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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.

“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.

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