NORTH PROVIDENCE — Another year, another Charlie Lombardi story.
North Providence Mayor Charles A. Lombardi recently threatened to pull the mattresses from the town’s firehouses when firefighters pursued more pay because he had replaced a fire pumper with a rescue truck.
“Don’t push me — I’ll remove the beds,” the mayor said.
Last year, when a local doctor’s building fell into disrepair, Lombardi moved to tear it down, so the doctor commissioned a mural on the building showing the mayor sitting on a toilet, wearing a crown, and holding a cellphone.
“If he had called me, I would have given him a photo shoot,” the mayor said.
And in 2012, when a firefighter talked about Lombardi’s family at a local tavern, Lombardi launched into an expletive-laced tirade that was secretly recorded and ended up on WPRI-TV.
“Keep your mouth shut,” the mayor yelled. “This is a great job. You hit the [expletive] jackpot.”
In some ways, the 5-foot-4-inch Lombardi is like Rhode Island itself — small, tough, and a bit profane.
“We are on the same wavelength — we will fight at the drop of a hat for our communities,” Johnston Mayor Joseph M. Polisena said of Lombardi. “The only difference is I’m a lot taller, and he’s got more money than me.”
Polisena said Lombardi runs his town like he runs his business, Luxury dry cleaning, which he visits before coming to Town Hall each morning.
“Charlie is a good mayor,” he said. “Charlie is the type of guy who is on the side of the taxpayers.”
Not everyone is a fan.
Former North Providence councilman Paul F. Caranci said Lombardi’s threat to pull the beds from firehouses represents “more of the same” from the mayor who has ruled North Providence since 2007.
“He uses his position and his power to punish his enemies and reward his friends,” he said.
In the 2017 book “Wired,” Caranci wrote about serving on the Town Council and helping the FBI convict three fellow councilmen on corruption charges. Of the mayor, he wrote: “Lombardi has been viewed by some as a micromanager, a charge he denies, and as a dictator.”
Lombardi fired back, disputing parts of the book and linking Caranci to former mayor A. Ralph Mollis’s administration, which he said left the town in financial disarray, with lousy bond ratings.
“Thank God he’s writing books and is not part of government,” he said of Caranci.
Providence College political science professor Joseph Cammarano said Lombardi embodies the combative mentality of a town of some 32,500 people with a colorful history of insular, old-school politics.
“In North Providence, if you want to mix it up, they will mix it up and they will like it,” Cammarano said. “They like the scrappy overachiever who doesn’t do it the way everyone else does it but gets the job done,” he said, citing the example of former Providence College basketball star Ernie DiGregorio, who grew up in North Providence.
North Providence voters have shown they like “curmudgeons” and “iconoclasts” and are willing to stick with mayors if they display some competence and “are not doing anything too bad,” Cammarano said.
“He’s ‘Buddy’ without the corruption,” he added of Lombardi, referring to the late Providence mayor Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci Jr. “Why get rid of him? You’ve heard the saying ‘the devil you know’? He may be a devil to some people, but they know him.”
Cammarano also drew a comparison to President Trump, saying, “In some ways, [Lombardi] is a precursor to Trump in that he does what Trump does on a local level.”
Lombardi is a lifelong Democrat, but did he vote for Trump in the last election?
“I’m not going to lie to you — yes, I did,” he replied. He explained he is fiscally conservative. “I don’t admire the tweeting and all that,” he said of Trump. “But talk to business people — they say their success was never to the point it is now.”
The mayor said he knows that not everyone is a fan of his management style. But if he feels in his gut that he’s being fair, he’s ready to battle.
“Look, I call it like I see it,” he said.
The latest battle began making headlines in May: Lombardi took a fire engine offline and replaced it with a rescue vehicle. The local firefighters union called for negotiating over the effect of that change, specifically requesting 3 percent raises.
Fire Department Captain Jay Petrillo, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 2334, said the signed firefighter contract calls for the town to bargain if it removes any apparatus from service. He said firefighters face increased risk because there’s one less fire company responding to fires in town.
Lombardi didn’t buy that argument. He said he told firefighters: “You want this kind of money and you are sleeping half the night? So if you want this kind of money, maybe you got to give the people a little more bang for their buck. And maybe you need to stay up at night.’ ” He talked about having public works trucks pull up to firehouses and cart out the mattresses.
Petrillo said firefighters work back-to-back 10-hour days, followed by back-to-back 14-hour nights, plus overtime that can result in 24-hour days. Without sufficient rest, “It’s not safe for us to be drawing up medication, making decisions at a fire scene, delivering a baby at 5:30 a.m., as my crew did the other day,” he said.
So did Lombardi yank the beds?
No. It’s “not off the table,” but he said he’s holding off, explaining that he reconsidered after getting calls from some “honorable, dedicated” firefighters — “kids I watched grow up” — who disagreed with the union.
“Right now, things are quieting down,” Lombardi said last week. “I took a deep breath.”
He did ask the fire chief to require a “night watch” in each fire station — with one firefighter staying up with a light on in case someone pulls up looking for help. Those watches have begun.
While critics consider Lombardi a hothead, he describes himself as a motorhead. He pointed out a photo in his office that shows him racing a 1963 409 Impala in New Jersey.
“I refuse to get old,” he said, adding that his knowledge of vehicles helps save the town money on equipment.
After 12 years on the job, Lombardi, 73, said he plans to run for another four-year term, which would get him close to surpassing the town’s first mayor, Sal Mancini, who served from 1974 to 1994. “My children say to me, ‘Dad, what are you doing?’ I tell them I’m having fun,” he said.
In his Town Hall office, he points out a photo of DiGregorio, an old red fire alarm box, and a poster of the New York Yankees’ Joe DiMaggio. And he notes the town’s bare-knuckle politics can be part of the decor: The DiMaggio poster hangs where he once displayed a brochure that firefighters circulated when he was closing a fire station in 2010; it warned that people would die if he closed the station.
Lombardi was convinced the town could provide the same level of fire service while saving money and avoiding staff cuts.
“That is what goes up my backside,” the mayor said. “No one lost their job.”
And North Providence became the first department in the state to secure a Class 1 rating from the Insurance Services Organization, he said.
Lombardi reiterates a line that could serve as his credo: “When you know in your chest, in your stomach, that you are being fair with people and then they push you,” he said, “we are going to get it on.”