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

This post has been updated and expanded.

17 thoughts on “Analysis: Cianci candidacy upends RI political landscape

  1. There’s an eerie parallel to the OJ Simpson chase escapade where people in LA lined the freeway chanting “Run OJ, run” and the media was mesmerized by the surreal aspect of the whole situation. “Run Buddy run” Oh well the stew that makes Rhode Island politics a charade continues into the 21st century.

    • Nice, comparing the mayor who revitalized Providence to a third-world head-cutter; and old and tediously predictable rhetorical trick. Too bad people don’t fall for 1960s slogans and straw man arguments anymore.

      Have you applied to Huffblo or Daily KommieKos?

      • “Third world head cutter”…? I’m not even gonna touch that one.
        And of course Buddy did his share of good things. But at what cost? Not to mention the rampant corruption. And for gods sake, he used state troopers to kidnap a man who slept with his ex. We aren’t talking about some simple back room deals here. That’s a felony.

  2. In the investment world there’s a saying that’s viewed with some skepticism, “this time , it,s different.” Maybe this time RI politics is different, I.e., there,s no toupee, yet!

    • Apparently you believe that being correct and being glib are the same thing.

      Today’s Fact Treat: they’re not.

  3. If Cianci can eliminate the outrageous Rhode Island Automobile Excise Tax, lower all other Rhode Island taxes. He has my vote. We need somebody that is not afraid to shake up Rhode Islands Government Officials, and their RI tax payer costing policies. We need people that will listen and adhere to the wishes and wants of the people that pay their salaries. The Rhode Island Tax payers.

  4. Wow…How bad does this smell? Driving in the right hand lane while passing by the sewage treatment plant before the airport exit on 95 north, on a hot August morning? Being downwind from the Johnston Landfill, when they are ” incinerating ” pigs?…Where does it end?…A convicted felon at age 73 ( !!! ) no less, trying to reclaim ” old glory “. ,Maestro, please que up Bruce Springsteen’s ” Glory Days”. I have to figure that Bud-I is going to commandeer every senior citizen bus ( just like Patrick Kennedy ) and round up the ” old faithful ” to put on their bifocals ( and a free breakfast HAS to be in the offing ) get on their orthopedic shoes, and flick that lever down next to his name. Pandering, Shamandering…John Oliver, sleep well…

  5. Buddy is the absolute person to fix a rotting Providence. He loves it more than life itself. He has lost everything, his daughter, his wife, his health, and his freedom… yet despite all of this, he is still putting PROVIDENCE FIRST. He is head and shoulders above all others in this state for GETTING IT DONE… and there is no doubt, no doubt at all about his love for the City of Providence.
    Buddy will fix the potholes and clean up the disgraceful mess on the waterfront. Buddy, please close the strip joints too. I can’t wait for Buddy…

    • Yes! Agree. Completely. This man has not only endured horrible tragedies but prospered in spite of them. Thank you for stating the truth.

  6. And let’s not hear one PEEP from any Democrats in this race about corruption… they all supported Ciccilline… so just shut up and drop out.

    • Yes, all people with opposing views should shut up. Where are you from, Moscow? As ill informed as I find many of the posters on this sight, I respect their right to be heard. I hope you can find a way to see it that way.

      Corruption, as long as its tolerated we can have no faith in government. You may not mind paying the “Buddy tax”. Hopefully enough others will.

      I agree, I have no idea how a voter from the first district could vote to re-elect Cicilline.

      • The democrats have proven to the satisfaction of anyone willing to see what’s in front of them that they own corruption; they’re a crime syndicate which has worked hand-in-claw with the communists to destroy libery, prosperity, and life itself.

  7. I am 100 percent sure that corruption will always exist as long as Politics exists. There is no doubt that Our Police Officer’s, State Trooper’s and Government have their fair share of corruption. Most if not all are sneaky, and abuse their “supposed powers”. Mr. Cianci will not bring any more corruption than Rhode Island is used to.

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