Analysis: Cianci candidacy upends RI political landscape

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Buddy is back.

Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci Jr. is already the most iconic Rhode Island political figure of the past half-century. But now, at age 73, the twice-convicted former-mayor-turned-radio-host-turned-mayor-turned-radio-host has decided to try and add one more “-turned mayor” to his résumé. In doing so, he’s upended everything we thought we knew about how Campaign 2014 would unfold in Rhode Island.

Good luck to the long list of down-ballot candidates – Frank Ferri, Nellie Gorbea, Ernie Almonte, and on and on – trying to get attention in elections most voters don’t know or care much about. The only two political stories that are likely to garner significant attention over the next few months are Cianci’s comeback bid and the race for governor – with the latter campaign a distant second in the coverage contest.

The motivation for Cianci is obvious: he thinks he can win, and he loved being mayor. If you’ve listened to the guy bark tips on snow-plowing to elected officials he’s interviewing from his studio during a storm, you know this is a man who still relishes the tasks of a municipal chief executive. And he’s never gotten to leave office on his own terms.

Cianci told me earlier this week a comeback bid wouldn’t be about redemption, or repairing an image deeply tarnished by the corruption federal investigators uncovered in his administration. Many won’t believe him. He’s certainly sharper than he’s often sounded in his daily broadcasts, and he has an idea of what he would do as mayor; on Monday he gave me an extended lecture about how he would regionalize services to make the cash-strapped city cheaper to operate.

No small number of people are aghast that Cianci is jumping into the race – partly because they too believe he can win. “His last time he was convicted, it wasn’t for a personal indiscretion – it was because he betrayed the public trust. He ran City Hall as a criminal enterprise,” John Marion, Common Cause Rhode Island’s executive director, told WPRI 12’s Tim White earlier today. “We don’t think he … deserves to have the public’s trust again.”

Yet you can’t blame voters who look at Providence circa 2014 – highly taxed and highly indebted, not far past a flirtation with bankruptcy, its tallest building empty, its streets a moonscape of potholes – and think, well, the Cianci days sure were a lot better than this. And they’re all the more likely to feel that way as memories of City Hall corruption dim, while the rivers and the mall remain as monuments to his reign.

Can he be stopped? It’s possible. The last time Cianci wasn’t running as an incumbent – in 1990 – he only beat the late Fred Lippitt by a few hundred votes when the election went to a recount. Those who feel the way Marion and Common Cause do about Cianci – not to mention the other candidates who are already angling to be mayor – are not about to let him waltz into City Hall again.

Cianci’s decision to run as an independent – and Lorne Adrain’s decision to do the same thing – sets up a four-way general election in November between the two of them, the eventual Democratic nominee, and Republican Dan Harrop. WPRI 12 political analyst Joe Fleming thinks a crowded ballot like that is Cianci’s best – and perhaps only – hope for winning back the mayor’s office, because it reduces how many votes he needs to win. (A bit of history: Cianci first won office in 1974 as an anti-corruption Republican, later ran an independent, and flirted with running as a Democrat this time around.)

Cianci has well-funded opponents who will make this a competitive race, not least among them Providence City Council President Mike Solomon, who until now was the perceived frontrunner. They have endless fodder to raise doubts in voters’ minds about a third Cianci administration – but they’ll face the challenge that he is already perceived as a beloved rogue, not a squeaky-clean reformer.

“All the negatives about Buddy are already known,” Fleming said. “What are you going to say? ‘Buddy Cianci was a corrupt mayor’? Everybody knows he went to jail.”

As for what this means for Rhode Island, the national news stories write themselves, especially if Cianci wins. So much for moving the needle: “Just months after the state’s most powerful politician, House Speaker Gordon Fox, was forced from office by FBI raids on his home and office, Rhode Island voters showed corruption is no obstacle to winning public office in the nation’s smallest state.”

Cianci will argue that what he’ll accomplish as mayor will far outweigh any short-term reputational damage Rhode Island will suffer if he’s returned to City Hall. We may soon find out whether he’s right or not.

Ted Nesi ( tnesi@wpri.com ) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com and writes the Nesi’s Notes blog. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi

This post has been updated and expanded.

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