One Crazy Hour With Buddy Cianci

Cianci, one of America's great wits and most legendarily corrupt politicians, died last week; I spent one of the funniest hours of my life with him

Former Providence Mayor Vincent "Buddy" Cianci, pictured here in 2014, died last week at age 74. Credit: Brian Snyder/Reuters

I met Vincent "Buddy" Cianci, the legendary former mayor of Providence, Rhode Island, in September of 2013.

I was in Rhode Island to write a story about pension reform. The former chief of the city firefighters' union, Stephen Day, was one of the people I was interviewing. Day was one of many union advocates who was upset that State Treasurer Gina Raimondo was trying to slash the state's retirement obligations to public workers. He was also a longtime friend of Cianci, the wisecracking ex-mayor and felon who was planning yet another political comeback, using a radio talk show as a platform.

Day asked me if I wanted to be a guest on Cianci's show. I jumped at the chance. I'd spent part of my childhood in a southern Massachusetts town a half-hour from Providence, and my stepmother was a Providence TV reporter when Cianci was mayor. Even as a young person I was fascinated by Cianci, who in his younger days had a gorgeously ridiculous Sopranos-style wiseguy toupee (he nicknamed it "the squirrel") and whose public appearances were like a cross of Robin Williams and Sammy "The Bull" Gravano.

I was nervous. Cianci was a larger-than-life character. This was a man who had been re-elected mayor after pleading no-contest to beating his wife's lover with a fireplace log. He had his own line of pasta sauce. The judge who sentenced him on federal corruption charges, Ernest Torres, had compared him in court, with equal parts admiration and revulsion, to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

There were two Ciancis, Torres said. One was the most talented politician the state had ever seen, a legendary wit who could enthrall audiences. The other had turned the entire machinery of city government into a criminal enterprise. "My job is to sentence the second Buddy Cianci, because the first Buddy Cianci couldn't be here," he said.

At the studio, the grinning, diminutive Cianci shook my hand. I put on the headphones, and we started what seemed to be a fairly straightforward discussion about the state pension crisis.

During the interview, Day, the ex-union chief, sat in a corner of the studio. Buddy kept glancing over at him and smiling venomously. I wondered what was going on between the two of them. There was a video feed of the interview and Buddy kept killing the mic and shouting at Day to keep his face off the air. "Stay in the corner, Day!" he said. "Stay out of the fucking shot!"

We hit a commercial break and Cianci – who had been genial, pleasant and civilized on air – instantly changed personalities and started swearing like a sea captain.

"Steven Fucking Day," he said, pointing. "This guy, Matt, he's the only firefighter in history who shows up to a fucking fire with a briefcase!"

It was clear the mayor liked Day, who had a mouth of his own and could admirably match bluster with Cianci. But he decided to turn the next 45 minutes into an epic ball-busting session. While the commercials rolled, Cianci laid into Day, unloading decades of history with the union boss.

"This one time, we're signing a collective bargaining agreement," Cianci says. "There's cameras everywhere and when I'm done signing the paper, all of the sudden all of these firefighters are slapping me on the back and shaking my hand. And I'm panicking. Why are they so happy? I lean over and I say, 'Stephen, what the fuck did I just sign?'"

I laughed, trying to keep one ear on the commercials. Cianci was oblivious and next ripped off a story about how Day, as union chief, had once hassled him about underfunding the fire department. "Stephen, you've been like a son to me," Cianci had explained. "But now Daddy needs a little help. Your guys need to take a zero percent pay raise next year."

Day balked, so Cianci decided to teach him a lesson. He called Day on the phone one afternoon.

"And I said, 'Stephen, hey, it's me, Buddy,'" Cianci recounted. "'Listen, I know you're busy, but I've got this terrible budget problem, and I wondered if I could ask your advice. Since I can't cut the fire budget – what would you cut, if you were me?'"

Day, Cianci said, at first hesitated, then suggested cutting the zoo budget. Cianci egged him on: the zoo, absolutely, what else?

Again Day hesitated, then suggested the parks department. Then it was public works, the registrar of deeds. Soon Day was loosening up and cheerfully suggesting cuts to almost every department in the city. Finally Cianci interrupted him:

"Steve, listen to me. Are you listening?" he said. "Steve, you're on speaker phone. And I have sitting here the director of the zoo, the head of the parks department, the registrar of deeds, the public works chief. Everyone, say hi to Steve!"

"I didn't hear a peep about the pay raise after that. Later on I called and said, 'You see, that's how you lead! That's how you get shit done!'"

Day and I were both laughing as he was telling this story. But suddenly we were back on the air and in a heartbeat, Cianci stopped the F-bombs, leaned into the mic, and was seamlessly back in his Dick Cavett act again. "I'm here with Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi, and we're talking pension reform…"

It was dizzying. I barely made it through the segment. Soon we cut to another commercial break and Cianci ripped off his headphones and turned right back to me.

"These firemen, Matt, all they think about is overtime," Cianci ranted. "When Stephen Day reads his daughter a nursery rhyme at night, he starts every story, Once upon a time and a half…"

All that was missing was the nightclub drummer giving a rim-shot. Cianci went on:

"This other time," he said, "Steve tried to give me shit about a fire station on the East Side we were gonna close. I'm telling you, this neighborhood hadn't had a fire in it for 100 fucking years. But the instant I decide to close the station, suddenly one house after another goes up in flames. It's uncanny. I'm thinking, 'Stephen Day is running around pulling alarms all over the neighborhood. Then he's going door to door showing all the elderly people videos of The Towering Inferno to get them against me.'"

To protest the station closing, Day decided to stick it to the mayor. He organized a candlelight vigil to protest the closing, and invited all the press to come and hear how Buddy Cianci was letting the neighborhood burn down.

"But I got wind of it," Cianci said. "So here's what I did. I called up the chief of police, and I'm like, 'Chief, whaddya got today?'

"And he's like, 'What do you mean?' And I say, 'You arrest anyone interesting?' And he says, 'Well, we picked up this one guy on a suspected rape charge…'"

The mayor presses the police chief: Did you say he was a suspected serial rapist? And the chief says, well, I don't know if he's a serial rapist, Mr. Mayor, it's too soon to say... But by then Buddy'd already called a press conference to tell the world that they'd made this major arrest.

It led the 11:00 news, knocking out the fire station protest. As for the newspapers: Cianci apparently used to have police officers drive to the Providence Journal offices every night to pick him up a copy of next day's paper. At 2:00 a.m., 3:00 a.m. every morning, Cianci was getting a paper fresh off the presses delivered to him by cops.

So in the middle of that night, Cianci calls Day up on the phone. Day, groggy, answers: Who is this?

"It's Buddy, Steve," he says. "Listen to me. I'm looking at tomorrow's Journal. And we just might, might, might" – he said "might" three or four times – "we just might have caught a serial rapist."

The next day, he invited Day to dinner at Capriccio, one of Providence's great restaurants. When Day got there, the mayor was reclining in the swank surroundings, a copy of the Journal in his hands. The fire protest story was buried inside. The arrest was on the front.

"You see, I knocked you off the front page!" he shouted. "I knocked you off the front!"

We went back on air, talked about pensions some more, then cut to break again. Cianci kept moving effortlessly in and out of character, talking pensions in one moment and laying into Day over and over again in the next. He was like a fireball. I'd never seen anything like it. I left in a daze.

A year later, he ran for mayor again, but lost. He died last week after complaining of stomach pains. The cause of death hasn't been revealed.

I don't want people to get the wrong idea. There was a lot of darkness in Cianci's past, from the mountainous history of bribes to some very seriously ugly allegations about his relationships with women. But as personalities go, he was one of a kind. I learned more about politics in a few commercial breaks with him than I had in years on the campaign trail.

"He made his mistakes," says Day today. "But he was a man of wit and wisdom."

Day credits Buddy with the resurgence of the city of Providence, says he'll miss him. Quoting Providence's Bishop Thomas J. Tobin, he added, "All saints have a past, and all sinners have a future."