Cianci says he wrote memoir to set record straight

AP News
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Posted: Mar 12, 2011 1:20 PM
Cianci says he wrote memoir to set record straight

Former Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci is the ultimate political phoenix: a rising star in the national Republican Party cast out of the mayor's office twice _ once amid a felony conviction and years later a federal corruption probe _ only to emerge from years in prison and return to prominence as a radio talk show host each time.

Cianci's new memoir, "Politics and Pasta: How I Prosecuted Mobsters, Rebuilt a Dying City, Dined with Sinatra, Spent Five Years in a Federally Funded Gated Community, and Lived to Tell the Tale," written with David Fisher is due out Tuesday. In it, Cianci looks back at his life and details his 21-year career in the mayor's office _ which made him one of the longest-serving big-city mayors in U.S. history. Cianci says he was motivated to write it, in part, to straighten out the record.

"The city of Providence was my passion. It was my life," he told The Associated Press. "There was this myth about all of these things that happened. ... I just wanted to tell my side and let people decide for themselves."

Cianci (pronounced see-AN'-see) was a mob-busting state prosecutor when first elected in 1974. It was an improbable win for a Republican in Rhode Island's run down and heavily Democratic capital city in a year when the Watergate scandal was hurting Republicans across the country. He spent the next 10 years working to revive the city, but in 1984 was forced out of office after receiving a five-year suspended sentence for assaulting a man he suspected of having an affair with his estranged wife.

Among the weapons he was accused of wielding was a fireplace log. He points out in his book and in an interview that he never hit the man with it _ although admits to throwing a lit cigarette, lighter and ashtray in his general direction.

Six years later, Cianci made a successful run for the office again and stayed there until 2002, when he was convicted in a federal investigation into widespread corruption in his administration.

Along the way, he became deeply associated with the city as he pushed for preservation of historic buildings, a reopening of its rivers and economic development that brought arts and new life into the city center. He tirelessly promoted the city _ and himself _ on venues like the Don Imus radio show. He combined the skills of a lawyer who knows how to make the best case possible, a salesman and visionary peddling ideas about how to make a city great and a rogue with a dark side who, critics say, too often used his power for his own benefit.

"He was the best cheerleader that the city of Providence has ever had, and he took it national. Providence was considered a backwater that you sped up when you passed it on (Interstate) 95," said political analyst Marc Genest, a former professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island and an occasional guest on Cianci's radio show. "He became the personification of Providence."

Cianci faced more than two dozen charges in the so-called "Operation Plunder Dome," including bribery, extortion and mail fraud for alleged actions such as trying to get a membership to the exclusive University Club. Cianci was convicted of one charge: racketeering conspiracy, and served more than four years in federal prison, an outcome that still seems to mystify him.

"I got convicted of one charge. ... To hear all those not guiltys and not one predicate act," he told the AP. "Imagine going to prison. 'What are you here for?' 'Robbing a bank.' 'What are you here for? 'Oh, I tried to get in the University Club.'"

He complains in his book that "few politicians have been investigated as thoroughly as I have been."

That's not to say Cianci doesn't admit to ethical failings. He writes that he sees nothing wrong with patronage and that he used jobs as "currency." He also admits to using his position to help himself from time to time.

"I used my public power for personal reasons. I admit it. It probably wasn't the right thing to do, but it certainly felt good," he writes.

Cianci insisted in his interview that he never lined his own pockets, and, despite accusations that he allowed corruption to run rampant on his watch, he couldn't possibly have known what every city employee was doing. He said he didn't just give out jobs to political friends, and he expected those he hired to do the job competently.

"All you had to do when I was mayor, you had to just meet me. I didn't do it all the time for a political favor," he said, adding, "If I hired someone, I expected they would vote for me."

Cianci's story has been told before, in the 2003 book "The Prince of Providence" by Mike Stanton, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The Providence Journal. Cianci says he's read parts, but not all, of Stanton's book, which paints an unflattering portrait. Nevertheless, "Politics and Pasta" often reads like a point-by-point rebuttal of "The Prince of Providence," and of the federal corruption prosecution against him.

Jay Goodman, a political science professor at Wheaton College in Massachusetts, who was a regular pen pal with Cianci during his prison term, said he looks forward to the book as a rare glimpse into the ins and outs of municipal politics.

"These powerful mayors, like Mayor Daley in Chicago, one or two, they don't write their memoirs, they don't talk," he said.

Cianci, now 69, works as a radio talk show host on WPRO-AM and TV political analyst for WLNE-TV, Providence's local ABC affiliate. But he believes his biggest contribution is what he did for the collective psyche of his city.

"We had a remarkable run in the city of Providence," he said. "We raised the self-esteem of people. Now they're proud of where they come from."