A corrupt Machiavellian bully, a benevolent populist, a talk radio personality, a marinara-sauce entrepreneur, a meme—rarely does a local politician acquire as many contradictory reputations and distinctions as did Vincent “Buddy” Cianci Jr., the infamous six-time mayor of Providence who passed away last Thursday. The first Italian-American to be elected mayor of the city, Cianci served a total of 21 years in office. He was twice forced to resign because of criminal charges: in 1983, he assaulted his wife’s alleged lover with a log and a lit cigarette; after returning to office for nine years, beginning in 1990, he was again forced to resign in 1999 after being charged with corruption and racketeering (he was ultimately convicted of only one count of conspiracy).
But despite—or maybe because of—his moral ambiguity, Cianci attained an almost viral celebrity status: the subject of multiple books, a full-length documentary, several fake Twitter accounts, and a federal investigation called Operation Plunder Dome, Cianci was arguably one of the most widely-known local politicians in the country. In the past week, his obituaries have run in national news outlets ranging from CNN to the New York Times.
Curiously, the stains on Cianci’s record have done more to bolster his reputation as a colorful character than they have to discourage support for him. Cianci was always able to deflect criticism with humor: in 2007, after his release from prison, he began his first radio show with the statement, “As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted…” But the fact remains that many of the details of his life are shockingly violent. In addition to his assault conviction he allegedly raped a woman at gunpoint in 1966, an accusation that was never proven but that was called by a crime lab investigator on the case “one of the most clear-cut cases of rape” they had ever seen.
One thing that was certain about Buddy was his ubiquity: just about everybody knew Buddy in some way or another. So, we walked around Providence and asked everyone we saw to tell us about their experiences with all sides of Buddy Cianci, good and bad. In the name of nuanced and egalitarian journalism, here they all are.
Providence had this remarkable resurrection—what was called the Renaissance—which coincided with when Buddy was mayor. We got the new mall, the rivers were moved, we had a national TV show on NBC, which made the city look very appealing… It seemed like a place on the rise, and that happened while he was mayor. And certainly he took credit for a lot of stuff, and people will debate, probably forever, what his role was in all of that: whether it was all because of him or partly because of him or despite him. But he has a very complex legacy.
—Philip Eil, freelance journalist and former news editor of the Providence
He was the kind of person who would sit in a restaurant alone and people would come in just to see him. That was his power. He was everywhere. He came into this cafe almost everyday and was treated like a hero. He got free things everywhere he went. You were nobody unless Buddy Cianci came to your wake. The first time I met Buddy I asked him how he knew if someone was bullshitting him, and he said, “I can always tell because I know that no matter what, I’m an even bigger bullshitter than he is.”…You want to know if he was a good or bad man? Who are we to judge him? He’s going to be judged by God now.
—Federal Hill resident and friend of Cianci’s, who wished to remain anony-
I think it’s human nature to try to label people, and say that they’re either good or they’re bad—but I’m a Shakespeare major, and what Shakespeare teaches you is that people are not black and white, that there’s just so much more to people, and that’s what makes them so interesting. And what I tried to do as a documentary filmmaker is to go back and try and find out what influenced a person to behave the way that they do. He was so intimidating. If he felt like he could say something that would put you off balance, that would hurt your feelings a little, then he would do that in an effort to gain control over the situation for that immediate moment. But also, he was actually very, very generous in how much he let me be around him.
—Cherry Arnold, producer and director of “Buddy: The Rise and Fall of
America’s Most Notorious Mayor”
[Cianci was] the man who gave us 140-character-or-less populist jeremiads before web 1.0. A shaker and mover of the beehive of industry, whom no sting could stop. Tonight, the sophist ballet leaps along a little more lonesome. There’s a fresh jar of Mayor’s own waiting on the fall.
—the enigmatic figure behind @RealBuddyCianci, one of many Cianci imper
sonation Twitter accounts
In 1992, when AS220 was hoping to own and develop its own building downtown, I approached Buddy, and he was receptive to my ideas in spite of the fact that we had less than a $100,000 annual budget and were living illegally in the building we were in on Richmond Street. He questioned me on our unjuried and uncensored policy and I told him that it meant that even if he was to help us I couldn’t promise that there wouldn’t be content presented that may be critical of him. His response was that it wasn’t his role to be censoring art. AS220 would have never been able to grow into the institution it is today without his unqualified support. Buddy Cianci gave Providence a personality when it had none. AS220, myself, and the city of Providence will forever be indebted to him and I am sure he will live in conscience of the people of Providence for generations to come.
—AS220 founder and artistic director Bert Crenca
I was at the bar at Mediterraneo with my friend and his dad, and Buddy showed up. My friend’s dad was a real estate developer who’d been one of the many developers trying to get Buddy to hire him to redevelop all these of warehouses at the intersection of Atwells and Eagle Street. My friend and I, both RISD students at the time, were challenging him on the eviction of all these artists from these warehouses. I remember him saying, and he was definitely drunk, “Well, there’s some people that have a future in this city and some people who don’t.” Somehow whatever I’d said as a 23-year-old had really pushed a nerve and he was clearly pissed. I was just a grungy artist kid and clearly wasn’t a threat to him, so why bother? That’s just how he was.
—Ian Cozzens, artist
Still, the questions hang in the air. Rape at gunpoint is too serious a charge to ignore, even if the victim who leveled it has long since tried to forget. Cianci himself, who is clearly aware of the story that has been circulating around Providence, has tried privately to stop it, but not publicly to explain it. And so, we’d like to ask once and for all, and on the record: Mayor Cianci, what did transpire that morning of March 2, 1966? It is a question that should be answered, and certainly before the night of November 7, 1978.
—Craig Waters, writing for New Times, July 24, 1978
In the early 1980s there was a club on North Main called Allary’s, it was a jazz club. It’s where Olive’s is now. One night a friend of mine was playing there, Shorty Jackson. I go down there to see Shorty and he’s playing and Buddy’s in there, too. This is just before Buddy was gonna get booted out of office for the first time, so it must’ve been ‘84. He had the face on: he was drinking heavily. Buddy jumped out of the crowd and said he wanted to play the drums. He would jump up on drums at all sorts of places around Providence. Buddy was a really terrible drummer.
—Rudy Cheeks, former Providence Phoenix writer and WHJJ and WHJY radio
Oh yeah, I knew Buddy. I used to date his daughter. He hated me for a while, but we got to be great friends eventually. I’m gonna miss him—he was a criminal, but he was our criminal.
—my landlord, Danny
There’s a law in Rhode Island that limits how large a sign can be, and you have to take them down within 30 days if you violate the law. So Buddy made these giant signs, and put them up 30 days before election day.
He brought charisma to the city. He was a supporter of the arts, a supporter of students, and supporter of teachers… That being said, during the time he was mayor he didn’t always get along with teachers. It’s not like we were all “Buddy buddy” all the time. But he got things done, he was an artful negotiator... As far as his reputation, when I think about him I don’t think about those things. He allegedly did things, he pled guilty to those things, he served his time. I’m not perfect, I don’t believe anyone on this earth is perfect, if you do something wrong and atone for it I believe you deserve another chance.
—Maribeth Reynolds-Calabro, Providence Teachers Union President
There was a documentary called Vote for Me: Politics in America, which I narrated. Buddy calls me up—at this point I’m living in an illegal house in the South Side, which he knows is illegal. But he calls me and says, “bring down the documentary.” I get on the bus right away, go down to City Hall. When I get there he immediately closes the door and whips out a cuban cigar. I put on the VHS and he skips to the segment on him in the documentary. He loves it— he starts buzzing all the people in the office to come watch it too. “We should show this at PPAC [Providence Performing Arts Center],” he says, so he asks me for Louis Alvarez’s phone number. He calls up Louis in New York and next thing you know he’s telling me to call up the union to make sure we can do a discount, calling up PPAC, trying to make sure the venue is free. He was always like that: barking out orders at people right of the top of his head. And people would all jump up and do it.
Buddy? I love him. He was one of my closest friends. You know, the first time he got in trouble, it was because he came home and found his wife with another guy. So he hit him with a log from the fireplace and tried to put his cigar out on his cheek. And you know what? I would’ve done the same thing! I probably would have shot him, because I own guns.
—my Uber driver the other night
[In the 2014 mayoral election] I was pretty adamantly opposed to him being elected. I didn’t think it was his city anymore, I wasn’t convinced by his ideas, and I thought that...he had abused the power that came with the office. But I think for a lot of people, he genuinely made them feel good about this place. He made us feel like we were successful, he was a charismatic, fun character, he was certainly more interesting and entertaining than just about any other politician you’ll ever see—whether he was the most law-abiding or moral, that’s another question, but he was certainly interesting and colorful and people liked that. Look at the success of Donald Trump!...I think a lot of [Buddy’s success in 2014] was nostalgia, too. We’re kind of in a post-Renaissance—I think we’re searching for what our identity is right now. We don’t feel like a place that’s on the way up, we kind of feel like a place that’s stagnant right now. And I think maybe people wanted more of that, wanted some of that renaissance on-the-way-up feeling. And Buddy represented that.
He came to the restaurant I used to work at, Mediterraneo, almost every day. He used to smoke a cigar, obviously, in the non-smoking section. We’d have customers complain, “Why is he allowed to smoke his cigar inside?” and we’d just say: “he’s our mayor.”
—Waiter at Caffe Dolce Vit