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Vincent ‘Buddy’ Cianci embodied an entire theory of politics

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Buddy Cianci spoke with reporters on June 25, 2014  after announcing that he would run again for mayor of Providence.
Buddy Cianci spoke with reporters on June 25, 2014 after announcing that he would run again for mayor of Providence.(Steven Senne)

Vincent "Buddy" Cianci was more than a wisecracking political rogue or the larger-than-life mayor of Providence. He embodied the best and worst of an entire theory of governance: the notion that political intrigue is no big deal, and that bending the rules is part of making things happen for the public.

Cianci died Thursday morning, leaving behind a double legacy. On the plus side, the river relocation project that he championed remade the grimy downtown of a declining post-industrial city. Outside Rhode Island, though, he's likely better known for the criminal convictions — one for assault, one for racketeering conspiracy — that ended his two stints as Providence's chief executive.

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In his 2011 memoir "Politics and Pasta," the former mayor spelled out his political approach: "I admit that I used jobs as currency to get the support I needed. I admit I used campaign money for everything from a personal helicopter to get around the state to paying for dinners, and on occasion I even used my influence to do favors for people. I even admit that I rewarded my friends and supporters and punished my political enemies." (I've cribbed this quotation from an excellent and mostly sympathetic 2014 Boston magazine profile of Cianci by Simon van Zuylen-Wood.)

The problem with Cianci's approach, of course, is that the people who need the government's help most are never the ones with the right connections to get it. Once a public official decides that laws and ethical norms are mostly for show, there's no limit to the scheming that can go on behind the scenes. As Rhode Island's most riveting politician, Cianci furthered an "I know a guy" mentality that fuels a deep cynicism among the public — a morale-busting negativity that city and state leaders have been struggling for years to reverse.

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Still, the highlights of Cianci's tenure hint at how charming rogues of the future might use their powers for the public good. Beyond the river project, he recognized early on how the culinary and arts communities could be economic-development drivers for Providence and pushed through successful policies to encourage them. Whatever else he did, Cianci had an affirmative vision for Providence. When he set his mind to it, his city profited.


Dante Ramos can be reached at dante.ramos@globe.com. Follow him on Facebook: facebook.com/danteramos or on Twitter: @danteramos.