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David Cicilline: Mayor of Providence

David Cicilline: Mayor of Providence
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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.

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