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David Cicilline: Mayor of Providence

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From Yankee Magazine March 2005

THWAP! David Cicilline, the mayor of Providence, Rhode Island, drives a gloved fist into his sparring partner’s gut. SMACK! WAP! BAP!

A pair of red Everlasts flashes in the dim early-morning light. Twice a week, Cicilline begins his day in a boxing ring, channeling the pent-up frustration of governing this rambunctious city through short bursts of fury. It drains away the tension that accumulates during the endless days of picketing firefighters and squabbling city councilors, not enough money, and problems that defy easy solutions: poverty and underachieving schools, unplowed streets, and angry taxpayers. POP! THUMP! POP!

Gasping for breath, the mayor throws a left, a right, another left. The sharp crack of each punch reverberates through the dusty gym. At 43, his upper arms are thick and powerful from weight training. He wears baggy gray shorts and a white tank top. Posters of old fighters and bygone fights line the walls. Heavy punching bags dangle from the ceiling on chains, like sides of beef in a slaughterhouse. The gym, a second-floor walk-up in the old Italian neighborhood of Silver Lake, belongs to Tiger Ballelto, a local lightweight contender who also runs a construction business. Tiger took his nickname from his grandfather, a reputed mobster with a violent past who was gunned down at the Bella Napoli Cafe in 1955 in front of several witnesses who didn’t see a thing, this being Providence, the onetime capital of the New England Mafia.

Cicilline grew up in this neighborhood of tenements, churches, and social clubs, an incubator not only of mobsters and solid working-class folk who lived the American dream, but also of politicians from the legendary John O. Pastore, the first Italian American elected to the United States Senate, to Cicilline’s predecessor at city hall, Buddy Cianci, the maestro of the Providence renaissance until a federal corruption probe landed him behind bars.

Like his changing city, though, Cicilline does not fit the traditional profile of an ethnic pol. If Silver Lake is becoming more Latino, then Cicilline — who speaks some Spanish — represents a new generation of politician, a mayor who was elected with significant support from the growing Latino community. If Providence is more multicultural — an ethnic stew spiced with arts and culture, a renaissance city with a vibrant gay community — then Cicilline has all the demographic bases covered. He is the half-Jewish, half-Italian, openly gay son of a mob lawyer. He graduated from Brown University, where he, John Kennedy Jr., and William Mondale (son of former vice president Walter Mondale) organized a College Democrats chapter, and he has a future in national Democratic politics. Some note that David Nicola Cicilline’s initials spell DNC.

Cicilline goes eight rounds this morning, tbree minutes apiece. In between, he leans back against the ropes, sweat glistening on his skin and soaking his tank top. Midway through the workout, Andrew Annaldo, chairman of the city board of licenses, comes in and begins stretching. The two men swap stories about politics. Annaldo had been up at the State House the night before, where one of the hot topics was the comeback bid of a former House speaker, John Harwood, whose downfall offered a cautionary tale about power and hubris, including allegations from a female aide about oral sex.

“Did you hear where John Harwood says he wants to restore decorum to the State House?” says Cicilline, smiling and shaking his head. “This is a guy who was getting sex in the basement. Unbelievable! Only in Rhode Island.”

Cicilline and Annaldo lament that there are legislators who, a few years after turning the speaker out, now seem to yearn for his strong hand again.

“Even if it’s not ethical or moral, there’s a comfort and a certainty,” Cicilline reflects.

“People want to be led,” Annaldo agrees.

Nobody understands that better than Cicilline. In attempting to lift Providence out of a financial abyss and transform it into a city that works for everyone — not just those with connections — he shadowboxes daily with the ghost of Buddy Cianci.

Cianci may be sitting in a prison cell in Fort Dix, New Jersey, having been convicted of racketeering conspiracy, but he remains a cult figure in Providence — the irrepressible schmoozer who took over a dying factory town in 1975 and, by the time he departed city hall for Fort Dix in 2002, saw Providence transformed into a trendy destination spot for Boston yuppies, Hollywood filmmakers, college kids, gays, artists, empty nesters, and tourists who came for the fine restaurants and the sense of history in the city’s wonderfully preserved architecture. The piece de resistance is downtown. Rivers were moved, railroad tracks relocated, Venetian gondolas imported, WaterFire (a public art installation with some 100 bonfires along the downtown waterways accompanied by music) launched, a skating rink and shopping mall constructed, and historic buildings renovated into residential lofts.

That Cianci, a former mob prosecutor and anticorruption candidate, helped accomplish all this despite being turned out of office for six years in the 1980s following a felony assault conviction (an ugly episode in which he accosted a man he suspected of sleeping with his wife) only added to his legend.

The fact that 30 people were indicted or went to prison for corruption during Cianci’s first administration raised few eyebrows. This was Providence, after all, the capital of a state that at the turn of the century was described by muckraker Lincoln Steffens as “a state for sale, and cheap.” Voters preferred to see in Cianci’s 1990 comeback the themes of hope and redemption that had inspired Roger Williams to found Providence in 1636 after he was banished from the Massachusetts Bay colony for his heretical beliefs.

Cianci pledged to make the most of his second chance. And through most of the 1990s, it seemed that he had fulfilled his and Providence’s — promise. Cianci became a national urban messiah; he was a frequent guest on Don Imus’s radio show, developed his own marinara sauce (Imus joked that it contained thumbs), received an honorary Tony Award, and earned a Screen Actors Guild card for playing himself on the hit TV series Providence. His reach at times exceeded his grasp. Returning from a mayors’ conference in San Francisco, he ordered his longsuffering economic development director to create a Chinatown in Providence. “I want pagodas!” he declared. People loved his vision, and his flamboyance. He was the longest running lounge act in American politics, squired around his city in a police-chauffeured limousine, a cigarette in one hand, a drink in the other. Drink vodka during a campaign, he told an aide; the voters can’t smell it on your breath.

But in 1998, the feds came sniffing around city hall once more. The FBI wired a local businessman and he spent a year meeting with Cianci associates, learning the language of bribery, and passing envelopes of cash to, among others, the mayor’s top aide and chief fund-raiser. A crooked tax official passed on advice he said he had received from Cianci: “Never talk on the phone, never get a check, but get cash when you’re one-on-one.î The probe, dubbed Operation Plunder Dome, resulted in a 30-count racketeering indictment against the mayor and several associates. After a six-week trial, the prosecution and the defense summed up their contrasting views of Cianci. The feds accused him of running “a city for sale.” The defense evoked the New Providence and depicted Buddy as a builder, not a destroyer. The jury then convicted Cianci of a single count — racketeering conspiracy — while acquitting him of the rest of the charges. One juror said later that Cianci knew about it but insulated himself, like a mob boss. The judge sentenced Cianci to five years and four months in prison.

Cianci’s conviction in 2002 scrambled that fall’s mayoral election. Until the jury’s verdict, David Cicilline had been the only major candidate who dared step into the ring against Buddy. Born on the South Side of Providence and raised in Silver Lake and Narragansett, Cicilline was politically astute from an early age. His father, Jack, a bright, idealistic lawyer, was the policy director for Providence mayor Joseph Doorley in the 1960s before becoming one of New England’s best known organized-crime lawyers. He befriended clients like New England mob boss Raymond L. S. Patriarca — an invitation for trouble as he discovered when the feds charged him with conspiring to arrange false testimony on behalf of another mobster. (A jury subsequently acquitted him.)

David Cicilline met Patriarca and other mobsters growing up, but it wasn’t his life. As a teenager in Narragansett, he would ask his parents to drop him off at meetings of the school committee and town council. In high school, he petitioned the school committee to offer Italian, citing an obscure state law. He went to Brown and then on to law school at Georgetown University, worked briefly in the Washington, D.C., public defender’s office, then returned home to open his own criminal-defense practice. He represented a lot of drug dealers and also handled a number of pro bono civil rights cases. Business was so good that he was able to live on the wealthy East Side and drive a Porsche and a Rolls-Royce. He was elected a state representative in 1994, carving out liberal positions on civil rights, abortion, gay rights, and gun control.

Even with Cianci at the height of his popularity, Cicilline was thinking about running for mayor. Cicilline had represented voters who, because of Cianci’s felony conviction, had challenged his right to return to office after the 1990 election — a case that went to the Rhode Island Supreme Court. In the late 1990s, Chicago-born Matthew Jerzyk, a student at Brown, discovered Cicilline’s zeal after Jerzyk photographed some Providence cops forcibly shoving a handcuffed suspect into a parked car and was arrested himself. Cicilline, who represented him pro bono, told Jerzyk that what had happened to him happened to poor people in Providence every day. “Stay in Providence and help me change things,” he said.

Cicilline organized his campaign for mayor more than a year before Cianci was convicted, when the oddsmakers figured Buddy would be tough to beat — in court and at the polls. Cicilline braced himself for a bare-knuckles fight. Cicilline declines even today to talk about some of the things he says Cianci said to him privately when they would meet on the campaign trail.

With Cicilline out of the closet and a gay community representing a significant voting bloc, the politically astute Cianci flew the rainbow flag over city hall, championed gay rights, and served as marshal of the Gay Pride parade. Joked Cicilline, “He spends more time in gay bars than me.”

Then, two days before the June filing deadline for the 2002 election, Cianci was convicted. Thirteen people who had waited in the wings rushed to city hall to file their papers. In September, Cicilline convincingly won a four-way Democratic primary and cruised to victory in November. Cicilline had vowed to put an end to corruption and cronyism, to give Providence a fresh start. Although he didn’t emphasize the fact that Providence (population 176,000) was now the largest city in the country with an openly gay mayor, the doubts began immediately, fueled by what one aide calls “the testosterone of Providence politics.” Cicilline was a nice guy, the naysayers said, but was he tough enough?

But Cicilline was comfortable enough in his own skin to lampoon the sexual stereotypes. Shortly after taking office, he was the mystery guest at the Providence Newspaper Guild Follies, a large, formal gathering of Rhode Island’s political elite, sashaying onstage in a flowing white fur coat, flanked by two bare-chested male “aides.” Having removed Cianci’s wet bar from the mayor’s office, Cicilline joked that visitors could now have “tea with a queen.”

A few hours after his sparring session, Cicilline sits in his office, refreshed in a dark suit with a blue-and-white-striped shirt and yellow floral tie.

He likens his job to “trying to rebuild an airplane in flight.”

“I underestimated the resistance of many to changing the culture of government,” he says. “Clearly, the system was broken. But change is difficult. People get comfortable. People come to me who are behind on their taxes and say, ‘Can’t you just take care of this?’ I explain the process, how you have to file a petition with the tax board. They look at me and say, ‘In the past, I got it taken care of.’ “

Cicilline tells a story about a local nightclub owner who came to see him to complain that the cops were hurting his business by checking for underage drinkers. He wanted the inspections to stop. When Cicilline made it clear that there were rules that had to be followed, the man snapped, “Everybody has underage drinking.” Then, pausing at the door before he stormed out, the club owner said, “Ya know, the other guy woulda taken care of it.”

If his approach alienates some, Cicilline believes it is the path to transforming Providence into a city that works for everybody. He trumpets the accomplishments of his first two years in office. A leaner, more efficient government that relies on computer data and strong department chiefs instead of stand-up guys. A more honest and professional police department that has increased neighborhood foot patrols. A groundbreaking agreement with Brown, the Rhode Island School of Design, and two other tax-exempt colleges in which the city will receive $50 million over the next two decades for services it provides. Precedent-setting labor agreements with the teachers and city employees to share health care costs. Billions of dollars in new development, including the corporate headquarters for world lottery giant GTech, whose leaders told Cicilline they wouldn’t have picked Providence if Cianci were still in charge.

Cicilline stays resolutely on message, yet it rankles him to hear people reminisce about the good old days when Cianci was mayor. Cianci may have run the city out of a cigar box, but he was never dull.

“The people didn’t elect me to be a showman,” says Cicilline. “People liked the entertainment, but at this point in our history we need a leader, not a joker. What we’re doing lacks flash, but it’s setting the foundation for a stronger city.”

But without bread and circuses to distract them, the natives at times grow rest less. There is no witty repartee with Imus to divert them from the troubled schools, the grinding poverty in neighborhoods untouched by the renaissance, the huge deficits that Cianci left behind, the tax hikes that Cicilline has been forced to impose to help balance the books. Feuds with the city council and the firefighters’ union have generated criticism that Cicilline lacks Cianci’s deft touch, that he and many of his top aides embody an arrogant breed of the “best and the brightest,” wealthy East Siders known as the “02906ers” for their zip code.

Matt Jerzyk, who followed Cicilline’s advice and stayed in Providence, where he lives on the poorer South Side, helped coordinate the Latino registration drive that was instrumental in Cicilline’s election. But later he voiced disappointment in Cicilline, from a feeling that the mayor hadn’t doled out enough patronage to the Latino community that helped elect him to a sense of betrayal over safeguarding the working poor in the controversial rehabilitation of an aging mill complex. After Jerzyk printed a newsletter that criticized Cicilline for letting down the neighborhood, an angry mayor confronted him at a political function one evening, telling him that he didn’t understand.

Riding around Providence in the mayor’s black Lincoln Town Car a few months after his sparring session, Cicilline agrees that he had been angry with Jerzyk.

The criticism, he says, showed “a fundamental lack of understanding of the function of government. A lot of good stuff came out of that project, thanks to the community activists. But you don’t get to impose stuff on people. You have to build consensus.”

Cicilline and Jerzyk have since reconciled and even worked together on several new policy issues. Jerzyk says the two have agreed to disagree on other issues.

On this warm and sunny day, Cicilline makes the mayor’s endless rounds. He talks to business leaders about fiscal responsibility and to callers on a talk radio show about garbage, rats, and taxes. Shortly before noon, the mayor visits an elderly housing high-rise. These are usually feel-good occasions, kissing the old ladies who ask after his grandmother, telling them about the gnocchi he ate for dinner last night. But on this day, the seniors are upset. The owner of their building isn’t keeping the place up. Neighborhood teens are terrorizing them, throwing rocks. Sitting in the back of his car afterward, Cicilline seems distressed. “That’s such an unhappy place,” he says.

Early that evening, Cicilline returns to the neighborhood with a police lieutenant and knocks on the doors of squalid apartments, searching for the rock-throwing teens. Two black women do a double take when the mayor appears on their doorstep.

“I feel important,” one squeals. Exclaims another, “I thought you were going to present us with a big check.”

“Yes, Publishers Clearing House,” jokes Cicilline. Turning serious, he asks them to talk to their children. “I’ve been a defense lawyer,” he tells them gently, “and I don’t want to see your children arrested and in the juvenile justice system.”

Outside the next apartment, a vicious pit bull strains at a chain anchored to a stake, snapping his jaws just a few feet from the mayor. Unfazed, Cicilline walks past and knocks on the door. “That’s a mean dog!” he exclaims as the father opens the door.

Nobody fesses up to knowing the boys in question, and the mayor is directed back to the apartment from which he came. Cicilline delivers a pep talk about how we all have to live together, then departs into the gathering gloom.

Three and a half centuries ago, when Roger Williams’s “lively experiment” in democracy and religious tolerance threatened to descend into anarchy, he wrote a letter “To the Town of Providence” in which he compared a commonwealth to a ship at sea. The passengers — “papists and protestants, Jews and Turks” — might be free to pursue their own beliefs, but when it came to the common good, everyone had to “pay their freight.”

“This is a gamble,” says Cicilline of his efforts to transform Providence. “Because it would be easy enough to simply do favors, forget merit, give fat union contracts. Cianci acted tough, but he gave away the store. Some of the old guard are leaving. Others are digging their heels in, waiting to see if they can survive me.”

But Cicilline, whose approval ratings remain high, figures to be around for a second term. (The next election is in 2006.) He predicts that he’ll be able to accomplish more in the first six months because “it means we’re here to stay.”

“There will always be die-hard Cianci supporters. A lot of great things happened in the last 20 years, but a lot of people deserve the credit. I was elected to change the culture. If I haven’t shown in 3-1/2, years that I can do that, then the experiment has failed. In the end, if I don’t demonstrate improvement in the quality of life in Providence, then I don’t deserve to be mayor.”

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Click below for a comparison between Cianci and Cicilline:

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