Everyone in the state — and beyond — has a story of an encounter with “The Mayor.” I do, too, but it is not any grand tale. I listened to his radio show and heard one of those rare politicians with innate skills also carefully honed over decades. He was the rare and genuine “natural,” his casual banter lapsing only in isolated split seconds, revealing the Dark Prince of legend, with tell-tale unpolished, incorrect grammar. It would disappear quickly, a passing ghost that made me start, wondering “did anyone else hear that 'he don't'?” Then he was back, impressing me as he always did, not with his tales of celebrity or his quick wit, but with his extraordinary grasp of the operations of municipalities on every level, administration, finance, and public works and, beyond the mechanics, the PR and its very real role in getting anything done. He knew his stuff.
That was the sort of moment I had, first-hand, in August 1997, while Mayor Cianci worked the crowds at the Block Island Airport awaiting the arrival of then-President Bill Clinton and his family. It was the rare day that would not belong to Buddy, but he was not going to let that little detail stop him, dressed in a suit and tie in the sweltering heat, the consummate pol. “Was he even mayor in 1997?” I have to stop and think then, as I realize he was, I also acknowledge it was of no matter. We live in a City-State and he was, love him or — as many did — hate him, in office or not, always Rhode Island’s Mayor.
That day while we were milling around I came into his orbit. I was introduced as the Second Warden. I heard someone comment that the First Warden was like the mayor and felt the need to intervene. “Not really... ” I began my usual protest, wading into a morass of history and law. Buddy was having none of that; he cut to the chase with his signature staccato approach “Does the First Warden appoint the Police Chief, the Fire Chief?" — no point in talking about our fine volunteers, the Buddy Train had left the station — "Does the First Warden...?” all the concise questions of someone who knows his topic.
“No,” he said without hesitation, “that's not like a mayor.” He had me, not by his wit or charm, but his laser understanding, the same I would hear over and over on the radio years later as he tried to explain debt ceilings and labor relations and whatever was the topic of the day. His “been there, done that, have the t-shirt” was more than a catch phrase, it was true. Never mind that some of his fiscal policies and labor decisions, made in a different era, hound us today, morphed into monsters as times changed.
Even in little Rhode Island, talk radio is filled with the bravado of people who insist “well, if I were in office... ” and anyone who has been there wants to say, “Oh, bucko, were it that easy it would have been done years ago!” Buddy took the calls and he was — generally — gracious, but he did not suffer fools. He offered a civics lesson most afternoons, there on the airwaves, free for the listening.
There were times I waited to hear his take on some craziness, be it in the State House or among the wannabes who didn't actually want to be quite enough to put their own names on the ballot.
Yes, he unashamedly promoted his friends, from Federal Hill to Block Island; some summer days I would hear him broadcasting from the porch of the Spring House. A young man paused on his way up the hill, he and his horse looking as though they had just emerged from the surf, and I thought, “this is going to be good!” and Buddy did not disappoint.
Don Imus called Cianci the “thug mayor” and, for it, was welcomed to broadcast from Providence. Buddy knew he would have a national audience, a chance to promote his city and nothing would stand in his way. When asked the population of Providence, he gave an answer that sounded like a joke but carried more truth than most mayors will admit: “Depends on the grant we're applying for!”
He readily acknowledged it took all the talent he could hire to bring about changes in Providence, the ones that let his criminal convictions take second place to his reputation as the “Mayor who moved rivers.”
A friend conversant with Rhode Island politics told me this last mayoral race was not to be won by Cianci, and why, an assessment that was proven true when the final results were tallied. He did not get that one last chance to do it right, without the human imperfection that plagued and ultimately ended his others terms.
Still, a working Rhode Island musician who knew the capitol city "Before Buddy" may have put it best: “Like him and his ways or not, the Providence of today would not be if not for him... he was an interesting man and sometimes frustrating. I dealt with him for music events on many occasions during the 90s... he had the vision... he supported the arts... he was involved... no mayor since has done anything like him. Sure, he was very imperfect, but he made it happen.”
Like so many others he suggested for a memorial appropriation of the epitaph on the gravestone of another native son, author H. P. Lovecraft: “I Am Providence.”
If only we could all love and believe in our towns as Buddy Cianci did his.