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As a Rhode Islander I’m basically required by law to have an opinion on Buddy Cianci. To say his legacy is complicated is putting it mildly, but no one can deny that he was the state’s most dynamic political figure of the last 40 years. There are plenty of articles out there from people that knew him that get into what he was like as a person. I’ve got no in depth musings or insight into his personality, just a healthy respect for how different things could be if not for him.
First, there’s a lot not to like about the guy. His first stint as mayor of Providence ended in the 80’s after he burned a romantic rival with a cigarette and beat him with a fire place log while two of his goons held the guy down. He was known to be vindictive and petty and to make political decisions based on favors and grudges. He never seemed to have any shame or regret for the corruption scandal that sent him to prison in 2002 and the embarrassment that caused the city and state. Many didn’t care for the fact that he had a talk radio show almost from the moment he got out of prison, or that he had the audacity to run for mayor again in 2014, when he managed to get 45 percent of the vote.
But like him or not, there’s no denying the positive impact he had on Providence. Without him, there is no Providence Place Mall, no Waterplace Park, no Providence Bruins, no Waterfire, no booming restaurant scene, no luxury hotels, and likely no fancy condos that give the downtown the at least illusion of being lived in. Downtown Providence in the 70’s and 80’s was a vast wasteland of railroad tracks, parking lots, empty buildings, and a garbage filled river. He saw Providence’s potential, and took pride in the appearance of the city. His methods were questionable, but the results speak for themselves.
You also couldn’t help but respect how remarkably non-partisan he was in his dealings as mayor. He shunned the “D” label during his first term despite that being the surest path to victory for any office in the state. He ran and governed as a true independent, and made the effort to get to know and earn the respect of all those he worked with regardless of their political leanings. He sure as shit wouldn’t have sat by while groups like Mosaic played on white guilt to bilk taxpayers and steal from the city. If Buddy were in charge of Worcester today, it wouldn’t have taken a Turtleboy investigation to shut nonsense like that down.
There’s also no denying the love he had for the city and its people. Providence certainly has a long way to go to truly be a place where businesses and people with money want to be. Yes, its nice to come downtown or to Federal Hill for dinner, but it would also be nice to be able to walk more than a block down Westminster street in the middle of the workday without being asked for money multiple times. It would be nice to walk around the east side without stepping on the smashed Hennessey and Corona bottles that litter the sidewalk, and it would be nice to park your car on a side street off Broadway or Atwells Ave without feeling like you’re about to be mugged or murdered. It would also be nice if the prime real estate that was freed up by the relocation of I-195 over 5 years ago wasn’t still sitting there empty, and if the state’s largest building wasn’t sitting there dark and abandoned as a monument to the failure of state government. It would be nice if a group of tourists could step off a bus in Kennedy Plaza without feeling like they need to immediately get inside to preserve their safety.
But despite all that, because of Buddy, much of Providence has the look and feel of a city headed in the right direction, even if there’s still a long way to go. With Mayor Elorza’s obsessive focus on eliminating the last of the free street parking and extending parking meter times to from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. or midnight, and finding other ways to nickel and dime people who want to spend money in and enjoy the city, creative leadership like Buddy’s is sorely missed.
Despite his questionable character, his love for his city and belief in its potential always shined through, and it would be a far worse place today if not for him. His legacy will always be tarnished by his criminal activity, and rightfully so, but you can’t help but respect what he managed to get done. RIP Buddy.
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