Cianci looms large over mayor’s race

buddy cianci resized for web

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A year ago, it was a whisper. Six months ago, a growing rumor.

Now it’s the talk of the town.

Former Providence Mayor Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci Jr. says he isn’t ready to publicly discuss whether he’ll make a third political comeback later this year by running for his old job, but the 72-year-old acknowledged he’s aware that his name has appeared in several polls linked to the mayor’s race in Rhode Island’s capital city.

“I was called and asked about myself,” Cianci told WPRI.com on Saturday. “I usually don’t take those polls, but when they said it was the Providence mayor’s race, I took the poll.”

The top job in City Hall is open this year because first-term incumbent Mayor Angel Taveras is running for governor. Democrats City Council President Michael Solomon, former Water Supply Board Chairman Brett Smiley, former Housing Court Judge Jorge Elorza, businessman Lorne Adrain and Chris Young as well as Republican Daniel Harrop are all running to succeed Taveras. State Rep. John Lombardi, a Democrat, is also mulling a run.

But all eyes are on Cianci. Now a talk radio host with WPRO-AM, he said he has “plenty of time” to make a decision – the filing deadline isn’t until June – and indicated he still has months of treatment ahead following a recent cancer diagnosis. He said he expects to make a full recovery.

“I think the city needs vision,” Cianci said. “In politics, it’s not about what you did; it’s about what you’ll do.”

As mayor, Cianci did a lot.

Elected as a Republican in 1974, he first served as mayor until 1984, when he resigned after pleading no contest to assaulting a man in his East Side home. He won the mayor’s office back in 1990 as an independent and remained there until 2002, when he was again forced to resign after being convicted on a racketeering conspiracy. He served five years in federal prison.

Cianci is widely credited with presiding over Providence’s renaissance, shepherding projects like the Providence Place mall and the moving of the rivers, which helped revitalize the city’s sleepy downtown. But more than 20 city employees were indicted on corruption charges following his first tenure in City Hall and several more were charged in “Operation Plunder Dome,” the federal investigation that ultimately landed Cianci in jail.

Through it all, Cianci has remained a popular figure. A Brown University poll conducted two weeks before a jury convicted him in 2002 found 59% of voters statewide believed he was doing an excellent or good job as mayor. In 2007, 57% of voters said they thought it was a good idea for WPRO-AM to hire Cianci as a talk show host; only 23% opposed the idea.

Paolino: If he runs, he wins

Among his supporters, no one has been more vocal about his hopes that Cianci will run for mayor than downtown businessman Joseph Paolino, himself a former mayor. Paolino was elevated to mayor after Cianci resigned in 1984 and remained there until 1990, when he ran unsuccessfully for governor. Once bitter enemies, Paolino and Cianci have become close friends in recent years.

During a taping of myRITV’s Dan Yorke State of Mind, Paolino said he and Cianci talk “every day” about entering the race, but acknowledged that Cianci first has to make sure he’s in good health before making a decision about reentering politics.

“If he’s healthy and he decides that he’s going to run, I think he’ll be the next mayor of Providence,” Paolino said.

Paolino isn’t the only one taking Cianci’s potential candidacy seriously.

Cianci’s name was included in a poll conducted on behalf of Solomon’s campaign, and Lombardi told WPRI.com he would “absolutely” test what voters think of the former mayor when he polls the race. Lombardi has hired Zogby Analytics as his campaign pollster.

A third poll that focused specifically on Cianci has also been conducted, but Cianci and Paolino denied paying for the survey. That poll also included questions about the favorability of Paolino and City Councilman John Igliozzi, another Cianci ally.

“I think we all need to know where he stands,” Lombardi said. “You have to take everyone seriously.”

Of the other candidates, Smiley and Adrain each said they plan to focus on their own campaigns, but did not state directly whether they planned to include Cianci’s name in their polls. Elorza’s campaign manager said the former judge has not tested Cianci’s name in his survey.

“No, we have not used him in any of our polls,” Elorza campaign manager Marisa O’Gara told WPRI.com. “Whether or not Buddy Cianci joins this race, we will remain focused on communicating our message of improving our schools, creating jobs, and supporting our neighborhoods so that everyone in Providence has the opportunity to succeed.”

Solomon has mostly deflected direct questions about Cianci, but he said the city has taken steps to promote transparency and open government in recent years, a significant shift from previous administrations.

“I don’t know if it matters whether Buddy is in the race or not,” Solomon told WPRI.com. “I just don’t want to go back to the old way of doing things. We’re continuing to move forward.”

Fleming: Never count him out

On the radio, Cianci sounds like a candidate.

He has spent several years attacking former mayor and now-Congressman David Cicilline, whose sweeping victory in the 2002 mayor’s race was hailed as a new day for Providence. When Cicilline ran for Congress in 2010, Cianci was also highly critical of Taveras, but the two became friendly when the new mayor took office.

Since Taveras launched his candidacy for governor, Cianci has criticized most of the candidates in the mayor’s race, accusing them of lacking vision. He regularly fields calls from listeners encouraging him to jump in the race.

But the Providence of 2014 is far different from the one that last elected Cianci in 1998, when he ran unopposed.

Today 13 of the 35 elected officeholders in the city – between the mayor, the City Council and the state legislature – identify as African-American or Latino. Former Cianci strongholds like Federal Hill and the 4th Ward around Charles Street are now dominated by young people and minority voters who weren’t around during Cianci’s tenure in City Hall.

Still, if he does enter the race, he’ll have the name recognition and the money to be a formidable candidate, according to WPRI 12 political analyst Joe Fleming. With a large field of candidates already running for mayor, Fleming said Cianci’s best bet may be to run as a Democrat, where he can win with a smaller slice of the vote.

Cianci does have experience in crowded races. In 1990, with Paolino running for governor, Cianci watched as four Democrats competed in a divisive and costly primary before swooping in to capture City Hall as an independent in a three-way general election.

“One thing I’ll say about Buddy Cianci is you can never count him out,” Fleming said.

This report has been updated.

Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Twitter: @danmcgowan

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