When Mayor David N. Cicilline recently appointed a task force to create this city's first comprehensive ethics code, the moment was a revelation for anyone familiar with graft-driven Providence politics.
But as if for emphasis, he had standing by his side the most prominent task force appointee: U.S. Attorney Margaret E. Curran, whose municipal corruption investigation -- dubbed Operation Plunder Dome -- had put Cicilline's flamboyant predecessor behind bars.
"My administration pledges to hold all of us to the highest ethical standards," Cicilline told reporters earlier this month as he introduced Curran and six other task force members. "I don't think anyone who has spent any time in the city the last couple of years would doubt this ethics code is necessary and what the people are demanding."
Curran said a "considerable component" of her desire to participate in the task force was her faith in the new mayor. "Already, I think he has demonstrated to all of Rhode Island that he is doing outstanding things," she said.
Gone are the celebrity photos from the ornate mayoral office at City Hall. Gone are the jars of the Mayor's Own Marinara Sauce for sale. Gone are the stools and liquor from the backroom bar. Gone is Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci Jr., the city's longest-serving mayor, who was convicted on federal racketeering conspiracy charges and sentenced in September to five years in prison.
In his stead, Providence has chosen another eye-opener of a chief executive. A liberal Democrat and Ivy League-educated reformer, Cicilline, 41, is not only the city's first new mayor in 21 years. He is also its first Jewish and gay mayor (making Providence the largest city in the nation with a gay mayor), and the Italian American son of one of New England's most prominent organized-crime lawyers.
The new mayor shares Cianci's wit and energy, his passion for Providence and his taste for the finer things in life (he lives on the city's exclusive East Side and owns a 1975 Rolls-Royce and a 1984 Porsche), but the similarities end there, political observers and friends say. Cicilline, who is single, goes to the gym at 5:30 every morning. He doesn't drink and doesn't smoke. Neither does he have a criminal record.
As mayor, Cicilline has hired an independent financial management team to propose a five-year plan. He brought in a diverse staff of professionals from the business and nonprofit communities, including a former top aide to Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy (D) and the president of the state Cambodian Society. He abolished a politically connected tow list and hired a new police chief, who reopened an investigation into whether officers cheated on promotion exams. He recently forced out the top three administrators at the city's Department of Communications after an internal review uncovered mismanagement and evidence that a computer system in the nearby Public Safety Complex may have secretly recorded phone calls.
And for the first time in years, the mayor of Providence and the governor of Rhode Island -- another newcomer, Donald Carcieri (R) -- are on speaking terms.
"Cicilline is a breath of fresh air," said Darrell West, his former political science professor at Brown University. "He has to persuade people that he really is different, and so far he gets high marks for doing that. He's doing all the right things."
Rabbi Leslie Y. Gutterman, Cicilline's rabbi at the East Side synagogue where he once taught ethics, agreed: "He's a mensch, which is the highest accolade one can pay in the Jewish tradition."
The middle of five children, Cicilline was raised by a Jewish mother and a Catholic father who once served as deputy mayor of Providence. As a teenager, and as the nephew of a state senator, Cicilline attended town meetings and lobbied to have Italian added to the school curriculum. He graduated from Brown and worked as a lawyer in New York and Washington before establishing a lucrative criminal defense and civil rights practice in Rhode Island.
An unsuccessful run for state senate in 1992 preceded his winning House bid two years later. As a state legislator, Cicilline established a liberal voting record, creating school improvement teams and working to require unlicensed sellers at gun shows to perform background checks of buyers through licensed dealers. He also sought, albeit unsuccessfully, to pass a Public Integrity Act.
H. Philip West Jr., executive director of Common Cause of Rhode Island and a member of the new ethics task force, said he was skeptical at first about the young politician's motives. Part of the reason, he said, was Cicilline's father, who represented Mafia boss Raymond Patriarca, among other organized-crime figures.
"I would say that in contrast to my initial suspicion or anxiety about him, [David] worked very hard at making government more ethical," West said.
Friends and former colleagues cited Cicilline's integrity and examples of his unsolicited kindnesses over the years, including caring in his home for a friend dying of AIDS-related complications.
Edith H. Ajello, a Democratic state representative, recalled how he made a donation to a charitable organization for a tree to be planted in her late father's memory. Cicilline had never met her father, she said, but he clearly remembered that she had told him her father had loved trees. She found out only after the charity sent her a thank-you note.
"At least four years ago, I remember thinking to myself, and saying to David, 'If anybody can beat Cianci, it's you,' " she said. "He combined all the good Cianci brought to Providence -- the energy, the love for the city, the ability to talk about it with humor, wit and wisdom -- with a fundamental feeling of fairness."
In fact, Cicilline was the first and only candidate to jump into the race before the guilty verdict was delivered against Cianci, whose popularity ratings soared even mid-trial. While Cianci lauded his downtown revival efforts, Cicilline, who speaks conversational Spanish and belongs to the Sons of Italy, hired a Brown University student as campaign manager and reached out to neighborhoods that felt left out of the renaissance. From an office in South Providence, he attracted black and Latino voters, as well as prosperous East Siders, to win with more than 80 percent of the vote last November.At his inauguration, Cicilline promised in his raspy voice to tackle the ills of government "guided by old-fashioned principles of right and wrong."
"Today, we turn our backs on the practices and customs of the recent past," he said.
He said in a recent interview that the problems were worse than he expected, and that every city operation was under review. Providence, while receiving national acclaim for its cultural amenities, has a projected $35 million deficit for the next fiscal year, he said.
Schools are suffering, city departments have no technology and some unqualified personnel, and the rot of corruption must be expunged, he said.
Most employees want to do their jobs well, but they also want "strong, determined and principled leadership," said Cicilline, who removed all of Cianci's mayoral staff.
He has generated widespread goodwill. But once the honeymoon is over, the new mayor and others say, he is likely to face strong resistance from entrenched subordinates and powerful interest groups. Jason Young, a spokesman for the Victory Fund, a leading gay and lesbian political organization, said, "David is the kind of person who has the promise to go places, but first he has to do this job well."
Meanwhile, Cicilline said he was constantly being tested to see if he would reverse course. He has rejected favors of free meals and at least one offer by a parking enforcement officer to tear up a ticket. He accumulated $350,000 in campaign debt, but pledged early on not to accept contributions from city employees or vendors. They send the checks anyway, only to have Cicilline return them.
"By breaking that connection, I know it sent a very strong message that things are different in this city government," he said. "It's the right thing to do."