Buddy Cianci left City Hall in disgrace after torturing a man in his living room. Now, he attempts the impossible: running for mayor of Providence again.
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MIKE FAELLA: I’ll tell you one crazy, crazy night. I was at the mayor’s house one night, late and we…
ZAC STUART-PONTIER: Where was this house?
FAELLA: At Power Street. We were at Power Street late.
ZAC: This is Mike Faella. Back in 1991, he’d recently graduated from Brown and he got job — working alongside a bunch of other young people — for someone you might remember: Buddy Cianci.
FAELLA: And we’re sitting in the dark…everyone’s left and we’re young and we’re hammered…it’s like 2 o’clock in the morning and the mayor’s at the fireplace. He’s doing the logs, he’s moving the logs around. He’s like see this here boss, and we all look at him. This is where I beat the shit out of that cock sucker right here.
ARCHIVAL NEWS FOOTAGE: Cianci beat Deleo, threatened to have him shot, burned him with a cigarette…
FAELLA: And he’s like, it changed a lotta things in my life, you know. That was a crazy, it was a crazy event. But that prick, that’s where he got it right here, right here.
And I’m sitting here with this dude like oh shit are you hearing this, like oh my god. It wasn’t a secret that it had happened. It wasn’t that I was hearing a secret, but watching him brood over it, and brood over it with a combination of shame and pride.
BUDDY CIANCI: I don’t often lose my temper, I don’t often lose my head. But that was one night I did. Kidnapping, assault with a dangerous weapon, extortion. I mean, fuck man, I looked like Jack the Ripper. I looked like a one-man crime wave.
MARC SMERLING: When we last left Buddy Cianci, he was run out of office after kidnapping and torturing a man. He was a convicted felon. His career…over. His grand political ambitions… dashed.
How could anyone come back from something… like that?
ZAC: Today’s episode: we’ll find out. It’s the return of Buddy Cianci.
MARC: I’m Marc Smerling.
ZAC: I’m Zac Stuart-Pontier.
MARC: Welcome to Crimetown.
ZAC: After he was forced from office in 1984, Buddy Cianci got a new job …. on the radio.
BUDDY ON THE RADIO: Good afternoon everybody, this is Buddy Cianci, and about to embark upon a new career. I see our phone has lit up…
ZAC: By 1990, Buddy had one of the most popular radio shows in Rhode Island.
BUDDY: By the time you vote, the cat is gonna be out of the bag, the horse is out of the barn and the girlfriend married someone else. I gotta go. Take care. It’s time to do what, John? A little traffic. Is kid Conti coming?
ZAC: But, for him, it wasn’t enough. Here he is out to dinner with the co-author of his autobiography.
BUDDY: So I’m on the radio making some money. Living the high life. I’ve got a boat, I’ve got a 52-ft yacht, I’ve got a beautiful house, I’ve got a Mercedes convertible, I’ve got money in the bank, I’m doing fine, I own buildings, I own a restaurant, I own all kinds of things…
But I always had this burning desire to run for mayor again because I didn’t like the way I left. Cause I was unceremoniously asked to leave City Hall.
NEWS: Buddy Cianci announced that he would attempt the impossible. Running as an independent candidate, he began his fourth campaign for mayor of Providence.
ZAC: If you think it’s crazy for a convicted felon to attempt a comeback like this…well, a lot of people in Providence would agree with you.
NEWSMAKERS: The big billboard that I see on the highway it says “Cianci, he never stopped caring about Providence.” Could you look into camera 3 over there and tell the people of Providence were you caring about Providence when you used a fireplace log an ashtray and a lighted cigarette to assault Mr. Deleo?
BUDDY ON NEWSMAKERS: Yes, first of all, I never used a fireplace log but you know something, I think the people of Providence want to know about the future. I’ve paid a very public and a very private price for my indiscretion and mistake. I’ve apologized for that mistake. And I want to look at my life from a perspective of the future. ‘Cause I think I have something to contribute and something to do.
ZAC: But this image, of a violent Buddy, torturing someone with a lit cigarette… it wasn’t going away on its own. Buddy needed a new image. And one day, in the middle of the campaign, an opportunity presented itself.
ZAC: Can you read that headline?
SHEPARD FAIREY: Yeah, it says “Campaign billboard defaced.” A sign promoting the candidacy of former mayor Vincent A. Buddy Cianci bears the mark of vandals yesterday.
ZAC: This is Shepard Fairey, a well-known street artist. Back in 1990, he was a student at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence.
SHEPARD: I’d noticed this Cianci billboard at the corner of Waterman and South Main.
And so Cianci’s billboard said, “Buddy Cianci, he never stopped caring about Providence.” And I was like, what does that mean? And I thought, this is such a stupid billboard, it’s pretty easy to get to, it had a ladder that you could get to easily. I’m just gonna change that into an Andre billboard.
ZAC: Andre… as in Andre the Giant, a professional wrestler. In Shepard’s artwork, he’d been using Andre as a kind of symbol of rebellion. So, one night, he snuck out to paste Andre’s face over Buddy’s on the billboard.
SHEPARD: That’s a very busy intersection in Providence so i did it late at night. I had a friend who was a lookout. But the adrenaline rush of you know getting up there, putting the roller out on the billboard with the glue, and while I was doing it I got the whistle and sure enough a cop went by, I ducked down, they didn’t see. It was the largest thing I’d ever done.
ZAC: Shepard stood back and admired his handiwork. Andre the Giant’s face now glared out over College Hill. And Buddy’s slogan had become… “Andre never stopped caring about Providence.”
SHEPARD: Immediately the Providence Police started asking around at the school about the Billboard and in my portfolio, of course like an idiot I had sheets of uncut Andre stickers. The police were like well it’s up to Cianci whether he’s gonna press charges. And we’ve arranged for you to have a meeting with Buddy. I was nervous, I mean you never know how that sort of thing is gonna go.
So I just skateboarded over to his house. I knocked on the door, you know, a couple of guys you know sorta beefy, guido henchmen guys, opened the door.
ZAC: As Shepard walked in he thought he was about to be berated, yelled at, possibly even arrested. But when he met Buddy… he was surprised to find the former mayor in a great mood.
SHEPARD: And Cianci’s cracking jokes, and he says, you know we need to do something about this. Maybe some community service project.
And I realized, this is excellent image rehabilitation that he’s doing right now. He has a reputation as a hothead who flies off the handle first, but in this situation where he’s been slighted and everyone would expect him to fly off the handle, he’s doing something that’s merciful and positive for the community.
Shortly after, there was an article in the paper that said “Vincent Buddy Cianci decides not to interrupt the education of RISD student but to find a more constructive way for him to put his creative talents to use.”
The billboard did not hurt Cianci, it may have in fact helped him.
ZAC: Buddy was trying to change his image: to be a contrite, apologetic guy who’d made a mistake and just wanted to move on. And for every voter in Providence who thought of him as dangerous or brutal, there was another voter who remembered him as the mayor who fixed a pothole or a street lamp…who came to a high school graduation, or a little league game…
PAUL CAMPBELL: It would be the beginning of little league season, right?
ZAC: This is Paul Campbell. He worked on many of Buddy’s campaigns over the years.
CAMPBELL: He would spend the entire weekend going to the little league, the games. With a photographer. And he would take several thousand photos and he would send them out to the parents. When you’re looking on the fireplace mantle every night and you see Buddy Cianci with your kid. It makes you think.
BUDDY ARCHIVAL: Hey Jimmy how are you. Nice to see you. Hey Marilyn, how are you?
CAMPBELL: He had a tremendous memory, he could walk up to a voter and know them, their parents, whether they had problems, whether he helped them during the course of several years.
BUDDY ARCHIVAL: How are you? Nice to see you, you tell Uncle Ray I said hello, he sent me the checks, tell him…
CAMPBELL: The combinations of skills that he had. He was also – he could be a stand up comic. And his quick one liners were just amazing.
BUDDY ARCHIVAL: When I go to see my relatives in Italy, I know I’m in the right town because everybody looks like my aunt.
CAMPBELL: It was quite an amazing thing to see.
BUDDY ARCHIVAL: Thank you all very very much!
ZAC: But even with all his skills as a politician, it would still be tough for Buddy to win. He was in a tight three way race, up against a WASPy insider named Fred Lippitt and a young Italian business man named Andrew Annaldo. Again, here’s Buddy with the coauthor of his autobiography.
BUDDY: Now I’m looking at my fuckin polls, we’re running about two points apart from everybody. One guy’s like 31, another guy’s like 32, another guy’s 28. And I might have been the 28.
ZAC: Buddy needed a break. And he got it in one of the final debates.
BUDDY: The moderator of one of these debates. He says, yesterday afternoon, the Bishop of Providence said that anybody who was not pro-life should not be supported by Catholics.
So by the luck of the draw they go to this WASPy guy, the rich guy, he says I’m pro-choice.
And I’m running against the Italian kid. He says, I’ve always said that even though I’m Catholic, that a woman has a right to choose.
I saw an opening. And the opening was, in a close race like that, I knew that there were pro-life zealots out there.
So I said, let me understand something here. Mr. Lippitt says he’s pro-choice. Mr. Annaldo, he says he’s pro-choice. I said, I’m pro-life. I don’t give a fuck… I’m pro-life.
DAVID FISHER: Had you been pro-life before?
BUDDY: I wasn’t anything.
FISHER: That’s how politics works.
BUDDY: Yeah. Look, everything’s fair in love and war man.
FISHER: Love, war and politics.
BUDDY: That’s it.
ZAC: Buddy’s sudden come-to-Jesus moment helped him change his image once more…and pushed him over the edge.
BUDDY ARCHIVAL: I won the election by 329 votes.
VICTORY PARTY ARCHIVAL: We are going back to City Hall!
BUDDY ARCHIVAL: Get up in front of the thousands of people that were there. And I open the speech by saying, “As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted.”
NEWS2 ARCHIVAL: People look from the outside and say, what’s the matter with Rhode Island? They elected a guy that assaulted his ex-wife’s boyfriend with a fireplace log and a lit cigarette. How can they reelect somebody like that? And it does sound crazy from the outside but from the inside you just see that American phenomena of voters, any voters, being drawn toward flamboyance. If they like you, they’ll forgive a lot of things.
ZAC: Buddy was ready to Make Providence Great Again. That’s… after the break.
STAFF VIDEO: My name’s Mike Faella and I work as a staff writer for Mayor Cianci.
ZAC: This is a video made in 1991 featuring interviews with Buddy’s new staff. A young guy named Mike Faella is sitting in his cubicle at City Hall, wearing big thick glasses and a striped purple shirt.
STAFF VIDEO: And the mayor’s one of those guys who’s a 17 hour, 18 hour a day worker, and we sort of race to keep up with him. And he’s a real inspiration.
FAELLA: Going into this whole thing, I was remarkably naive.
ZAC: Mike Faella is the guy you heard at the very top of the show, whose first job out of college was as a staff writer for Mayor Buddy Cianci.
ZAC: So first day you’re walking in, what was that like?
FAELLA: First day, they got me a desk sitting next to his Chief of Security, Who was 6’ 2” probably 300 pounds. So here I am sitting next to him just like, “Hey how you doin? How’s it goin? Yeah this is really great, mayor’s doing great stuff for the city.” You know. And I’m writing low-consequence shit. I’m writing to people like, “We were really happy to take care of your streetlamp or sidewalk flaw or dadada sorry about that, bababa.”
ZAC: It wasn’t long before Mike noticed three flags on Buddy’s secretary’s desk.
MIKE: And I was like what do those three flags mean. They were green yellow and red. Green, he’s in a great mood, no worries about going in. Yellow, could go either way. Red, stay the fuck away from him. You could hear, sometimes you would be in the outer office and you would hear him yelling and getting upset and you would see Carol change the flag and just be like boop we’re in red, we’re in the red zone everybody, we’re in the red zone.
ZAC: But Buddy took a shine to Mike.
FAELLA: We got along really well. We were similar build, similar level of articulateness I guess is maybe a word. He loved my writing you know, and it was great boost for me.
ZAC: And being close to Buddy had some benefits.
FAELLA: I started going out with the guys, right? You know, people did treat me differently. You know it was very rare that I ever had to pay for a drink. You know you’d see rounds of drinks come by and food come by and be like oh no one order those, what are those doing? For me I felt like wow this is, I’ve never rolled with guys like this. He didn’t treat you just like he was your employer. He treated you like you were all part of a very close knit team and that’s an exciting thing for a young guy.
ZAC: Sometimes, by last call, Mike would find himself alone in a booth with Buddy.
FAELLA: I mean I’ve definitely closed bars with Buddy and it’s an interesting thing towards the end of the night the mood can get a little dark…and a little self reflective. There was not a lack of awareness of his demons or his conflicts or what was great about him or what was not so great about him. He wore those things and wrestled with those things…pretty openly.
ZAC: But the next morning?
FAELLA: Boom. He’s there into office, springing up crisp clean, the polo cologne. He always wore polo cologne. You could smell it coming up the back stairs. And you always knew he would come in and you’d heard the big doors. The bottom door would shut and you’d be oh, mayor’s here.
You’d be like, I don’t understand how you look normal. Now normal, relative. There was the make up, first of all. There was the wig.
The toupee is such a quintessential thing about Buddy. I mean, people aren’t dumb and you see pictures of him in 1973 he’s got a head like Baby Huey, you see I’m in 1980 and he’s got a head like Ron Regan. People weren’t stupid and they didn’t give a fuck and he knew they didn’t give a fuck.
And it humanized him. Look at this guy, he’s embracing his vanity. He doesn’t care.
I mean, Buddy had his brand buttoned up, which was this combination of like, underdog but also champion, hyper intelligent but also dangerous. And, that brand was very, very seductive and super effective.
ZAC: If the new Buddy was good at anything, it was branding. And he used those skills to promote Providence.
BUDDY: I always felt you had to brand the city too. You brand the city. Every time there was something to be named in the city I always said it has to be named after Providence or we’re not going to support it. The performing arts center, we gave them all that money, was the Ocean State Theater. I said the state doesn’t give you a dime. So I’m on the board. Said I’m not giving you the last 300 grand for the seats unless you name it the Providence Performing Arts Center. Done. Right. You want to brand the city? You gonna call it the Capital City Mall? I said, no no. No Capital City Mall. Providence Place Mall. Festival ballet? I said, Providence Ballet. Opera, Providence Opera.
ZAC: Under Buddy’s watch, a lot started happening in Providence. The railroad tracks that crossed the city… were torn up, uncovering Providence’s long-buried river. Development money was funneled to the downtown. Nightlife blossomed. And the city’s biggest cheerleader…was Buddy.
BUDDY: Just think of what we have. Performing arts center that’s one of the 20 best in America, a Tony Award winning repertory theater, Trinity. The best restaurants. Convention center. New hotels going up. We’re the only city building museums. A major arts district. All those things have lifted our self-esteem to great levels of achievement.
ZAC: They called it the Providence Renaissance.
ARCHIVAL NEWS: Move over Boston, the city of Providence is moving up in the world. The capital city was recognized in USA Today as a Renaissance City.
ARCHIVAL NEWS: What the people of this city particularly this mayor has done to rebuild this and bring life to this city is fantastic. This city was considered a splotch on the road to Cape Cod several years ago. Not anymore, it’s a destination place.
FAELLA: He was filled with all the confidence and the energy and the charisma for a man who’s been vindicated you know and he knew it. This was a victory lap.
ZAC: Again, Buddy’s former staff writer, Mike Faella.
FAELLA: He’s doing all this shit he’s crushing it, people are loving him. And he’s a champion again so he’s crushing it and he has the hubris of a guy who’s crushing it like that.
Did you anybody ever tell you about the shutting down of Amsterdam’s? Do you remember hearing about that?
ZAC: No, tell me about that.
FAELLA: Oh, tha’ts interesting. So Buddy went out one night to down to Amsterdam’s, it was kind of like a club and a restaurant. And they had a doorman there who didn’t recognize him. New kid, obviously was not from Providence, didn’t know who Buddy was, so he wouldn’t let him in. He wanted to charge him a cover and Buddy was like, you know I’m the mayor of Providence, I’m your mayor. You want me to pay a cover? He said ok, hang on a second. Out comes the brick phone, and they were in those days, big ass brick phones, he, uh, makes a call, next thing you know, five fire trucks pull up in front of Amsterdam’s. “I think there’s a code violation, I think there’s maybe 50 or 60 too many people in this place, I think we probably better shut it down.” Within a half an hour the place was empty, shut down, closed.
The next day, I’m at the main office. Who comes in? The owner of Amsterdam’s. He was such a hot shit when he was at his restaurant, And he was not that man at that moment. When he went into Buddy, Buddy made him get on his knees and beg for his license back And you know that was, that’s just, that was it. That was the way that worked. And he got his license back, after he paid a very very healthy fine. And Lord knows what else. And a week later it was up and running. But, nothing like a week of having your restaurant closed to just remind you who the fuck is running this town.
BUDDY: Of course you use your influence as mayor, that’s why the people elected you.
Here’s Buddy out to dinner with the coauthor of his autobiography…. talking about how he occasionally used his influence as Mayor to punish people.
FISHER: So when you send the inspectors in who do you call?
BUDDY: You call the director of building inspections.
FISHER: And what do you say to him?
BUDDY: I have complaints that this building is not up to snuff, go look at it.
FISHER: And he understands what you’re saying?
BUDDY: Well, sometimes you tell him you want an expected result.
FISHER: You do say that, that blatantly.
BUDDY: Sure. Sure. How’s that fish?
FISHER: Oh, it’s delicious. You don’t understand nobody talks like this, nobody explains how it really works.
BUDDY: I’m not there to play, to see who is going to win the game when you playing on my court, my field and I own the referees. You ain’t gonna beat me.
ZAC: Towards the end of his time working in City Hall, Mike Faella was completely inside Buddy’s world… One night, he found himself back at Power Street with the mayor.
FAELLA: We were there and we’d been drinking.
And first he sends the cop, go down to Haven Brothers and get some burgers. So they sent the cop down to Haven Brothers and the cops hated that shit they were like, you fucking kidding me, what? Go get burgers? Okay. So he went down to get burgers and we are like right on there’s some burgers right? No, that’s not what the burgers were for.
His two cocker spaniels matching, pedigree cocker spaniels, come out. And, they’re like perfectly groomed dogs and he just stands there and he’s reaching into a bag of hamburgers and just dropping the burger meat onto the ground and the dogs, he would just laugh. He’d be like you see that boss? Look at that, look at little fucking guy, look at them, they love it, they love it, they love it. Alright outta there. And it was like this is, this is Shakespeare, this is just King Lear!
He knew full well what that moment meant, what it said to everyone else in the room. What it said to that cop. What it said to those dogs. He knew. And I have to say I was impressed.
BUDDY: That’s why i was able to continue on for so many years. And change the face of this city, ‘cause I didn’t give a fuck. ‘Cause they were all afraid of me.”
ZAC: Buddy had returned to mayor’s office with the promise that he was a changed man. But as the years went by . . . it was clear that the old Buddy was back.
FAELLA: Year one was best behavior time. ‘91, the decree down was don’t fucking do anything. Year 2, things were great. Our approval ratings were through the roof the city was coming back. Year 3 was getting a little bit like—and again, and believe me I’d tell you anything cuz there is nothing they can do to me now—but you just could see that the seams were starting to to burst.
And I also had a feeling like these guys are gonna get in trouble.
MARC: We’ll catch up with Mayor Buddy Cianci in future episodes… but next time on Crimetown, Charles “The Ghost’ Kennedy’s drug smuggling empire falls apart and he loses everything… and everybody.
CHARLES KENNEDY: When the doorbell rings, It’s not good. Because it isn’t friendly. He says to me, don’t you move, you motherfucker, don’t fucking move. Get your fucking hands up.
ZAC: Crimetown is me, Zac Stuart-Pontier, and Marc Smerling.
We are produced by Drew Nelles, Austin Mitchell, Kaitlin Roberts, and Mike Plunkett. Our associate producer is Laura Sim.
We’re edited by Alex Blumberg and Caitlin Kenney.
Fact-checking by Mick Rouse.
This episode of Crimetown was mixed, sound designed, and scored by Matthew Boll.
Additional mixing by Enoch Kim and Martin Peralta.
Our title track is “Run To Your Mama” by Goat.
The credit music this week is “Black Jays Errday” by James Swanberg
Original music by John Kusiak, Jon Ivans, Edwin and Bienart.
Our ad music is by Matthew Boll.
Our digital editor is Rob Szypko. Our design director is Ale Lariu.
Alex Blumberg is The Podfather… we’re in the red zone everybody, we’re in the red zone.
This season of Crimetown is dedicated to the memory of Bill Malinowski.
Thanks to the Brad Turchetta and the Cianci Estate, the Providence Journal, Julia Heymans, Emily Wiedemann, Victoria Yarnish, Yuya Kudo, Lisa Newby, Mike Stanton — check out his book “The Prince of Providence” — Kate Wells, David Fisher, Mary Murphy, Dan Barry and everybody who shared their stories with us.
For a full list of credits, bonus content and to sign up for our brand new newsletter, visit our website at crimetownshow.com.
You can find us on Twitter @crimetown, and on Facebook and Instagram @crimetownshow.
And if you’re enjoying Crimetown, leave us a rating and review on iTunes. It really helps others find out about the show. Thanks.
Providence is a special place, and we’re honored to tell a part of its story.
FAELLA: And until you’ve seen the wigs in their entirety off the head, it’s amazing. In the armoire, in the bedroom. You would open it up and on three styrofoam heads were the wigs. On the left was summer, the short cut. The middle, was year-rounder, the interim between haircuts cut. And on the right, was the winter, the longest cut. So he was always covered.
And they were really expensive, all human hair. You know, the first time I saw that, I nearly shit my pants. I mean, It was insane. I open it up, and I’m like, are you kidding me? Are you kidding me? This is perfect.