scorecardresearch Skip to main content

In Providence, Cianci tried to steal back time

Buddy Cianci shook hands while campaigning to win back his old job.Stew Milne for The Boston Globe/File/Globe Freelance

PROVIDENCE - He came from Providence, the one in Rhode Island, where the old world shadows hang, heavy in the air.

Okay, okay. So I stole that line from Don Henley and Glenn Frey. But it kind of fits Buddy Cianci, doesn’t it?

Besides, there’s something about the air down here in the Ocean State. It might be heavy, but in certain quarters it makes your fingers light. People steal everything. Ballots. Reputations. History. You name it.

In the run up to this, Buddy Cianci’s last grasp and gasp at the mayor’s office, there were accusations that both Cianci supporters and those of his Democratic rival Jorge Elorza stole mail-in ballots.


On Tuesday, Buddy Cianci, the quintessential old world pol, tried to steal back time, trying to pull off what would have constituted one of the most remarkable comebacks in American urban politics, adding on to his run as Providence’s longest-serving mayor, a stretch interrupted by two convictions and a stretch in the can.

The guys inside Old World Cigar on Atwells Avenue on Federal Hill optimistically called the race for Buddy hours before the networks factually called it for Elorza.

“The weather’s good, and the elderly got out,” Tim Ford, a contractor who supplied one of his vans to carry those old folks who love Buddy to the polls. “They remember when Providence was better, and they remember it was Buddy who made it better.”

When James Michael Curley, the longtime mayor of Boston who served four terms for his city -- not to mention a couple of terms in the can -- decided to run for mayor one last time, they called it the Last Hurrah.

In his 73 years, Buddy was mayor for 21. He would have been mayor for quite a few more if he didn’t beat up some guy he suspected of messing around with his estranged wife (first conviction), then sell favors out of City Hall like so many lollipops (second conviction).


When Dan Harrop, the Republican candidate who pulled out and threw his support behind Elorza, showed up on TV a few hours before the polls closed, saying he was disturbed by the prospect of people voting for somebody twice convicted of corruption, the guys inside Old World Cigar cried foul. They wouldn’t even concede the one corruption conviction, but they’d be damned if they were going to concede the other conviction.

On Federal Hill, if you hit a guy you think is messing around with your wife it’s not called assault. And it’s certainly not called corruption. It’s called honor. A court found otherwise, of course, but many people on Federal Hill are not impressed by courts, or by law professors and former judges like Jorge Elorza, for that matter.

“Buddy deserves one last chance to fix the city,” Joe Barkett, the Old World owner, was saying. “And he knows how to run the city. This other guy? He’s a law professor. What does he know about running a city?”

Elorza is half Buddy’s age but no slouch. The son of Guatemalan immigrants, he worked his way to Harvard Law School. Another Harvard Law grad, who lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, came here the other day, drumming up support for Elorza.

The Old World guys sniffed at that.

“What does Obama know about what we need in Providence?” Barkett asked.


Still, this came down to demographics, not presidents.

When Buddy Cianci rose to power, Italians made up the biggest ethnic group in Providence.

Now it’s Latinos, and most Latinos were with Elorza.

Buddy gets that. Whatever you say about him, he can add.

As in, it was 16 years since he last ran for mayor, and 12 years since he walked out of City Hall and into a prison cell. So he pulled in the Hispanics who knew him best, from back in the day, like the Dominicans. He pulled in the African-Americans who have lived here for generations. He always had the Italians.

But the East Side, the whole East Side, Hispanics and yuppies and you name it, went so heavy for Elorza that Buddy was shoveling against the tide.

On the ballroom floor of the Hilton, at the foot of Atwells Avenue, some of Buddy’s supporters started leaving minutes after Channels 10 and 12 called it for Elorza. They sneered at some college professor who came on TV, explaining why Buddy fell just short. They were in no mood for more college professors.

Buddy came into the ballroom just after 10 o’clock, washed over by perfunctory cheers.

“It was a great ride,” he said. “It just didn’t happen.”

He spoke of a love affair, with the city of Providence.

“It will not end until the day I die,” he said.

Up the street, on Atwells Avenue, at Andino’s, a photo of The Chairman of The Board, Sinatra, hung over the door that leads to the kitchen and Buddy pins hung on the lapels of customers and the Lemon Cellos flowed with tears because Buddy was done.



He came from Providence, the one in Rhode Island, where the old world shadows hang, heavy in the air.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at