From politics to prison, one man’s unusual public life

Buddy Cianci, the former mayor of Providence, has had a colorful and controversial political career. He was the longest-serving mayor of the city, having never lost an election, until he was forced to step down in 1984 after being convicted of assault. But he won the office again in 1991 — until a racketeering conviction sent him to prison in 2002. Cianci discusses all of that and more in his memoir, Politics and Pasta. He sat down with The Hill to discuss the difference between running a city and being an elected official on the national level, and whether he’d ever run for office again.

Q: You wrote that being a mayor is more about the city itself than party affiliation because you look at different issues.

I think that probably of all the offices that people run for, probably mayor … is the one that is least affected by political party. … There’s no Republican way to clean snow and no Democratic way to build a park. It’s more of a pragmatic approach to getting the problem solved. I think that, with especially technology the way it is today, and with newspapers still having an effect but less of an effect on the body politic because of social media — you can Twitter yourself to a victory these days. So I think that the new technology has taken away some of the clout of political parties.

Q: Looking at the federal government’s proposal to cut city grants, how do you see the long-term effects of that?

It’s a shared responsibility. There is no question cities need money, but they also can cut. Having been there and done it and bought the T-shirt, I guess I could tell you that any mayor in office today can certainly make cuts. … There is no appetite for people to pay more in taxes, and I think that’s the message the Congress has received loudly and clearly from the American public.

Q: Are you considering a run for reelection?

Oh, I never say never. I just enjoy what I do. I love doing radio and television. I have my own television show on channel 6 ABC (in Providence) and I also do radio every single day on two radio stations. I don’t know if I ever could be convinced again to run. You have to have the fire in your belly to run for office, and I don’t know if I do or not. The answer is who knows?

Q: How do you feel the Tea Party has affected the Republican Party?

It’s not a political party in the sense that it’s a movement, a feeling, and it’s a tremendous positive thing for them to be involved for the first time in many ways and be effective. Do I think that it’s had an effect on the Republican Party? Yeah, I think it has. I think it has hurt the Republican Party in some states and been of help in other states. Don’t forget, these people are not Republicans or Democrats, they are both — they’re disgruntled Democrats and disgruntled Republicans. They’re people — some who have never been involved before, some who’ve been involved and feel frustrated

Q: Referring back to your book, are you still trying to get your conviction overturned?

No, it is what it is. I was convicted of one charge out of I don’t know how many — 27, 28. … I was found not guilty of every one of them except one that the appellate court ruled 2 to 1 against me, but there was a dissenting opinion that I will always treasure saying that the conviction never should have happened. 

Q: Having never lost an election, what advice would you give to future candidates?

Number one, have the fire in your belly to run for something, have the desire to do it. That’s key and important — if you don’t have the desire to do it, don’t do it.

Number two, if you have anything in your background that you think would be detrimental if someone found out about it, put it out there yourself first.

Third, never let anybody define you in politics — you define yourself. If anybody accuses you of something that’s not true, make sure you get out there competitively and deny it. If it’s true, you need to change the subject and the dialogue of the campaign.

Q: What moment or time in your life do you want to be remembered for?

We did a lot of things in the city when I was mayor with historic preservation, with rebuilding the downtown, rebuilding our zoo, supporting the arts, rebuilding so many things with the help of a lot of people. I think what I want to be remembered for was bringing the self-esteem of the people of the city from the low expectations to heights that they never thought they could achieve in self-esteem. The city was working, the city was on a roll, and the people of the city were proud to be there. That’s what I’d like to be remembered for.