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New sensation
Four days after the sentencing of Buddy Cianci, David N. Cicilline is crowned as the emerging political force in Providence
BY IAN DONNIS

David N. Cicilline celebrates his victory / Photo by Richard McCaffrey

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 Silver Lake.

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 doing business.

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 toward victory.

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 staffer.

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 idonnis@phx.com.

Issue Date: September 13 - 19, 2002