It hardly seemed coincidental that US District Court Judge Ernest C. Torres
scheduled the sentencing of Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci Jr. for September 6 --
just four days before the primary election that made David N. Cicilline the
odds-on favorite to become the next mayor. The two separate events seem like
symbolic bookends, signaling the end of a lengthy chapter in Providence's
history and the start of a decidedly new one.
In June, even after Cianci's conviction on a single count of racketeering
conspiracy, it came as a surprise when he announced his decision not to seek
reelection to the office he had occupied for the better part of the last
quarter-century. Yet it was the smart thing to do, and even the former mayor's
fiercest critics never accused Cianci of not being smart. It's no accident that
Torres, a model of fairness and keen intellect throughout the trial, used the
sentencing to pay homage to the good Buddy even while sentencing his bad
alter-ego to 64 months in federal prison, following a 90-day stay.
Cianci remained a source of controversy even in the following days, as critics
scorned his post-conviction role as a primary night analyst on WLNE-TV (Channel
6), while others said it would be absurd to ignore the popular appeal of Rhode
Island's best-known political figure. Regardless, after a spirited four-way
Democratic primary, a new political era in Providence was inexorably taking
shape before our eyes.
Even Joseph R. Paolino Jr., an experienced, well-financed and clearly
competent challenger with establishment support and a diverse array of
endorsements -- from the Providence Journal, In News Weekly, and
the Phoenix -- couldn't turn back the early and steady level of support
that Cicilline won from voters as the embodiment of change and reform. Four
years ago, the progressive legislator wisely passed when some supporters
encouraged him to take on Cianci, who ran unopposed and was at the apex of his
popularity in 1998. This time, though, Cicilline was clearly the right man in the right place at the right time, scoring a
decisive 53-33 percent victory over Paolino.
Mobbed by jubilant supporters as he ascended a temporary stage near the Roger
Williams Park carousel at about 10:30 p.m. on Tuesday, September 10, Cicilline
expressed thanks and paid homage to the grassroots foundation of his populist
campaign. "People told us we couldn't do it, we couldn't win," he said, beaming
and bearing the imprint of a lipsticked kiss on one cheek. "We demonstrated
with the power of the people, we can do great things in this city."
As festive Latin music blared and boosters sprayed Champagne into the crowd, a
buoyant feeling of optimism and accomplishment spread through the hundreds of
white, Latino, and black Cicilline supporters, and people like Patrick Lynch, a
Democratic candidate for attorney general, and US Representative Patrick J.
Kennedy clambered aboard to share the stage with this new force in Providence
politics. Drawing reference to the lead of a Providence Journal profile
that backers saw, perhaps unfairly, as a veiled attack, Cicilline said his
election proved indeed that an openly gay, Jewish, Italian-American man could
become mayor. "This election marks a new beginning in Providence," he said,
likening his campaign to an incredible journey, and Cicilline extended his
congratulations to the campaigns of Paolino, state Senator David V. Igliozzi
and former representative Keven A. McKenna, who lagged behind, respectively,
with roughly 10 and three percent of the vote.
Across town, at the Holiday Inn on Atwells Avenue, Paolino hailed Cicilline's
mandate, which had been predicted in polls fairly consistently during the
closing weeks of the campaign. "For David to do as well as he did, that's good
for Providence," said the former mayor.
Joe Paolino concedes / Photo by Peter Goldberg
Cicilline emerges as the clear favorite to win the November election, when
he'll face three candidates, Republican David Talan, independent Christopher
Young, and Greg Gerritt of the Green Party, with no previous electoral
victories and little in the way of campaign fundraising. But after a compressed
campaign in which Cicilline and the three other Democrats frequently and
vigorously debated the issues, there can few illusions about the difficulties
facing the future of the city. The top challenges include: applying an ethical
cleansing to the practices of municipal government, putting city finances on a
better footing; modernizing the police department; improving the beleaguered
schools; and extending the benefits of the nationally celebrated Providence
Renaissance to the neighborhoods.
During his victory speech, Cicilline voiced appreciation for those "who
expressed confidence that we could do things differently." He talked of
standing with lost children and mothers whose kids had been claimed by street
violence, adding, "I saw children picketing because of the rat problem in this
city." All these images from his campaign, he said, will guide his
administration over the next four years. The November election and the
difficulty of making change notwithstanding, Cicilline wasn't about to dim the
ebullience of his insurgent campaign. "I promise you," he told joyous
supporters, "the best days of the city are ahead of us."
CICILLINE REMAINED the underdog when he announced his candidacy in February at
the Webster Avenue Elementary School in Silver Lake. Loved by admirers for
putting Providence on the map and reviled by critics for neglecting the schools
and some other serious needs, Cianci was very popular even as the
long-anticipated start of the Plunder Dome trial grew steadily closer. Still,
the seamy revelations at trial, even if not directly linked to Cianci, did
little to instill additional confidence in his management of the city.
A criminal-defense lawyer and liberal legislator who has served in the House
since 1995, Cicilline, 41, began seriously thinking about running for mayor
well before his official announcement. But even though he held off in formally
launching his challenge to the 800-pound gorilla of Providence politics, the
timing of his entry still gave him a decided advantage over Paolino and
Igliozzi, who didn't get into the race until immediately after Cianci's
conviction in June. By then, Cicilline had already been campaigning for months
on the interrelated theme of change and challenging politics as usual.
It was a message that found ready acceptance among affluent East Siders, more
than 70 percent of whom backed Cicilline during the September 10 election, as
well as residents of Providence's South Side, where the candidate made
particular efforts to court the growing Latino community. Strong support from
the two areas, traditional components of Paolino's base, formed the foundation
for Cicilline's victory, much more than compensating for Igliozzi and Paolino's
greater draw in such socially conservative neighborhoods as Mount Pleasant and
Paolino, who served until 1991 after becoming mayor when Cianci had to leave
office after pleading no contest to assault in 1984, jumped into the race with
the assets of strong name recognition and considerable financial resources.
Paolino, 47, sought to create a sense of inevitability about his campaign,
wracking up endorsements -- including those from the Fraternal Order of Police
and the largest municipal employee union -- and he identified a prominent
former US Drug Enforcement Administration official as his would-be police
commissioner. But voters rejected Paolino's message of experience, apparently
seeing the former mayor -- who also highlighted his backing by such figures as
former attorneys general Julius Michaelson and Jeffrey Pine -- as part of the
old political order.
Igliozzi comes from a politically influential Silver Lake family and he's
proven to be a strong vote-getter in his legislative campaigns. He seemingly
hoped to build a plurality from his base and was the only candidate to
aggressively use negative advertising, tapping direct mail to attack Cicilline
for legislative votes on crime issues and Paolino for some questionable
decisions during his tenure as mayor. But the 42-year-old state senator, who
worked as a part-time lawyer in the Cianci administration until July, and
didn't get into the race until after Cianci's conviction, had little success in
drawing serious support beyond Mount Pleasant and Silver Lake. McKenna, an
early entry who offered some interesting proposals as the self-described
truth-teller of the campaign, never gained real traction, either.
As the campaign heated up in July, Cicilline's support widened beyond his
instinctive supporters and it didn't hurt that, aided by his early start, he
remained competitive with Paolino in campaign fundraising. There were
nonetheless times when even liberals in the Armory District questioned whether
he could win the race without going after Paolino more zealously and
aggressively. Solidly sticking to his message of change, Cicilline tended to
dismiss such tactics, describing them as part of the discredited old way of
No one doubted Cicilline's intelligence. But after coming across as too
lawyerly and subdued during an initial Providence League of Women Voters debate
in Mount Pleasant, the progressive did start to pack more punch into his
campaign delivery, much to the delight of his supporters. Hitting away at key
elements of his theme -- how he represents change, got into the race before
Cianci's conviction, and refused to take donations from city employees --
Cicilline injected a new degree of emotion during subsequent debates. Although
there were plenty of partisans in the audience for such occasions, the frequent
and heavy applause for the progressive was another early indication that
Cicilline -- although still seen by some as an unlikely winner -- was steaming
RIDING IN A mini-bus from his campaign headquarters on Elmwood Avenue to East
Side polling precincts at about 2:30 p.m. on primary day, Cicilline was
slightly edgy. There were indications of some election irregularities, such as
a few polling locations not opening until four hours after they were supposed
to, and the fear that Providence's history of less-than-pristine politics might
influence the election crossed the mind of more than one Cicilline campaign
But although Cicilline was unwilling to predict the outcome of the election at
that early point in the day, he had the courage of his convictions. "I think
the sentencing [of Cianci] marked the end of a very difficult chapter in the
city's history," he told me. "This election marks a new beginning. The
importance of real change is heard even more clearly by the voters of the city
. . . I believe people know that we can do things in a better way and an honest
way. I think it is happening today, as we speak."
Pressed on whether Cianci's contributions, flaws, and his legacy to the city
are more positive or negative, Cicilline demurred, saying, "I think there isn't
more good or bad. They both exist."
Earlier in the day, Paolino was also concerned about the election process.
Arriving at about 10:20 a.m. at the Brook Street fire station on the East Side,
the former mayor was alarmed to find some Cicilline signs on the grounds of the
polling station, a seeming violation of the ban against such materials being on
city property. The signs were subsequently removed, even as volunteer legal
representatives of the Cicilline campaign raced to the scene, contending that
Paolino shouldn't have been standing on the grounds of the polling station.
Paolino was heartened by the way in which Bill Goddard, an old-line
Republican, had changed his affiliation to be able to vote for him. As to the
mood of the voters, he said, "I'm really feeling the sense that people just
want to move on." At the same time, the former mayor said he expected to win
the election. "I'd be surprised if I lose," he said. "And I'll do everything I
can if David calls upon me."
Asked about Cianci's impact on the city, Paolino said, "I think the bad
overrides the good. And it hurts me to say it, because I think he's done good.
[But] the worst thing that can ever happen to a political official is to be
convicted of corruption . . . and that has to override everything."
So it went, as the men who would be mayor circulated throughout the city, the
hours ticked down, the polls closed at 9 p.m., and a small group of Cicilline
supporters, joined by reporters and photographers at Roger Williams Park,
swelled into a large crowd excitedly watching the returns coming in during
newscasts on two large television screens. With eight percent of the votes,
Cicilline claimed a 55 percent-to-23 percent lead. The gap narrowed a little,
but Cicilline never relinquish his advantage.
Cliff Wood, a campaign volunteer, offered updates from the stage as the
results continued to dribble in. Excited supporters tried to restrain their
emotion as the margin moved to 58 percent-25 percent with 16 percent of the
vote, 54 percent-31 percent with 34 percent of the vote, 53 percent-34 percent
with 56 percent of the vote, and so on. A little bit later, someone said Buddy
Cianci was on Channel 6, projecting David Cicilline as the winner.
Ian Donnis can be reached at email@example.com.
Issue Date: September 13 - 19, 2002