Like most Rhode Islanders, my family viewed the half-hour drive to downtown Providence as “too far” to travel. Why struggle to comprehend the labyrinthine streets when the suburbs had plenty of food and a couple of half-decent theaters and concert halls? My mother was loathe to even drive through the city, opting to take I-295 around Providence when heading north for family vacations.
Therefore, my knowledge of life in Providence is limited to my experiences in high school when I had a driver’s license and started driving to “the City” to get a change of scene. I caught productions of Shakespeare in a then-new Waterplace Park, as the skeleton of what would become the Providence Place Mall rose behind the performers. My friends and I moshed at WBRU summer concerts at India Point Park, which was then located across a glass-strewn pedestrian footbridge. Thayer Street still had dozens of locally-owned small businesses that put the suburban mall stores to shame.
I’d grown up hearing stories about Providence’s colorful mayor, Vincent “Buddy” Cianci. Like the schools in Foster/Gloucester closing every time it snowed, Buddy was one of those things Rhode Islanders both loved to joke about and were slightly ashamed of. Sure, he assaulted a guy. But he played a part in saving the now-gorgeous Providence Performing Arts Center from the wrecking ball. The Providence Place Mall was getting a Nordstrom. We were all pretty sure the guy wasn’t operating above board. But he didn’t physically hurt anybody (except that one guy who got him kicked out of office the first time) and good stuff was happening in the capital of the Ocean State, which has struggled longer than many other cities in the Northeast since every industry that had created it has since moved abroad.
Alas, Buddy got nabbed on a federal racketeering charge, and spent a five years in a “federally funded gated community.” He’s worked a talk show gig like so many other, shall we say, displaced politicians. And now that he’s fulfilled the terms of his sentence (he wasn’t allowed to run again until this year), Rhode Island is reeling from the news that Cianci is running for mayor for a third post-conviction stint.
Many political watchers didn’t think he’d have the stones to do it. He’s currently battling cancer and is 73 years old, as well as making money hand over fist for his media jobs. Why go back to civil service, where every reporter in a 100 mile radius will have their noses in the city’s finances, looking for signs of malfeasance?
Because he’s Buddy Cianci, that’s why. He LIVES for this stuff, like a certain other New England mayor who kept his nose much cleaner than Cianci ever did. Why do you think Cianci started that radio show in the first place? So he could go on the record against what the mayors who came after him did while elevating his profile and staying front of mind to Providence voters.
And I wouldn’t underestimate his ability to win. Yes, Providence has changed dramatically since Buddy’s incarceration. But people remember how Providence looked when Buddy was mayor. A new mall. Rebranding it as the “Creative Capital.” A super maudlin network TV show bore our capital city’s name. How do people think of Providence now? Every time I say I’m meeting friends, my Mom begs me not to get shot. That’s why Buddy talks about the past in such glowing terms and mentioned crime and drugs in his announcement today.
Not to mention so many other Rhode Island politicians are having much worse problems. The state’s Legislature is in a shambles, dealing with a scandal involving its House Speaker that is only now beginning to unfold in public. 38 Studios is still an albatross. Cianci lines his own pockets a little bit while construction picks up in Providence? It seems almost quaintly comforting to return to the feel-good era of machine politics then, doesn’t it?
So, I can’t wait to see how this unfolds in my home state. And kudos to Buddy, the greatest troller of them all.