One Crazy Hour With Buddy Cianci
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!”
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