Vincent Albert “Buddy” Cianci, Jr. was first elected as Mayor of Providence in 1974. After a total of 21 years in office over the course of six terms, he became the city’s longest serving mayor. He’s currently running for a seventh term as an independent candidate. He recently sat down with BPR’s Alex Abuaita and Naomi Chasek-Macfoy.
BPR: What do you think is the single most important issue in this race? Why does it matter to you?
Buddy Cianci: The single most important issue is, in my opinion, is jobs. When I talk to voters, whether it’s a single mother struggling to make ends meet, or a recent college graduate, they all say they need a job. And I’ve seen our economic climate get worse and worse, really since I left office. Higher taxes, vacant buildings, an unemployment rate that’s almost twice what it was when I was in office. I think I know how to bring jobs to Providence, and that’s the leadership the city needs. Did it before, can do it again.
BPR: All of the mayoral candidates agree that there must be education reform in Providence, what specifically would you do for schools here that your opponents wouldn’t?
BC: My opponents and I agree that we should give more autonomy to principals and teachers so they can be effective leaders. But we disagree on the role of technical schools and apprenticeships and English language learners. I think technical schools are an important part of our city. Not all students need or want to go to college and our schools need to be effective for those students, and what I really want to do is strengthen the guidance that kids get in school from the beginning, when they’re in elementary school, and then on to middle school, because you’ll find out that a lot of these students, a lot of these kids, if you can find out what they really want to do when they’re younger, what they have an interest in, you can guide them better. I met four recent college graduates a week or two ago. They were about 22, 23 years old. I asked them what they did. One of them had a job, the other three didn’t. But it fascinated me that they each had $100,000 or more of debt. I think we ought to have better guidance: Find out what a kid really wants to do, and then teach them the subjects they have to have, but by the 11th grade or so partner them up with an industry, get them an apprenticeship. If he or she wants to be a nurse, partner up with Rhode Island Hospital, for example. At least these young people when they get out of high school have a job that pays them 30 bucks an hour, and no debt. And if they want to pursue their education after, that’s fine. I would also create a second Classical High School, to meet the demands, because right now 1,200 students take the exam to get into Classical and only 300 get in. And I want to see if we can expand that to 500 students a year, but I know there are problems with that, because there’s a school moratorium by the state on school spending as far as construction’s concerned, but we’d have to work to build the economy to get that moratorium taken away, or relieved.
BPR: Providence is diverse, racially, ethnically, socioeconomically, and I’m wondering, if elected, how the makeup of your administration will reflect that diversity.
BC: My record speaks for itself. When I became mayor I integrated many of the departments in the city government. I was the first mayor, I believe, to appoint Latinos; I appointed the first Latino judge in the state. Our city’s diversity means that we have diverse entrepreneurs, diverse students and diverse community leaders, and our government needs to harness that diversity. That’s where we get our strength from. And that’s why I’ll actively recruit a more diverse police force. We’ll help diversify our teachers to reflect the diversity in our schools. Also, you’re talking about socioeconomic advancement, I don’t know if you’ve seen the plan that we’ve developed for Broad Street and the South side, to make it a booming neighborhood? You know, it’s a bustling commercial strip and we want to reinvent the infrastructure there and street fixtures and provide loans to businesses for storefront improvements as we did on Federal Hill and other places. So my record of achievement in recognizing minorities is very well known and very well received by the minority community. And in the future, we’ll just continue the programs we have, and expand upon them.
BPR: After being Mayor of Providence for 21 years, why do you think it’s time to run again? What’s different about Providence this time around? And what’s the same?
BC: I look around the city that I love very much and I have a lot of time invested in making sure our city changed dramatically. You probably don’t remember what the city of Providence was like in the ‘70s. A lot of people had moved out, all that was left in the city was an increasing number of minorities, or an increasing number of the elderly and minorities. Unemployment was high. The reason I’m running is because schools are underperforming, people don’t feel safe on our streets, I think that taxes are too high. And I still have that passion and enthusiasm and vigor to replicate the Providence renaissance that we had in the 1990s. I remember when Money Magazine said it was one of the five best cities in the country to live in, and USA Today called it one of the five Renaissance cities. In 1994, one of those years, we were the safest city in America, according to All Cities Almanac. We were very active in building projects and convention centers and saving the performing arts center and embracing the arts that made that part of the economy, creating the film industry in the state. I organized a film commission. All those things make a big difference in putting people back to work. You asked me, the first question, what’s the biggest issue? Jobs.
BPR: What do you think specifically happened between your tenure and now?
BC: We’ve had a decade of decline. You don’t have to ask me that question, ask the people. In a recent poll that just came out from WPRI, almost 2 to 1, people think that the city’s moving in the wrong direction. If you do other polls, you’ll find out that most people think that the city was run better under my administration than it is now. Look, this election is about the future and it’s about stories. I mean, I walk around the city and I meet people. I look at a single mother trying to send her kid to school and wondering why he goes to an underperforming school. I see a guy trying to support a family, he can’t get a job. Those are the things that need to be addressed in this city, and that’s what’s happened in the last ten years. And frankly, you’re going to get the same thing with the newly formed coalition between the two previous mayors and the present candidate. They don’t want to talk about the past, because they’ve had a record of decline in this city. The only past they want to talk about is mine, when I want to talk about the vision I have for the future of the city of Providence.
BPR: You’ve acknowledged that this race for mayor of Providence comes with a certain amount of “baggage,” specifically your time in prison. How do you think this affects voters and your campaign?
BC: I think it’s no new news that I went to prison. I was convicted of one charge of a conspiracy, never was convicted of taking of any money, or anything like that. And, when I talk to voters, they don’t ask me about that. They know that history. That’s not earth-shaking. There are enough people who are willing to say, “Hey, listen, the city ran better when he was mayor, I have more confidence it will run better under his leadership.” And if I’ve caused this city any trouble, or any embarrassment or any shame, I certainly apologize for that. But I did my time, I’ve always proclaimed my innocence, by the way, but in this system, when you get convicted of something, you do the time and you pay the price. And I did that. I’ve rebuilt my life. The law says I can run, and I’m going to run and there are enough people out there who understand that. Everybody in life has been affected by adversity. I’m over 70 years old. I think I’ve become wiser, I even learned from the prison experience! You don’t sit there for four years without wondering what you could have done different, or how you could be better. And by the way, I’m the most vetted candidate in America. So, people know who I am. There’s no mystery as to who I am. And we’re supposedly leading in the polls, so people know that, and they know that about me. You take the whole person. You don’t take one instance that might have happened, where you might have tripped and made a mistake. I hope they remember that we recaptured retail in this city in one generation. We created a platform for WaterFire. That’s what I think people look at, they look at who can get the job done. This is not the time for on-the-job training.
BPR: What role do you think the mayor has in setting the ethical tone for a city?
BC: An awful lot. That’s why I’ll be proposing that we set up an inspector general’s office in the city of Providence. There are thousands of people who work in the city of Providence and there are thousands of people who work for the state. You’re going to find bad apples. All you can be is vigilant and strong about making sure that the right people do the right jobs. I’m not in this thing, by the way, to run for governor or senator or anything like that. I’m over 70, and frankly the last two mayors couldn’t wait to get the heck out of there. And the first mayor, Cicilline, he left the city with $110 million structural deficit. And that’s one of the reasons we have big problems now. I’m not chastising Mayor Taveras, but I’m saying he couldn’t do very much with the kind of debt he was saddled with when he came in. He couldn’t wait to get out of there to run for governor. I’m not going to run for governor or senator. This is it for me.
BPR: In this interview, and often in the media, your campaign speaks to how much good you brought to Providence in your past terms as mayor. What accomplishment specifically are you most proud of?
BC: I could point to the mall, I could point to relocating the rivers, embracing historic preservation, establishing the first arts district in the country, where artists don’t pay taxes if they live in a certain district. I could talk about all those things, but I’ll tell you the one major contribution that I think my administration and I made to the city, it always comes to mind in my head, and that is that we took the city and we raised the self-esteem of the citizens of the city of Providence to levels they never thought they could achieve. They were proud to come from this city. That’s not the case now.
BPR: You’ve been out of politics since the early 2000s, and the bulk of your political experience occurred during the last century. I’m wondering, how do you think your skills might transfer in a changing city and in a changing environment?
BC: I’m going to listen to the expertise about the issues, as I did in the past. My skills transfer. This new fellow who wants to be major, he doesn’t have a clue. He’s never led anything. He can tell you a vision of what he wants but he doesn’t know how to get there. I know how to cut waste from the budget and start fighting for our fair share of local aid. I know that a mayor has to be mayor for all people. I was the first mayor, I think in America but certainly Rhode Island, to recognize gay equality. And I’m the first mayor that ever gave domestic partners medical coverage if they worked for the City of Providence.
BPR: Switching gears a little bit, some fun questions: Why do you go by Buddy?
BC: I guess you better ask my parents that question. I guess, that was a popular name when I was born, Buddy. And so it stuck. I have the same name as my father so instead of calling us the same thing I guess the name Buddy was used. But that’s a mystery, I don’t know why. But every time I went to a place, I used to play that song “My Buddy” and I find out that I thought it was some very sentimental song, “My Buddy” about a guy. I think it was written about a guy’s dog that died. You know the song, “My Buddy”? So I think it was written about a guy’s dog that died.
BPR: In your past tenure as Mayor, your toupee was adored by the people of Providence and they even gave it a nickname called, “The Squirrel”.
BC: Oh I called it that! I’m the one that named it “The Squirrel.” I call it that, it’s my pet. [laughs]
BPR: Why? And what happened to it?
BC: Well, you know I decided not to wear it anymore because you know what you see is what you get with me. You know everything about me, so I don’t wear toupees anymore. That’s a thing of the past. More transparency. You know, I’m not vain. I don’t really care but by the way, everyone says I look better without it! Maybe I should’ve gotten rid of it a long time ago. Maybe I shouldn’t have had it in the first place! [laughs]
BPR: We want to give you an opportunity to speak about anything else we haven’t talked about or say anything, especially in terms to the Brown Community that’ll be reading this.
BC: Yeah, I’ve got a great relationship with the Brown community. I always have. And I’ve met a lot of the students along the way. They worked in my office when I was mayor, so many of them over the years. Established great relationships, in fact some of them still write to me or call me, especially when I announced I was running again. I remember one great story. You want to hear a great story about Brown football? That was the year they won, or I think they tied for the Ivy League championship. Don’t ask me the year because I don’t remember it, I think maybe the 90’s. And that night I was at the game and I was cheering and I was happy because I always go to the Brown football games. But I can tell you that I got a call, someone from the police department who said, “Mayor. The Brown Security wants to arrest some students for tearing down the Brown goal post.” I said, “what are they crazy?” That’s a great thing. You know, a celebration. What the heck, they won the Ivy League championship. And so I said, “well have the dean call me,” because the dean was pressing for Brown Security to arrest these kids and to have the city process them. Brown wanted to pass them on to us and arrest them for destroying property. I don’t know, I think they said the goal post was worth a few thousand dollars. So I call the dean back and I say, “you know I just checked the tax records and I found out that the goal post is assessed at zero”. I have all those kinds of stories about Brown. I’ll never forget another time when students had taken the side of the library workers at Brown. It was way back and I think they laid in the street or something blocking traffic. Whatever they did, you know, there were students supporting library workers who were making not a lot of money. The police arrested them. And this, I don’t know probably was a month before the close of the school year and their lawyer who will remain nameless but he eventually became a judge and now he’s retired, but he represented all the students and I was speaking to the president of the university at the time and it’s too bad that this had to happen because these young people are probably going to go to court and get convicted for loitering or whatever it was, trespassing, I don’t know what the heck it was but it was a misdemeanor. So I said, “oh why don’t we wait until after July 4th or something?” We can resolve the cases with a warning or a dismissal so it doesn’t go on their records so these young people can go to graduate school or go into whatever like business and jobs. I said, “they don’t need this on their record because you know, they took a stand and it was a civil disobedience thing. Why don’t they just have to write letters about why they laid down in front of a truck or something?” So I said okay, “I’m gonna have the cases minimized”. So I remember calling the lawyer to tell him that and he said, “Oh no! We want a trial.” I said, “what? We want to dismiss the cases. What do you want a trial for?” He wanted to stir up some rights or something, I don’t know. And so they ended up getting it put on their record unfortunately.
By the way, if it wasn’t for Brown University the city wouldn’t be what it is. Brown University is a great institution and it adds tremendously to the cultural fabric of the city. And it gives a great deal of prestige to the City of Providence and it’s because of the students there too. There are no dumbbells that go to Brown. So you gotta be pretty far up there in the food chain to go to Brown. [laughs] So it’s a lot of stimulus for us in the city.