Legacy of scandal mars Rhode Island

Indictment of Providence mayor only adds to state's image of being 'for sale' and puts focus on reform.

The people of Rhode Island will tell you this is nothing new.

The mayor of this capital city was indicted last week on 30 counts of corruption, and the indictment alleges he extorted cash and contributions for city contracts, for real estate deals, and for free admission to an exclusive club.

But before him, there was Gov. Edward DiPrete. He pleaded no contest to trading state contracts for contributions from 1985 to 1990. And then there was Pawtucket Mayor Brian Sarault, who pleaded guilty in 1991 to accepting various kickbacks.

"Nobody's surprised," says a man who identifies himself only as Frank, a lifelong Rhode Islander taking a break on a street corner near City Hall. "For the smallest state, we've got more corruption going on here than anyplace else in the United States."

That may be a bit of a stretch - but not much. As early as 1904, journalist Lincoln Steffens called Rhode Island "A State for Sale," and GOP political boss Charles Brayton quipped: "An honest voter is one who stays bought."

For nearly 90 years, little changed. But now, some experts say, sweeping ethics reforms adopted a decade ago are beginning to take effect, and the allegations surrounding Mayor Vincent "Buddy" Cianci are the last gasps of the old political order that ran Chicago and New York's Tammany Hall.

Others, however, aren't so certain. They wonder if a state that has been dubbed the "Louisiana of the North" can so quickly wean itself from the corruption and cronyism that has defined it since before the Civil War.

"We've made dramatic progress. Things that were taken for granted people just wouldn't do anymore," says H. Philip West, executive director of Common Cause of Rhode Island, a political watchdog. "But we take a few steps forward and a few back."

A questionable past

The list of tainted officials is long.

Former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Joseph Bevilacqua resigned in 1986 amid allegations that he had mob ties. His successor, Thomas Fay, resigned in 1993 and later pleaded guilty to using state money for personal business. Joseph Pannone, former head of the Providence tax-assessment board, pleaded guilty in 1999 to taking bribes to cut property taxes.

Today, Mayor Cianci is the primary figure in Rhode Island politics. After all, the tiny seacoast enclave is the closest thing to an American city-state, with Providence at its head. And it is nearly impossible to look out over this modest city and not see Cianci's fingerprint.

Below the narrow streets and restored brownstones of College Hill, red-brick bridges arch gracefully over canals once paved under concrete. Beside the State Capitol rises Providence Place - a glass-vaulted colossus of shops straddling the Providence River.

In 10 years, Cianci has helped transform the mob capital of New England into an American Venice - a model of urban renewal and the halcyon setting for a hit NBC drama. As a result, many here are willing to be charitable.

"A majority of people still love him," says Mary Plante, standing in the atrium of Providence Place. Dressed crisply in a black leather jacket, the Rhode Islander speaks with conviction. Cianci should resign. But "overall, the feeling is that every mayor does it."

Indeed, the seeds of corruption and lawlessness here go back centuries. Founder Roger Williams only moved here after he was banished from Massachusetts in 1636 for his liberal views on freedom of religion. For years after, it was considered a haven for scofflaws.

In 1772, residents committed the first act of violence against the British Empire leading up to the Revolutionary War, when they burned an English customs vessel. Williams's legacy ingrained in Rhode Islanders a fierce sense of liberty, but it also forsook the moralistic element of public life that had typified Puritan Massachusetts.

"It's a very recent idea that you go into government to do the public will," says Maureen Moakley, a history professor at the University of Rhode Island. "Certainly up until World War II, it was 'to the winners go the spoils.' "

Much of that stems from Rhode Island's political culture, which pitted the descendants of the first settlers against the Irish who came in the late 19th century. For decades the corrupt Republican cabal of business owners and opportunists, led by Brayton, kept power by centering nearly all authority in the legislature and keeping Democratic immigrants and urbanites out of politics.

At one point, West Greenwich, with 400 people, had the same number of senators as Providence, with 268,000.

Taking the low road

But when the Democrats finally did wrest power from the GOP in the "Bloodless Revolution" of the 1930s, they used the same tactics. "Rather than put aside the old ways, they pursued the politics of revenge," says Patrick Conley, a former Providence College professor.

While Rhode Island still hasn't established checks and balances or an effective two-party system, attitudes have slowly begun to change. Through the campaign-finance laws, term limits, and judicial reform of the 1990s, the state has taken positive steps. The Cianci indictments are "a holdover," says Professor Moakley.

But problems remain - most obviously, nepotism. In a state where everybody knows everybody else, the politics of intimacy remain Rhode Island's most entrenched ethical stumbling block.

"The worst situation with government is personal hiring practices," says Darrell West, director of the Taubman Center for Public Policy at Brown University here. "That leads to a lot of bad practices in government and public cynicism." Ms. Plante is evidence of that. "If you grew up here, you're used to it," she says. "It's a small state ..., and everyone wants to help out a 'friend.' "

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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