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POLITICS

What should Biden expect when he debates Trump? A lot of Buddy Cianci

Vincent "Buddy" Cianci Jr., then mayor of Providence, reacted to questions about the arrest of two city officials in 1999.
Vincent "Buddy" Cianci Jr., then mayor of Providence, reacted to questions about the arrest of two city officials in 1999.PAUL CONNORS

PROVIDENCE – They say history is written by the victors, and no one in Providence knows that better than Andrew Annaldo.

Annaldo was the Democratic nominee for mayor in 1990, running against independents Frederick Lippitt and Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci Jr., the polarizing former mayor who was trying to make a comeback after he was forced to resign from office years earlier when he pleaded no contest to assaulting his ex-wife’s lover.

During a Channel 10 debate that aired a week before the election, Annaldo and Lippitt fell victim to one of the most devastating – and memorable – political punchlines in the history of Rhode Island politics when Cianci, standing between the two men, referred to his opponents as the “Little Dipper” (Annaldo) and “Big Dipper” (Lippitt) based on their eligibility for taxpayer-funded pensions.

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Thirty years later, the insult still irks Annaldo, who lost the race to Cianci and never ran for office again. Why? Because he maintains that he was prepared for it, and calmly and accurately responded by pointing out that Cianci was in line for an even larger pension.

“I told him to stop being so amusing,” Annaldo recalled in an interview last week. “But he got the whole headline because of the catch line. It was a turning moment.”

Even his fiercest critics acknowledge that Cianci, who went from prosecutor-to-mayor-to-felon-to-talk-show-host-to-mayor-to-felon-to-talk-show-host over nearly five decades (he died in 2016), was a great debater. He was cunning enough to craft witty one-liners, slick enough to deliver them at exactly the right moment, and ruthless enough to say anything to win.

As Joe Biden prepares to take the stage Tuesday for the first of three presidential debates scheduled over the next month, his opponent, President Donald Trump, isn’t known for his witty one-liners so much as his insults; he certainly has Cianci’s willingness to say anything to win. Remember “Little Marco” (Rubio) and the insinuation that US Senator Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the JFK assassination?

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Few politicians in Washington, D.C. have more experience in debates than Biden, but he’s never faced someone like Trump, who skewered moderators he believed were biased, spewed tabloid gossip and rumors about his opponents, and landed insults with the precision of the veteran entertainer he was prior to running for office.

Those who did battle with Cianci have some advice for Biden: Be ready for anything.

In his 2012 memoir, “Politics and Pasta,” Cianci explained that he loved debates “because they gave me the opportunity to rattle off statistics that I had memorized, statistics no challenger would know.”

But in that 1990 debate, the “Little Dipper” and “Big Dipper” line had a different purpose: to muddy the water. The race was defined by negative attacks on Cianci, who was labeled as unfit for office because of his previous tenure in City Hall that was rocked by corruption and his resignation.

“The appearance that both of them had done something unethical took away the moral high ground from them, making it more difficult for them to attack me because of my past,” Cianci wrote in his memoir.

Likewise, political observers say Trump may seek to attack Biden’s character - or target the former vice president’s family - as a way to divert attention from Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

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Annaldo said the piercing one-liner overshadowed his more substantive approach.

He was a sitting city councilor and had survived a bruising Democratic primary that year, so his grasp of the issues was just as strong as Cianci’s. He pitched himself as the candidate who would tax Brown University in order to pay for more cops on the street, and he used much of his debate prep to hone a message that even though he was only 35 years old, he was ready to be mayor on day one.

Biden’s age, 77, and experience as a former US senator and vice president, will make it difficult for Trump to paint him as unprepared to be commander-in-chief, so a mud fight could be more damaging. That was an effective approach for Cianci.

“Buddy made the race about something else other than being a good administrator,” Annaldo said. “Politics is in the moment.”

Twenty-four years and a federal prison sentence after the dipper debate, Cianci ran for mayor again in 2014, taking on a Democratic newcomer named Jorge Elorza.

Cianci was 72 and had slowed down quite a bit, but he knew every fact and figure about city government and he could still deliver a performance, thanks largely to spending seven years with a daily radio show discussing Rhode Island politics.

But there wasn’t a lot of gum on Elorza’s shoes. He was only 37, and as a part-time Housing Court judge and college professor, his image was squeaky clean. When a shoplifting charge as a teenager came to light during the campaign, the public sentiment was: Is this all they have on the guy?

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“The thing about Buddy was you knew what to expect,” said Anthony Simon, who worked as a top advisor to Elorza’s campaign and then served as his first of chief of staff in City Hall. “Everything’s on the table.”

So campaign aides peppered Elorza with a mix of questions that ranged from important to asinine, like when the group spent time preparing his explanation to an article he wrote for the University of Pittsburgh Law Review arguing that it would be okay for a public school to teach that the theist God does not exist.

Simon said the team had plenty of help. US Representative David Cicilline, a former Providence mayor himself, essentially played Cianci in debate prep, although that mostly involved explaining how Cianci would respond to questions rather than actually pretending to be Cianci.

“David played a good Buddy,” Simon said. “He knew how to get into his head.”

What the group realized was Elorza had a remarkable talent for staying on message – some would call it a robotic approach – no matter what insult Cianci hurled at him. In every debate, Elorza would repeat that he represented “honest leadership for a new direction.”

The end result was that Elorza came across as mayoral, even if he didn’t have the same charisma as the former mayor. Simon suggested Biden could use a similar strategy with Trump, leaving voters with the feeling that Biden is more interested in being president than fighting in a sandbox.

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“The mayor never tried to one-up Buddy by being the guy everybody loves,” Simon said.

In 2016, Trump proved it wasn’t just the candidate who needed to be on guard for his attacks, it was the moderators too. He famously targeted Megyn Kelly after she asked a question about inappropriate remarks he made against women, and he’s shown no sign that he won’t continue to criticize the media during this year’s debates.

Cianci took a different approach, but he had the same intent: to throw moderators off their game.

During the 2014 mayoral debate, Cianci tried to disarm Channel 12′s Tim White, the state’s top investigative reporter. When White asked the candidates who they were supporting for governor that year, Cianci drew laughs and applause when he blurted out, “At this time, Tim White. I think he’d be great candidate.”

“Buddy Cianci was very gifted at making people feel uneasy,” White said. “Donald Trump wasn’t the first person to do that.”

White remembers being especially nervous for the Cianci debate because he knew that the former mayor might challenge the moderators just as much as the candidates. He spent many hours preparing for any strategy that Cianci might employ, but he knew better than most that anything can happen on live television. Years earlier, during another mayoral debate, White was the moderator when a candidate pulled a ring out of his pocket and proposed to his girlfriend on stage (she said yes).

“Buddy was that way, but in such a smart way,” White said. “That’s what made him so dangerous. He was unpredictable in a way that was kind of brilliant.”

There is at least one key difference between Trump this year and Cianci during his final campaign for mayor. Trump may be trailing Biden in the polls, but his confidence hasn’t wavered.

He was acquitted by the US Senate in an impeachment trial earlier this year, has the chance to reshape the US Supreme Court for a generation, and while more than 200,000 Americans have died during the pandemic, he remains wildly popular with the Republican base.

Those closest to Cianci say the former mayor wasn’t himself near the end of his 2014 mayoral campaign. He had been treated for cancer that year, and he lacked the same pizazz he was known for during his previous bids for office. Joseph Paolino, a former mayor and one of Cianci’s best friends at the end of his life, said Cianci was shaken by the vitriol he faced during debates – from crowds, moderators, and his opponents.

Nicholas Hemond, who currently serves as president of the Providence School Board and supported Cianci for mayor, recalled Cianci being nervous about his first televised debate with Elorza and the Republican nominee, Daniel Harrop.

The night before the debate, Hemond visited Cianci at his condo, and they spent hours going over answers to potential questions. Cianci, in a robe and tucked into his bed, ate ice cream while preparing his responses.

“With Buddy, people always describe him as brash or arrogant and he conveys that to you,” Hemond said. “But in reality, he was very insecure in a lot of ways. He felt a tremendous amount of pressure.”

The results of the debates in 2014 were mixed. Supporters on both sides claimed victory and both Cianci and Elorza landed punches, but Cianci could never recreate the “Little Dipper” and “Big Dipper” moment from 1990. Elorza went on to win the race.

As for the first debate between Biden and Trump, the stakes are higher, but the cliché Annaldo learned all those years ago against Cianci still applies: You never get a second chance to make a first impression.

“A lot of it is not substance,” Annaldo said. “It’s style.”


Dan McGowan can be reached at dan.mcgowan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @danmcgowan.