Ex-mayor offers insider’s account of city politics

“Politics and Pasta: How I Prosecuted Mobsters, Rebuilt a Dying City, Dined With Sinatra, Spent Five Years in a Federally Funded Gated Community, and Lived to Tell the Tale” (St. Martin’s Press)

In the fall of 1974, a few days after he was elected mayor of Providence, R.I., Buddy Cianci sipped beer with a few reporters and joked about the “Philistines” he had ousted from city hall.

The denizens of the Democratic machine that had run the city for 30 years had trashed the place, he said, nailing wallboard over the historic building’s mahogany paneling and poking pencils through the eyes of the portraits of former mayors.

His predecessors had left Providence in terrible shape. The city’s old industrial base had crumbled, its infrastructure was falling apart, its rivers were paved over with concrete, downtown storefronts were boarded up, its wealth of historical buildings were deteriorating, its tax base was imploding and the prevailing mood was despair. It was hard to find anyone but Buddy who thought the city had a future.

But this young Republican-in-name-only (he later ran as an independent) had dreams of turning the city into a showplace.

Today, Providence makes national magazines’ lists of the best places to live. It boasts of the biggest retail mall in New England, a revitalized downtown, winding rivers with gondolas and water taxis, restored historic buildings, a vibrant arts community and a remarkable assortment of great restaurants.

While not all of this was realized during Cianci’s 21 years as mayor, even his detractors — and they are legion — acknowledge that he envisioned it and made much of it happen. But progress came at a cost.

Former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln C. Almond once claimed that the rebirth came with a 30 percent corruption tax. And Cianci himself ended up spending nearly five years in a federal prison for running the city government as a criminal conspiracy.

Cianci has already been the subject of one political biography: Mike Stanton’s best-selling “The Prince of Providence” focused on the dark side, recounting the charges against him.

Now, in “Politics and Pasta,” Cianci has his say. His memoir is by turns insightful and evasive, serious and funny, self-deprecatory and self-serving.

He cops to none of the corruption accusations, writing that he was found not guilty of each specific criminal act, including soliciting bribes, that was brought against him. He never took a bribe — “not one cent,” he says — and maintains that he was unaware of the activities of other members of his administration who were convicted of doing so. His conspiracy conviction, he asserts, amounts to being found guilty of having served as mayor.

Cianci pleads guilty only to playing ward-heeler politics: rewarding his allies with city jobs, using his power to settle political scores, and trading favors, such as planting trees, fixing potholes and putting up traffic lights, to boost his popularity.

After he won his first mayoral election, Cianci writes, he held a fundraiser that brought in over $200,000 from donors who “believed this was a victory for good government or people who wanted to do business with the city. Obviously, I’m kidding about the good government people...”

“That’s the way the system works,” he declares, “and I don’t know how to reform it.”

He acknowledges all manner of political chicanery. Twice, he says, he forced banks to change their policies by threatening to remove city pension money from them. He boasts of getting the federal General Services Administration to build a $32 million federal building in Providence by hiring the GSA director’s nephew as his official photographer. He says he tried, and failed, to get an Indian casino in nearby Connecticut to pay the city $1 million a year in return for scuttling a Providence casino he didn’t want built anyway.

“Sometimes,” he says, “every politician has to do the wrong thing to get the right thing done.”

He laces his story with bits of political wisdom including: “Parades are to politicians as blood is to Dracula,” “Never march behind a horse” and “Never get between a voter and his bingo card.”

And he describes many of his antics, including marketing his “Mayor’s Own” marinara sauce and playing a game of pinball with the head of the police union to settle a dispute over whether the cops should get lifetime Blue Cross coverage. (Cianci lost.)

Today, Cianci is a radio talk-show host in Rhode Island, and he remains one of the state’s most popular, albeit controversial, figures. He slyly implies that his political enemies shake at the notion that he might, once again, run for mayor.

“Politics and Pasta” is a compulsively readable — if not entirely candid — insider’s account of city politics by one of the most colorful and longest-serving mayors in memory. And it’s written by, as Cianci puts it, perhaps the only person who has ever been inside the White House, Windsor Castle and the federal penitentiary at Fort Dix in New Jersey.

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Bruce DeSilva is the author of the crime novel “Rogue Island,” which has been nominated for the Edgar and Barry Awards.

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