A Reformer In Rhode Island

By David S. Broder
Thursday, June 8, 2006

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Something remarkable is happening here. A city long renowned for the rackets and graft is being cleaned up by a reform-minded mayor.

The author of this turnaround is David Cicilline, a 44-year-old self-described liberal and gay man, who is headed for a second term in November in an overwhelmingly Catholic and ethnic city long known as a Mafia headquarters.

Cicilline succeeded the notorious Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci Jr., who in two separate and lengthy runs as mayor dazzled voters with his personality and humor even as he and his henchmen stole the city blind.

Prosecutor Richard Rose once told a jury, as recounted by Mike Stanton in his revelatory book, "The Prince of Providence," that "Cianci's criminal enterprise collected illegal contributions and cash in exchange for hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax breaks, jobs, leases and city contracts."

Cicilline's background is as uncommon as his achievements. He grew up in Providence with an Italian father and a Jewish mother, attended both St. Bartholomew's Roman Catholic Church, where he was baptized and received communion, and Temple Torat Yisrael. Today he attends a temple and considers himself Jewish.

After playing fullback on his high school football team, he attended Brown University and Georgetown law school and returned to Providence to open a criminal defense practice.

When Cicilline ran for the legislature as a Democrat in 1994, H. Philip West Jr., the executive director of Common Cause of Rhode Island, told me, "I was initially skeptical, because his father was a mob lawyer for a long time." But, he said, Cicilline sponsored a number of the reform group's ethics bills, including a highly controversial measure strongly opposed by the Democratic leaders of the legislature because it threatened their traditional control of many government agencies.

When Cicilline announced he was running for mayor in 2002 against Cianci, West, like many others, "thought he was crazy." But before Election Day, Cianci was convicted and sentenced to jail. Cicilline beat three others, including a former mayor, in the Democratic primary, putting together a coalition of affluent reform-minded voters around Brown University and the largely Hispanic poverty wards on the other side of town. The general election was easier.

On the day in January 2003 when he was sworn in as mayor, U.S. Attorney Meg Curran, whose office had sent Cianci to jail, told Charley Bakst, the longtime political columnist for the Providence Journal, "This is a crowning achievement for the city."

In an interview, Cicilline said he borrowed freely from the examples of other mayors, from Baltimore to Boston, installing professional managers instead of political cronies and using computers to measure the workloads and results of city workers.

The merit system had its costs, including, he acknowledged, a rather bitter family dispute when he turned down a job application from his brother-in-law. "But city employees now feel pride in their work," he said.

One of Cicilline's first moves was to hire a new police chief, Dean Esserman, who put a stop to political favoritism in appointments and instituted a crime-reducing system of community policing. "That has made a huge difference," West said. "The police are accessible now. I've seen big, burly cops playing hopscotch with kids."

When his campaign started, Cicilline announced that he would accept no contributions from city employees. He also ended the pay-to-play customs of the past -- and, not coincidentally, there has been a burst of civic spirit and economic development in Providence. For the first time, Cicilline has persuaded the four private universities in the city to make "voluntary" contributions of millions of dollars, in lieu of taxes, to the city.

And the revival of downtown Providence, which began during the Cianci years, has really accelerated, with lucrative tower and hotel projects underway and the tax base increasing. Also, for the first time in almost 20 years, Providence has a grade-A bond rating.

Charles Francis, the chairman of the board of the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce, told me, "The mayor has been a breath of fresh air. He has brought stability to the city and confidence to city government. He has brought in very competent people. The development going on now is because of what he has done to City Hall."

But no one -- including the mayor -- thinks the job is done. Some members of the City Council and some municipal unions are battling Cicilline. Poverty remains persistent, and schools, while showing some improvement, still are inadequate.

But for Providence, it really is a new day.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company