I’m a little late in posting this. But I think it’s colorful enough to still enjoy. In the wake of Eliot Spitzer’s resignation last week, I called one of New England’s more intriguing political figures.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once famously said “there are no second acts in American lives.”
Fitzgerald never met Vincent “Buddy” Cianci was the larger than life former mayor of Providence, Rhode Island not once, but twice. Cianci’s first 9 consecutive years in office came to an end after his resignation in 1984 after he plead no contest to charges that he assaulted his estranged wife’s paramour. Cianci came back as mayor in 1990 having won a rousing election campaign. He lead Providence for another twelve years, helping to revitalize downtown Providence and making it one of America’s comeback communities, all until being convicted on one count of racketeering conspiracy, out of an indictment that originally carried 30 counts. He resigned and completed four and a half years in federal prison. Since last May, he has been back in the limelight in Providence, hosting a highly-rated radio talk show on WPRO appearing as a political analyst on the city’s ABC television affiliate.
If any politician in American can help the disgraced former governor of New York, Eliot Spitzer, find a way to rebuild his life and reputation, it’s Cianci.
Cianci is quick to distinguish his case from Mr. Spitzer’s. First, he says, he fought prosecutors tooth-and-nail on the charges against him, ultimately being convicted on only one of a slew of charges against him. Second, he always maintained a significant portion of his popularity in Providence: “I was mayor for 22 years and I’ve been to ever bar mitzvah and every first communion and every wake. I became part of the fabric of the city.” Third, he points out, he never portrayed himself as a moral paragon as Mr. Spitzer did.
Of the events that lead to his first comeback, Cianci says, “the first thing … a guy was fooling around with my wife and I gave him a couple slaps. It’s a lot different.” Of the charges that lead to the second, he says “I was found not guilty of all the predicate acts but guilty on the conspiracy.” All this, he emphasizes, is different than being linked to prostitution, particularly for a politician who made a name prosecuting others. “When you fall from grace, it’s a lot more difficult to come back.”
The first shock Mr. Spitzer will have to overcome, Cianci says, is the adjustment after years of being an elected official to returning to life as an ordinary citizen. “This guy’s going to go through some tough time when he wakes up and finds he doesn’t have the trappings of office,” Cianci says.
Another obstacle Mr. Spitzer faces, according to Cianci, is the possibility that legal charges could be brought against him. “He’s lucky he’s rich,” Cianci says, noting the financial cost of protracted court fights.
Despite the differences he cites, Cianci talked about the pain of a draining legal battle and prison sentence. “I went to work every day after court,” he says. “But it does take a toll on you. You have to have a lot of testicular fortitude to go through that.”
Surviving prison, he says, was a challenge. “It’s boring. It’s not a pleasant place to be,” he says. “The first six months I was there, I worked in the kitchen mopping floors. Then I got a job in the library.” Through it all, he took things “one day at a time.”
Before Mr. Spitzer or anyone else reclaims his public image, he must restore his relationships with his family and his own psyche, Cianci says. “You have to reach down into your soul and believe in yourself and have tremendous self-confidence,” he says.
Cianci’s come back has been helped that his gift of gab is coupled with a roguish but inherently likable personality, which, of course, is one recipe for a successful talk show host. Cianci has shown up on the airwaves after both instances of downfall. It’s hard to imagine the often-dour Mr. Spitzer jousting with work-a-day callers on the airwaves. Still, it’s possible to envision Mr. Spitzer some day down the line teaching or writing after the passions of the moment subside.
Today Cianci’s reputation is revived to the point where he gives talks across New England on urban redevelopment and appears as a public personality at local festivities. On Sunday, he introduced a series of Irish singers at the Providence Performing Arts Center. Later Tuesday, he spoke at Brown University, to tell his story to students as well as members of the public.
His may not be the recommended career path, but Cianci’s life offers Ivy League students and alums a Phd. in come backs. It’s one talk that would be of use to a Harvard Law School graduate, class of 1984.