Mayor-to-Mayor: Joseph Paolino’s Memories of Buddy Cianci

Longtime mayors can often become outsized personalities and pop culture figures within the cities they serve. Former Providence mayor Vincent Cianci was no exception: Cianci, or “Buddy” as he was known, ruled Providence from his throne at city hall for a record breaking seven terms, first between 1975 and 1984 and then again between 1991 and 2002. In Providence political history, these eras commonly became known as the “Buddy I” and “Buddy II.” Beloved in Providence despite his shortcomings, Cianci’s history of criminal misconduct complicates his already colorful legacy but provides a fascinating story of the power of personality in politics. Booted out of office after pleading no-contest to a felony assault, Cianci was enshrined in American political legend once we was reelected to the same position in 1991. After being convicted of federal racketeering charges in 2002 while in office and sentenced to five years in prison, Cianci still remained as popular as ever. He almost made a political comeback to become mayor once again in 2014, but was diagnosed with cancer and passed away earlier this year at the age of 74. His casket was displayed at city hall for two full days and thousands of well-wishers came to pay their respects.


Former Providence Mayor Joseph Paolino was one of Ciani’s political rivals in the Buddy I era who became a close friend and confidant during and after Cianci’s incarceration. Paolino served as mayor of Providence after Cianci stepped down in 1984 until 1991, and was the US Ambassador to Malta from 1994 to 1996.  


What was your relationship with Mayor Cianci throughout your political career?


When I was 23 years old, I was elected to the city council in 1978 and served on the council for four years. I ran for reelection, won, and became the chairman of the council. During these six years, Buddy Cianci was Mayor. We were truly adversarial. I was young, outspoken, and pretty critical of the Mayor’s office. He was cocky and confident – the typical big city mayor, controlling the city. I had to become acting mayor when Buddy had to step down the first time [in 1984] and became mayor by election, winning by only 100 votes. He campaigned aggressively against me, but I won reelection by a wider margin and when I ran for governor and lost he took his old spot as mayor with 34 percent of the vote, winning in a three-way race. He was very hungry, running a shrewd campaign, and I think it was because he really wanted his job back.


It took a while to break the ice between us. Even so, when he went to prison in 2002 I just couldn’t see it. Sure, he was an angry person, would sometimes bully people. But I never saw any wrongdoing take place, from a business perspective. His words were more than his actions in cases like that. That was one side of him. The other side was he did not want to be mayor just to sit in office. What brought us together was the Providence Place Mall, which I announced in 1987. After I lost the race for the governorship, my opponent Bruce Sundlun appointed me head of economic development in the state, and in that capacity I served as a bridge between the Governor and Cianci in promoting Providence Place. Cianci’s primary opponents would never have gone on with that deal; they didn’t have the vision. As much as I didn’t want him to win, I knew he had the vision to get this done. Like the [uncovering of the] rivers: my administration started them, and he finished them. He would kid me that he started it, I stepped in for a bit, and then he finished it.


While we did not have a personal rapport in those days, our economic development ideas were in sync with one another. Our thinking was alike. In order for a city to work, you need the mayor to be a champion, outspoken. At the same time, you need the vision to get people to follow you, good leadership skills. He had that.


What was a young Buddy Cianci like as a political opponent?


He had to be in control of everything. He did not want to hear “no” from anyone. Sometimes that was a good thing, like when trying to put up a new building downtown. This [Paolino’s office] was a building that came in during his administration. But at times there was a pettiness to it. Like if he needed your vote on the city council, even over something stupid, he would get vindictive about it. In the days Buddy was mayor, ethnic politics played a strong role. You had the Irish and the Italians, and the Irish Democrats were against the Italian [Republicans]. There was great hostility, they couldn’t believe someone from a different nationality, a different political party, was in charge and they couldn’t get patronage. But Buddy knew how to play them too, make them look very foolish.


How much did the power of personality play in Cianci’s political career? 


Big. Personality is extremely important; it plays a large role for anyone in that type of position. Look, Lincoln Chafee is a very nice man but was a terrible governor. And he did not know how to use his personality to get things done. He didn’t have a personality. If you are elected and are just going to do nothing, you don’t belong in the job. If you want to make change, wake up every morning with adrenaline in your veins, that’s important. This Mayor right here [Jorge Elozra], he has a terrible personality, doesn’t understand the job. Maybe he’ll grow into it. And I don’t say that to be mean to him, I just don’t think he has political instinct or knows how to get things done.


Buddy did. I mean right now there is a controversy over the bond issue. I’ve never seen a city council against a bond issue, to pave roads and sidewalks, and this council is against the mayor on that. And that would never happen under Buddy.


Of course, there were multiple sides to Buddy’s personality. There was definitely a good side and a bad side. The older he got, I never saw the bad side. After years of animosity, we became very good friends. I gave the eulogy at his funeral. When he ran this last time [in 2014], I think he would have been a much better mayor, and looking back I don’t think he was a bad mayor; he made things happen.


In 2002, Cianci was convicted of a racketeering charge and spent five years in federal prison in New Jersey before being released in 2007. Do you think the Cianci administration set a standard for corruption in Providence?


I think that was the perception. And I think it was more of a myth than a reality. He wasn’t convicted – now I don’t want to get into the legality of it because I’m not a lawyer, I’m a real estate guy. He was acquitted of a lot of things, taking money, et cetera, but was convicted of something called a RICO conspiracy. The directions the judge gives the jury is very important in how they vote, and the instruction was if you think the mayor took money or know about individuals in his administration taking money, you can convict him. So Buddy’s personality, the idea that he had to know everything, is how I think he got convicted. I don’t think it should have ever been upheld in the courts.


I think the argument would be since he was Mayor he had control over his administration, and therefore those people in his administration. But let me tell you there are a lot of people with their own thing going on in a mayoral administration, and they don’t want you to know about it. I’m sure there are other things he should have been convicted of I don’t know; I don’t play judge or jury. But what they convicted him of I thought was inappropriate and if anything else the sentence was too much.

Personality is extremely important; it plays a large role for anyone in that type of position.

In your mind, what is Buddy Cianci’s legacy? 


The first time he was Mayor, and I remember there was a St. Joseph’s Day celebration up on Federal Hill. It was 1979 [or] 1980, and somebody said to him “you should have cops on horses.” And Buddy ran with that idea, married it. So after implementing that, he learned how to ride horses. He wanted to make sure he was the best. Buddy went up and down Blackstone Boulevard on Saturday afternoons and took lessons. He would bring the horses up to Thayer Street and ride around. He was very flamboyant and loved being flamboyant.


When you’d go to a Brown Football game, the whole stadium would chant “Buddy, Buddy” and the more people would talk it up, the more of a ham he was and people would love it. He would sit with the band at the Brown games, conduct the band. He was a little bit of Fiorello La Guardia, little bit of Bill Clinton, Richard Daley Sr, little bit of a Giuliani. But, again, he made things happen. Everybody knew who Buddy was, but he had his enemies. He once told a story, someone was screwing around with him and he said “remember – the toe you step on today might be connected to the ass you kiss tomorrow.”