Magazine

A Little Caesar with a Big Footprint


THE PRINCE OF PROVIDENCE

The True Story of Buddy Cianci, America's Most Notorious Mayor, Some Wiseguys, and the Feds

By Mike Stanton Random House -- 442pp -- $25.95

When I was growing up in Providence, downtown was dank and lifeless after the business day ended -- the emptied streets, like those of so many other Northeastern cities on the skids. It was a nowhere burg going nowhere. Manufacturing had moved South, shoppers were heading for suburban malls, a decent restaurant was almost impossible to find, and the nightlife was a barfly's lament.

But that was 40-odd years ago. Now Providence, at least on the surface, is a city remade: rivers rerouted, streets redirected, historic buildings preserved and repurposed, an ambitious center-city mall filled with national retailers. Today, the arts are encouraged, and there are upscale restaurants and taverns aplenty for the gentry.

At the center of the unexpected Providence Renaissance -- or certainly grabbing most of the credit -- was an unlikely urban hero, a baby-faced Borgia named Vincent Albert "Buddy" Cianci Jr., who for a time seemed a public man destined for a stage far larger than the seedy sideshow of local politics.

In The Prince of Providence, Mike Stanton, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter for The Providence Journal, delivers a riveting, intricate portrait of a pol on the make and the take -- a book that will shock and amuse those unfamiliar with a town where corruption is bred in the bone.

The pudgy little son of an Italo-American doctor, Buddy is doted on by his mother and sent to a private school on Providence's WASPy East Side. In a city then split among the old Yankee elite, the Irish who had seized political power, and the Italians who coveted it, young Buddy finds himself a bit out of place among the sons of brokers and bankers from another part of town.

Yet Cianci throughout his life seems to relish the role of the cocky outsider. He grows up to become a brash young prosecutor and a Republican, which in Rhode Island is like being a Methodist at the Mormon Tabernacle. He almost nails Mafia kingpin Raymond Patriarca for murder and handles another high-profile case involving official corruption. Notoriety follows, and Cianci is emboldened to challenge the hard-boozing Democratic mayor, Joe Doorley, who once bragged he could drink more draft beer than all his rivals combined.

In 1974, Cianci runs as a crime-busting reformer, but what follows his election is an almost 10-year orgy of graft, corruption, sleaze, and outrageous behavior that frequently borders on farce. The Little Caesar of Providence surrounds himself with a lineup of crooks and cretins out of an Elmore Leonard novel. They steal everything that isn't nailed down -- including manhole covers.

Still, to the national party, Cianci is a young Republican with promise -- a quick-witted newcomer who has somehow taken power in a Democratic stronghold. President Gerald Ford asks the mayor how he did it. Cianci rubs shoulders with Henry Kissinger and Donald H. Rumsfeld and speaks at the 1976 Republican National Convention.

Then, in the midst of a stormy divorce in 1983, the mayor summons a wealthy contractor, supporter, and alleged lover of his wife to his carriage house. In the presence of a menacing police bodyguard, a former judge, and the Public Works director, Cianci launches into a long night of threats and assaults -- singeing the petrified builder with a cigarette at one point.

Cianci eventually pleads guilty to felony assault and is forced to resign. It appears that an erratic reign of greed, venality, and bombast is over as Buddy, toupe? askew, slinks off into the sunset on Narragansett Bay.

But no -- the guy has more lives than Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. During six years in the political wilderness, Cianci gets his hands dirty in real estate and becomes a popular radio talk-show host. In 1990, he impulsively runs again and is elected with a 317-vote margin. The Buddy Show is back in prime time.

A humbled Cianci promises a new era of good government. But the old arrogance is evident at a sit-down with business leaders. Cianci lectures Alan G. Hassenfeld, then CEO of Hasbro (HAS) (HAS) Inc.: "Let's get one thing straight. You make f------ toys. I run a city. I have a police department, a fire department. You make f------ toys. And the only reason you do that is because your father left you the company, because you are a member of the Lucky Sperm Club."

For all of the rollicking Nineties and on into the new century, Cianci presides over what Stanton calls the model of the new American city. As the Providence Renaissance takes shape, his approval ratings soar, and he is hailed on national TV. Behind the showboating, though, the city is still for sale.

In the end, Cianci is undone by a dogged FBI agent and a team of federal prosecutors, though the best they can muster is a one-count conviction (out of 12) for racketeering under the broad Racketeer-Influenced & Corrupt Organizations Act. The mayor is sentenced to five years, which he is now serving.

While Stanton captures the playfully caustic cadences of the local vernacular, his prose is workaday at best and often riddled with repetition. Yet such shortcomings fade in the face of what is an intense, exhaustive portrait of a ribald, craven, self-aggrandizing, totally engaging political animal. At one point, Cianci says that his only crime was loving Providence too much. As the mayor might say, that's a lot of f------ bull----. Buddy's only crime was loving Buddy too much. By Ciro Scotti


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