Reversal of fortune
The Plunder Dome indictment takes the luster off Cianci's political
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
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
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
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
Ian Donnis can be reached at email@example.com.