[Sidebar] April 5 - 12, 2001

[Features]

Reversal of fortune

The Plunder Dome indictment takes the luster off Cianci's political invulnerability

by Ian Donnis

[] WHAT A DIFFERENCE a week makes. On March 28, Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci Jr. was in Washington, DC, once again hailed as the man who's etched Providence into the national consciousness as shorthand for urban rejuvenation. But by the time Cianci returns to the capital Thursday, April 5, for a scheduled meeting with George W. Bush on urban investment, the media's focus will shift from the mercurial mayor's razzle-dazzle road show to the 30-count indictment against him.

Cianci remains popular and he's built a surfeit of psychic goodwill -- amplified by the advent of NBC soap-drama Providence, the Providence Place Mall, and other tangibles -- during his second coming at City Hall. In a Brown University survey conducted in February, for example, 61 percent of respondents gave him a good or excellent rating. But these numbers (down from 67 percent in May 2000, and 77 percent in March 1999) have been slipping since Operation Plunder Dome was publicly unveiled on April 28, 1999, and the latest development in the case -- although anticipated for months by many observers -- is likely to cause further erosion.

By turns pugnacious and charismatic, Cianci again professed his innocence during the post-indictment news conference at City Hall on Monday, April 2. Standing next to his defense lawyer, Richard Egbert of Boston, Cianci hoisted a copy of the 97-page indictment and declared, "I'm not afraid of this." The mayor vowed to fight the accusations and run for reelection.

But as noted by Darrell West, a pollster and political scientist at Brown University, the Teflon has started to peel for Cianci because, after almost two years of speculation, and the indictment and conviction of lesser figures, he's been personally linked with Plunder Dome for the first time. "I don't think anybody's going to be afraid run against him next year," West says. "Between the softening economy and the indictment, he looks vulnerable. He no longer looks like the Master of the Universe."

In a similar way, West believes that Providence's collective self-confidence will take a hit. "Everyone has been very proud of the Providence Renaissance, and the indictment cast a pall over that," he says. "It's something that everyone is going to take a little personally. Plus, there's going to be an outpouring of negative national media stories about Rhode Island, and we'll have to live with that."

Although State Representative David N. Cicilline (D-Providence) has been alone for the last year in expressing his interest in running for mayor, other prospective candidates include former mayor Joseph Paolino Jr.; city council president John J. Lombardi; Angel Taveras, who ran unsuccessfully last year for the seat now held by US Representative James Langevin; state Senator David Igliozzi (D-Providence); state Representative Paul E. Moura; Myrth York, the two-time unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate (although she tells the Phoenix she's not interested in running for mayor); and other councilors and legislators. As West says, "Anyone who's ever dreamed of being mayor figures, this is the shot."

Democratic political consultant Guy Dufault also believes the indictment of Cianci -- and the uncertainty it represents -- equals a fundamental transformation of the local political landscape. "A lot of people thought that Buddy was Buddy, and that he would be reelected and there was no electoral opportunity for anyone else," Dufault says. "Whether he successfully fights the challenge or not, I think it opens the process to some other people."

[] For his part, Cianci isn't giving an inch. By launching his post-indictment news conference with a reference to how he's had better Mondays -- an effective ice-breaker that echoed a similar remark (about better Tuesdays) he made around the time of his 1984 assault conviction -- he implicitly alluded to the other great crisis of his career and the fact that he overcame it.

But M. Charles Bakst, political columnist for the Providence Journal, sees the defiant demeanor as the part of the run-up to the denouement of the Plunder Dome case. In an April 3 column, Bakst wrote, "If Buddy Cianci truly loves Providence, he should immediately resign as mayor" -- a sentiment taken up later in the day by Governor Lincoln Almond, who, as US attorney, was unable to find enough evidence in the '80s to indict Cianci, even with the conviction of 22 members of the administration of Buddy I. Asked whether he believes Cianci will heed his advice to resign, Bakst says, "I think it's very likely that he will, many months from now. Because I've seen it happen many times when these political figures say they didn't do anything wrong and then a crunch comes on the eve of trial and they change their minds."

Arriving in Washington on the evening of April 3 to meet with other mayors, Cianci signaled his response to suggestions that he resign, telling WJAR-TV's Gene Valicenti that he'll do no such thing. "I disagree with [Almond]," Cianci says. "I'll continue my duties as mayor."

IT'S AN INDICATION of the strength of Cianci's political persona that some observers don't discount the possibility that the mayor, who left City Hall in shame after the notorious assault case, may come out on top once again. WHJJ-AM talk show host John DePetro went on the Don Imus show April 3 to tweak Cianci, facetiously calling the indictment "a huge misunderstanding with the government," and likening the mayor to Tony Soprano. But at the same time, DePetro marvels at how Cicilline, whose interest in the mayor's job was first reported last year by the Phoenix (see "Battlefield Providence," News, May 18, 2000), remains the only person resembling an announced candidate. "How many politicians would still be able to run a successful campaign for mayor under this type of situation?" says DePetro. "If this was anyone else, they would absolutely be toast politically and people would come out of the woods to run."

At the same time, the corruption probe could combine with significant increases in property revaluations on the East Side and some other Providence neighborhoods -- tax bills won't be issued until this summer -- to spark speculation that tax hikes are related to municipal corruption. It's a situation, DePetro says, that could make the outrage of good government groups about the imperious manner of House Speaker John Harwood seem trivial in comparison. "It should be interesting to look at who would benefit most [in the mayoral race] from the perception of anti-corruption," he says. "I think it's too early to tell."

Lombardi, part of anti-Cianci bloc on the city council, also expresses respect for the mayor's political prowess. "He certainly has the wherewithal, and the ability, and the communication skills to withstand this," the council president says. "Providence equals Buddy in some people's eyes, and he's going to fight for that." Like other prospective candidates, Lombardi was reluctant to talk about a possible bid for the mayor's office, although he concedes the indictment "certainly piques my interest a little further."

During his news conference, Cianci conspicuously mentioned at the outset that he wasn't going to take questions from a packed room of reporters -- and then proceeded to field close to 10 queries as the members of the throng vied for his attention. WJAR-TV reporter Jim Taricani, a Phoenix contributor and veteran Cianci watcher, expects the mayor to maintain the charm offensive. "I think he thinks he's talking to the jury pool," Taricani says. "He'll act like he's running for reelection."

As Taricani notes, it would be perceived as grandstanding if any of Cianci's would-be successors are too forthcoming, too soon, in their expressions of interest for the coveted second-floor office at City Hall. But the mayor's support is likely to suffer as the media follows the story, his attention will be diverted by the legal case, and the indictment will certainly trigger behind-the-scenes maneuvering by prospective candidates.

In the estimate of former attorney general Jeff Pine, a Republican who's focusing on a possible run for governor, Cianci's trial may take place in eight to 12 months -- a framework that would square with the intensification of the campaign for the November 2002 mayoral election. The mayor would be bound to resign, Pine says, only if he is convicted and used all of his appeals. "There may not be any immediate fallout in terms of the political system," Pine says. [It] may be quite some time."

But there are other scenarios -- a recall, for example, that could result in a special election. Such a situation would clearly benefit a candidate -- like Paolino -- who has considerable financial resources and strong name recognition as the man who once succeeded Cianci. "If Joe Paolino was interested in the race, he'd have to be considered a frontrunner," Pine says. Paolino was out of town earlier this week and couldn't be reached for comment.

Cicilline, an East Side liberal and criminal-defense lawyer who is Jewish and Italian-American, would be an intriguing candidate -- as would Taveras, a lawyer who got an unexpectedly strong share of support during his congressional run last year. As a native of the Dominican Republic who makes his home in Silver Lake, Taveras would presumably benefit from the doubling of the state's Hispanic population during the '90s, with much of the growth in Providence, as reported during the recent Census.

Although he's been organizing for months, Cicilline was unwilling to talk about his mayoral candidacy in the aftermath of the indictment. But he rejects suggestions that he might have difficulty finding support among more socially conservative voters in politically active neighborhoods like Silver Lake. "I think people make judgments about who they will support based on a whole variety of factors," Cicilline says, including the stances and character of a candidate. "I'm proud of what I've done as a public servant."

As far as the indictment against Cianci, "There are sort of two competing values," he says -- the principle of the presumption of innocence versus the unforgiving public attitude toward officials who abuse their privilege. "I think people are sort of torn between these two competing values," Cicilline says. "I don't think we'll know the political fallout until the public learns much more about the evidence of the investigation. I think it's clear it will ultimately have an enormous impact on the political life of our city and state."

York is seen by many as a potentially strong mayoral candidate, but, "for a whole host of reasons, it's just not something that I see myself seriously considering in the future," she says. The former lawmaker thinks the length of the judicial process will be a key in determining the political impact on Cianci. "If it's a process that's not resolved quickly, but dragged out through discovery and trial, I think it will be such a drag on him . . . that it would be harder to run again," she says.

Although there's little love lost between Cianci and his secondary nemesis, the Providence Journal, the mayor has been masterful at cultivating Providence's image, a skill which has brought no small share share of personal glory. As J. Thomas Cochran noted in starting last week's presentation on urban revival at the national office of the US Conference of Mayors in Washington, "Providence used to be a sign as you went to Boston, a sign you didn't take." But now, the full-blown indictment against Cianci -- more so than any previous element of Plunder Dome -- conjures darker days of the old Providence.

As York notes, there's some degree of public acceptance of patronage and other elements of old-school politics. "I'm not saying it's right, but a lot of that, I think, people don't see as egregious crimes," she says. But it's clearly a different matter if federal prosecutors -- who have mounted a Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organization (RICO) indictment against Cianci -- can make accusations of bribery and extortion stick.

Even though the probe became public almost two years ago, "I think that people have purposely focused on the positive, upbeat side of Providence, and have been either unable or unwilling to hold him accountable for any possible wrongdoing," Bakst says. "I think they've taken the attitude -- `We don't see any connection, we don't seen any involvement, where's the evidence?' Now, I think they'll begin to reassess that view, although there will always be people to whom he'll be a hero. In the end, however, I don't think this will be a political matter. It will be a legal matter."

Or, as some see it, the same personality quirks that enabled Cianci to draw favorable national limelight on Providence and himself are a double-edged sword. "The mayor does live out on the edge," Dufault says. "To get the things done that he got done, he had to be one of those people who was willing to step out. [But] if he stepped over that line, I think it will be a steep and dramatic fall."

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis@phx.com.

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