Providence moving beyond mob-tied past

The old mayor brought big development but was a convicted racketeer. The new one hopes to maintain the prosperity, minus the kickbacks.

Mayor David Cicilline doesn't hawk his own marinara sauce like his famous and now imprisoned predecessor, Vincent "Buddy" Cianci Jr. And he'd rather exercise at 5:30 a.m. than trade barbs with radio talk-show hosts.

But after more than two decades of Mr. Cianci, the pitchman-in-chief whose ability to sell the city - and himself - was equaled only by his penchant for corruption, few here seem to mind their new mayor's lower profile.

Almost a year into his first term, Mr. Cicilline's focus on the more mundane details of attracting business and cleaning up government is earning him public approval ratings as high as Cianci at his peak. "People see [Cicilline] as a reform agent - the person who has come to change Providence's politics," says Darrell West, a Brown University political scientist. "People are optimistic that the city is heading in the right direction."

And with Cianci in federal prison and out of the public eye, many here are rethinking whether Providence's lovable rogue was good for the city after all. No one completely discounts Cianci's role in transforming Providence. A place that was once known nationally as little more than the home of Ivy League Brown and the New England Mafia became a symbol of urban renaissance during his tenure.

The cityscape is shaped by crowd-pleasing projects Cianci helped push. There's the huge Providence Place mall and the river redirected through downtown, where gondolas now glide and "WaterFire" shows spew flames choreographed to music.

Yet he also left another legacy: a city deep in debt with bloated union contracts, a shrunken tax base, and one of the highest property tax levies in the nation. A federal probe nicknamed "Operation Plunder Dome" revealed the seedier side of his tenure: It sent Cianci to jail for the second time on racketeering charges.

It is that mixed legacy that has been inherited by Cicilline, who has nearly as many identities as the hilly city he now leads. The half-Jewish, half-Italian, openly gay son of Providence's most prominent mob lawyer graduated from Brown and practiced law before earning a reputation as a reformist legislator.

Applying Windex to City Hall

In the months since taking office, he's earned kudos for cleaning up city hall. He eliminated the infamous "tow list" - used to funnel lucrative contracts to political favorites, refused political donations from city employees, and named a commission to draft the first ethics code for municipal workers.

Still, not everyone is quite ready to declare an end to Providence's culture of corruption. "It's a huge challenge," says H. Philip West Jr., executive director of Rhode Island Common Cause. "There is a large cadre of people who got their jobs because they were willing to do questionable if not overtly corrupt things. Those people are still in place."

Equally important is Cicilline's campaign to convince businesses they should invest in Providence. Many corporate owners admit they were scared away by the prospect of kickbacks and Cianci's mercurial management style. "Who wanted to do business with him? It was run on a whim," says Stanley Weiss, a real estate developer now building an 80-room hotel. For years, Mr. Weiss says he was told he might find it difficult to get a liquor license - unless he greased the wheels of Cianci's machine. By contrast, Cicilline's aides told him a license wouldn't be a problem. "I almost fell out of my chair," he says. "He's doing the right thing. He's trying to clean house."

So far those efforts seem to be paying off. Cicilline aides say that $133 million in new construction projects were started in the first nine months of 2003 - almost double the year before. And unlike in the past, when residents in outlying neighborhoods felt neglected, all the attention isn't just on downtown. Cicilline points to the renovation of an abandoned mill in one of the city's most rundown neighborhoods. It is being turned into offices, apartments, and stores.

Cianci used to say that he'd attend any opening in Providence, even that of an envelope. While Cicilline doesn't go that far, he has tried to put a human touch on his job. Every other month, he holds office hours in neighborhoods. On a recent weeknight, the mayor sat for four hours in a community center cafeteria in heavily Latino South Providence. Residents shuffled in one at a time from an adjacent gymnasium. Sitting coatless behind a lone desk, Cicilline asked each, "How are things?"

William Garcia, who came to talk to the mayor about rising rents and unsafe basement apartments, says he likes what he's seen so far - particularly when compared to his predecessor. "He did a lot of things for the city, but the corruption was so high in this state," Mr. Garcia says. "The guy was a crook and nobody stopped it."

Old loyalties persist

Not all Cianci loyalists are won over - particularly in Cianci's old stronghold of Federal Hill, a neighborhood of Italian restaurants, grocery stores, and bakeries. "I loved Buddy," says George Culbert, who has lived in Providence for half a century and still sends Cianci holiday cards. "It's easy to say the bad things, but he improved the city immensely."

Still, Cianci's luster has clearly faded 12 months after moving to a New Jersey federal prison. His pasta sauce is off shelves and NBC canceled the drama "Providence," on which he guest-starred. Cianci's reputation took its biggest hit with the publication of "The Prince of Providence," a detailed account of his tenure written by Providence Journal reporter Mike Stanton that shocked even city insiders. "The good things that were done were undermined by the corruption and his pettiness," says Mr. Stanton.

Cicilline, for one, doesn't mind if residents think he's less colorful than his predecessor. "It's more about substance and less about fanfare," Cicilline says in an interview in his ornate City Hall office, once bugged by FBI agents. "What people want more than a mayor with a pasta sauce is one who produces results."

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