The sudden passing of Buddy Cianci last week elicited a wide range of reactions from Rhode Island’s political leaders. Mayor Jorge Elorza immediately ordered city flags to half-staff and announced plans to have Cianci lie in state in City Hall. Governor Raimondo - who had previously only lowered the state flag to honor Sergeant Andrew McKenna - hesitated to lower the flag in Cianci's honor, relenting only to honor the office to which he was elected. Her hesitation was understandable - how does a governor convey such an honor - the lowering of the state flags - on a felon who served time in federal prison for corruption?
The truth is that Cianci was complicated - feared, loved and hated - depending on with whom you are speaking and capable of getting things done because of all those traits. I will grant that on his watch, Providence experienced a renaissance. But there was a different set of rules in a Cianci administration with a “by any means necessary” modus operandi. He “convinced” corporations to fund his pet projects and “encouraged” other elected officials to get on board with his plans. The contracts he approved for police and fire are legendary for their generosity and certainly ensured that Buddy could count men in uniform among his best friends.
I’ll be honest: I found Cianci fascinating not because of who he was but because what he represented. He was the embodiment of everything we fear, love and hate about Rhode Island. He was THE guy in our know-a-guy state and thousands of Rhode Islanders have a story about how he got them out of a jam or into a job. The funny thing is that because there was a face, a friendly name and a loyal listenership to go along with the personification of our political culture, change has not come easy to Rhode Island. The tide had started to turn in 2014: while Mayor Elorza did what no one else had ever done before — he beat Cianci in an election.
Since Cianci’s passing, some have wondered “what will the political scene be like without Buddy?” While it’s wrong to speak ill of the dead, I have to say that without a role model for our warped political culture broadcasting his message to thousands of people every day, we have the opportunity to finally clean up our image. Public service has changed, today attracting more policy wonks and fewer people who are hoping to enrich themselves and their cronies. There will never be another Buddy — for better or worse — and it would be most fitting if we could get rid of our know-a-guy culture as we say goodbye to THE guy.