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David Cicilline: Mayor of Providence

“The people didn’t elect me to be a showman,” says Cicilline. “People liked the entertainment, but at this point in our history we need a leader, not a joker. What we’re doing lacks flash, but it’s setting the foundation for a stronger city.”

But without bread and circuses to distract them, the natives at times grow rest less. There is no witty repartee with Imus to divert them from the troubled schools, the grinding poverty in neighborhoods untouched by the renaissance, the huge deficits that Cianci left behind, the tax hikes that Cicilline has been forced to impose to help balance the books. Feuds with the city council and the firefighters’ union have generated criticism that Cicilline lacks Cianci’s deft touch, that he and many of his top aides embody an arrogant breed of the “best and the brightest,” wealthy East Siders known as the “02906ers” for their zip code.

Matt Jerzyk, who followed Cicilline’s advice and stayed in Providence, where he lives on the poorer South Side, helped coordinate the Latino registration drive that was instrumental in Cicilline’s election. But later he voiced disappointment in Cicilline, from a feeling that the mayor hadn’t doled out enough patronage to the Latino community that helped elect him to a sense of betrayal over safeguarding the working poor in the controversial rehabilitation of an aging mill complex. After Jerzyk printed a newsletter that criticized Cicilline for letting down the neighborhood, an angry mayor confronted him at a political function one evening, telling him that he didn’t understand.

Riding around Providence in the mayor’s black Lincoln Town Car a few months after his sparring session, Cicilline agrees that he had been angry with Jerzyk.

The criticism, he says, showed “a fundamental lack of understanding of the function of government. A lot of good stuff came out of that project, thanks to the community activists. But you don’t get to impose stuff on people. You have to build consensus.”

Cicilline and Jerzyk have since reconciled and even worked together on several new policy issues. Jerzyk says the two have agreed to disagree on other issues.

On this warm and sunny day, Cicilline makes the mayor’s endless rounds. He talks to business leaders about fiscal responsibility and to callers on a talk radio show about garbage, rats, and taxes. Shortly before noon, the mayor visits an elderly housing high-rise. These are usually feel-good occasions, kissing the old ladies who ask after his grandmother, telling them about the gnocchi he ate for dinner last night. But on this day, the seniors are upset. The owner of their building isn’t keeping the place up. Neighborhood teens are terrorizing them, throwing rocks. Sitting in the back of his car afterward, Cicilline seems distressed. “That’s such an unhappy place,” he says.

Early that evening, Cicilline returns to the neighborhood with a police lieutenant and knocks on the doors of squalid apartments, searching for the rock-throwing teens. Two black women do a double take when the mayor appears on their doorstep.

“I feel important,” one squeals. Exclaims another, “I thought you were going to present us with a big check.”

“Yes, Publishers Clearing House,” jokes Cicilline. Turning serious, he asks them to talk to their children. “I’ve been a defense lawyer,” he tells them gently, “and I don’t want to see your children arrested and in the juvenile justice system.”

Outside the next apartment, a vicious pit bull strains at a chain anchored to a stake, snapping his jaws just a few feet from the mayor. Unfazed, Cicilline walks past and knocks on the door. “That’s a mean dog!” he exclaims as the father opens the door.

Nobody fesses up to knowing the boys in question, and the mayor is directed back to the apartment from which he came. Cicilline delivers a pep talk about how we all have to live together, then departs into the gathering gloom.

Three and a half centuries ago, when Roger Williams’s “lively experiment” in democracy and religious tolerance threatened to descend into anarchy, he wrote a letter “To the Town of Providence” in which he compared a commonwealth to a ship at sea. The passengers — “papists and protestants, Jews and Turks” — might be free to pursue their own beliefs, but when it came to the common good, everyone had to “pay their freight.”

“This is a gamble,” says Cicilline of his efforts to transform Providence. “Because it would be easy enough to simply do favors, forget merit, give fat union contracts. Cianci acted tough, but he gave away the store. Some of the old guard are leaving. Others are digging their heels in, waiting to see if they can survive me.”

But Cicilline, whose approval ratings remain high, figures to be around for a second term. (The next election is in 2006.) He predicts that he’ll be able to accomplish more in the first six months because “it means we’re here to stay.”

Updated Tuesday, January 13th, 2009

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