The Prince of Providence

The Prince of Providence was Vincent “Buddy” Cianci. Cianci grew up in Rhode Island. His father was a physician (a proctologist), so he grew up in privilege. He went to the right schools, although being of Italian descent, he came in for some ridicule in this ethnically Balkanized community. He got a law degree from Marquette University.

When Cianci decided to run for mayor of Providence, he styled himself as the anti-corruption candidate, taking on the graft and bribery that characterized city hall up to that point. Remarkably, Cianci ran as a Republican in an overwhelmingly Democratic state and won through energy, grit and determination. But rather than extirpating the corruption, Cianci was subsumed by it.

The parade of petty criminals that populate Buddy’s world include some ribald personalities (quoted from the dust jacket):

• Anthony “the Saint” St. Laurent, a major Rhode Island bookmaker and loan shark, who tried to avoid prison by citing his medical need for forty bowel irrigations a day, thus earning himself the nickname “Public Enema Number One”;

• “Buckles Melise, the city official in charge of vermin control, who bought Providence twice as much rat poison as the city of Cleveland, which was the time four times as large, and would up increasing Providence’s rat population. During a garbage strike, Buckles sledgehammered one city employed and stuck his thumb in another’s eye. Cianci would later describe this as “great public policy.”

Of course, this would be funnier if one is allowed to forget that taxpayer money is involved and that worthy projects to help children, the poor and the aged were underfunded or never happened because money ended up in the pockets of Buddy and his allies in city government, jobs were filled by incompetent people, offices were overstaffed with political hires, and people were paid and their pensions covered for no-show jobs. That this went on before Buddy and likely after his downfall is no justification for bleeding the civic treasury.

The Prince of Providence is the story of Cianci and the story of Providence. Both are complicated, and the author, Mike Stanton, shows us that complexity with all its hopeful and sordid elements. Cianci is a political comeback story and Providence under Cianci’s mayoralty does make genuine progress. Stanton turns the rise and fall of Buddy Cianci into a ripping good yarn. At one point when it seemed curtains for our hero, I realized I was only halfway through the book, so there must be something more to write about. Stanton depicts Buddy’s resurrection as an almost comic-book superhero. Stanton is a journalist, and the writing embodies the best of effective journalism. The twin narrative arcs of a New England city and its larger-than-life mayor unfold episodically, continuously leavened by short anecdotes. Stanton has a journalist’s eye for detail—names, places, dates, historical context, even the weather—that help place the reader in the story. This is a fun book and informative history for anyone interested in city government in America.