTech, whose leaders told Cicilline they wouldn’t have picked Providence if Cianci were still in charge.

Cicilline stays resolutely on message, yet it rankles him to hear people reminisce about the good old days when Cianci was mayor. Cianci may have run the city out of a cigar box, but he was never dull.

Updated Tuesday, January 13th, 2009

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