CHAPTER FIVE: THE ART OF THE DEAL
MARC SMERLING: It was a dark and stormy night. Buddy Cianci was waiting for his helicopter to arrive. Chain smoking, one hand holding an ashtray. Standing next to him was his aide, Bob Chase.
BOB CHASE: The sky’s getting dark and looking threatening and he said Bobby, he said, Hold out your hands. So I figure, you know, little old ladies have written requests, he’s gonna hand me this request, this request. I hold out my hands. And he takes the ashtray. Whap, right into my hands. And he said “Sorry,” he said, “the updraft, it would suck it up.”
The rotor’s starting to go, boom boom, he’s going off into the sky. Here I am looking at this pile of butts and ashes in my hands, and then the heavens open up. It was like, why me?
MARC: Bob stood there, in the pouring rain, his hands full of cigarette butts. To Bob, this moment said a lot about Buddy. Buddy was incredibly smart. Charming. But he had an ego that allowed him to view people as ashtrays.
BOB: I think he has a little of the Trump in him, a little bit of the narcissist quality, and maybe most politicians do. Just a shame that because of his personality and character flaws that he couldn’t have done more good.
ZAC STUART-PONTIER: When we last left Buddy Cianci, he’d been elected mayor of Providence, and was getting national attention as a young, Italian Republican.
MARC: Today’s episode: Buddy’s ego gets ahead of him. And he’s forced to make some arrangements to save his political career.
I’m Marc Smerling.
ZAC: And I’m Zac Stuart-Pontier.
MARC: Welcome...to Crimetown.
ARCHIVAL: Our mayor and the next governor of the state of Rhode Island, Buddy Cianci...[applause]
MARC: Buddy Cianci had done a lot for the city of Providence. He’d restored buildings downtown, spruced up the neighborhoods, and the people loved him for it. So, with two years left to go in the Mayor’s office, he decided it was time to continue his political rise. He declared his intention to run for governor of Rhode Island.
BUDDY IN ARCHIVAL: Ladies and gentleman. I appreciate the tremendous support. And together we began a journey six years ago, we’ve changed our city, we’ve made it a model. I’m proud of the city of Providence. And I’m not gonna leave the city of Providence, I just want to move a few blocks away up to the statehouse, where I can do even more for Providence and the rest of the state. Thank you all very much for coming.
MARC: To win the governor’s race, Buddy would need money and support from the National Republican Party. It’s 1980, a presidential election year. So, Buddy flies to California to meet the Republican presidential candidate, Ronald Reagan.
Here’s Buddy with the co-author of his autobiography.
BUDDY: I go and see Ronald Reagan out in California. And I don’t really want to support Ronald Reagan at the time because he’s real conservative and this is a real liberal state.
DAVID FISHER: You were kissing the ring.
BUDDY: Yeah but I didn’t want to fucking support him.
MARC: Publicly supporting a conservative like Ronald Reagan could be political poison for Buddy back home. So after his meeting with Reagan, Buddy sat down with Reagan’s campaign manager, John Sears, to ask a simple question: If Buddy was to support Reagan, what would be in it for Buddy?
BUDDY: Sears takes me back to the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel. I wanted to cover my bets. Sitting there, so now I said to him, very careful, I said, “Sears, John, let’s say a guy like me - a guy like me - runs for governor. Let’s say a guy like me - not me necessarily, but like me - loses. And wants to maybe get something in consideration for his run.” I said, “What would a guy like me get?”
MARC: It was time to make a deal.
BUDDY: “Oh, you? Easy.” He said, “You could be maybe head of GSA or maybe an ambassadorship or a high level position in the cabinet, you know? Maybe assistant secretary of HUD or deputy attorney general, stuff like that.
So I said, “Oh, I could have all that stuff available?” He said, “Yeah, absolutely.” That’s good. I said, “Does the governor know all this?” He said the most telling thing about Ronald Reagan that I ever heard. He said, “That’s the greatest part about working for Ronald Reagan. He doesn’t have to know.”
MARC: Buddy was soon campaigning in lockstep with Ronald Reagan.
REPORTER: Do you think a man of Mr Reagan’s age can handle the many extreme pressures the Presidency will put on him?
BUDDY: Yes I do or I wouldn’t be supporting him. He is 69-years-old and I know many senior citizens who are in their seventies who, in my opinion, are very active, are very involved in many different activities.
MARC: With the Republican Party behind him, it looked like Buddy had a good shot at becoming the next governor of Rhode Island. Moving into June, the polls showed Buddy and the incumbent neck and neck. But Buddy’s opponent knew something the voters of rhode island didn’t. And he bought some spots on television to educate them.
COMMERCIAL: The Cianci administration. There’s quite a story to tell. His first year, the budget deficit in Providence was only $479,000. And now the deficit has risen to $14 million and it’s still rising. And Buddy Cianci says he wants to do for the state what he’s done for Providence?
MARC: And it was true. The city’s finances were in serious trouble. And now, everybody knew about it.
NEWSCASTER: Good evening, our guest, mayor Vincent Cianci of Providence, the embattled mayor of Providence, you’ll have to call him right now and in recent weeks. Unless you’ve been away on an extended vacation out of the country, you must know what’s been happening with the city of Providence and its current financial crisis.
MARC: Providence was broke. And here’s the thing. The city’s financial troubles may have come as a surprise to a lot of people. But for Buddy, it wasn’t a surprise at all.
PAUL CAMPBELL: By early ‘79 he was already thinking about running for governor.
MARC: This is Paul Campbell. He worked on Buddy’s gubernatorial campaign.
PAUL: And I can clearly remember during the early part of 1980, they had put together this sort of house of cards strategy that would create immediate sources of funding to keep the city on relatively solid financial footing until after the gubernatorial campaign was over.
MARC: Buddy was hoping he’d become governor, and the fiscal crisis in Providence would be someone else’s problem.
BUDDY: My ideas was to get out of Providence -- ‘cause shit was gonna hit the fan with the finances ‘cause we were broke. I knew that was coming. So if I get out in time, I’ll be able to say hey I left I don’t know what happened.
PAUL: The city went into a financial tailspin.
MARC: Again, Paul Campbell.
PAUL: During the summer of that year the council had to enact a supplemental tax increase. So this is, we’re not only going to increase your taxes once a year—we just increased them—but we’re going to increase them again. I mean, people went ballistic.
NEWSCASTER: Last fall you spent about $3 million repairing city streets and sidewalks during your election campaign. You personally assured me that the money was in the right places to do it. City council members now say that the money was not there in the appropriate budgets to do that and they are now scrambling to find money in other allotments that has not been spent.
BUDDY: We used federal money, a lot of federal money and redevelopment money to do those sidewalks and plant trees and people say it’s political...
NEWSCASTER: So you’re saying in spite of what city council is saying...
BUDDY: And some people are saying...May I be permitted to finish? May I be permitted to finish?
NEWSCASTER: If you answer the question.
BUDDY: Well, I thought I was.
MARC: In the final months of the governor’s race, Buddy’s numbers plummeted. And on election night, when the ballots were counted, the incumbent governor had nearly 300,000 votes. Buddy just over 100,000. He had been crushed.
BUDDY: I actually thought I could win. And I knew the last couple weeks it wasn’t gonna happen. But we had polls originally that said I could win. The last night of the election and I was in the helicopter, flying back from the last campaign stop, which was in Woonsocket or some place. It was dark and it was cold. And I was listening to the radio in the helicopter, coming in all over the city. And I could listen to the newscast, or whatever it was. They already had me a loser and they said. Oh, but he fought till the end and all this kind of stuff, you know.
So I went home and took a shower, went back. And I’ll never forget, I went to the hotel where all these supporters were waiting, and I said—all the cameras were there—and I said, I am absolutely so appreciative to the people of Rhode Island for having so much confidence in returning me in such an overwhelming majority to be mayor of the city of Providence.
DAVID FISHER: Talk about finding a silver lining.
BUDDY: Yeah. Yeah.
DAVID: Losing’s not fun.
BUDDY’S CONCESSION SPEECH: But you know, tonight is not a total loss. You know, I have a lot in common with Ronald Reagan. You know. Let me tell you what I have a lot in common with Ronald Reagan about. Number one, we both lost Rhode Island. And we both have a job in January. And I think that’s terrific. [cheers]
MARC: Buddy had lost Rhode Island.
Ronald Reagan, of course, won the presidential election. And memories are short in Washington. So it’s no surprise that the jobs dangled in front of Buddy for his support were quickly forgotten.
Buddy limped back to City Hall. He still had two more years left as mayor.
JOE PAOLINO: He just finished getting slaughtered for governor. He was devastated.
MARC: Joe Paolino was a prominent Democratic politician in Providence. At this time, he was a city councillor, and one of Buddy’s most vocal enemies.
JOE: He was trying to sweep the problems under the rug, become governor and let the next guy worry about it. Well, he lost and then he had to face up to it. The garbage strike was the best thing that happened to him.
Because he was able to change the subject.
MARC: Coming up after the break -- the garbage strike. How taking out the trash resurrected Buddy Cianci’s political career. With a little help from the mob...
MARC: Welcome back. Before the break, Buddy Cianci had suffered a bruising defeat in the governor’s race. Now, he was back in a familiar place: the mayor’s office. And he was finally ready to face the problems he had tried to leave behind.
BUDDY: In 1980 I lost the governorship, and in 1981, I said okay, what we’re gonna do is, I’m gonna run the city like my father died and left me the business. There was a lot of politics before then -- hire this one, hire that one and all that. So I said, well I got two years left in my term, so I’m gonna run the city like a business.
MARC: Running the city like a business meant slashing costs. And why had costs piled up so much? Well, it’s time to meet Providence’s former highway superintendent. His name is Ed Melise. But everyone just calls him Buckles.
BUCKLES: There was a city employee, the father I knew. He was a landscaper for the city and he would get the equipment and put it in the corner and take the city truck and go to the beach in the summer.
MARC: Word had gotten out that this guy in public works was spending his summer at the beach. And Buckles found out about it.
BUCKLES: They called me, they said they got the truck, we got him up at the beach in Narragansett. He left the equipment on the street -- $5,000 worth of equipment -- he didn’t put it back in public works and lock it up before he went. I said, alright bring him to me. So he come over, he’s crying, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” I said, “I don’t understand it. You’re at the beach. With short-sleeved shirts on with a gold chain. What do you want me to do, they were following you. Alright, I’m going to suspend you for two days. Your suspended.”
MARC: A two day suspension for spending all summer at the beach when you were getting paid to be at work. This was the entrenched problem Buddy had been ignoring. Until now.
Here’s Buddy, talking at a book event for his autobiography.
BUDDY: We had a little fiscal crisis in the city. The people in the labor unions, they think the law of primogeniture applies. A garbage man dies, his son is supposed to get the job, see? We had four men on a garbage truck. Now, you can put two men in a spaceship and send them to the moon, you don’t need four men on a garbage truck.
MARC: Buddy wanted to cut the number of guys on a garbage truck from four to three. And by going after the garbage collectors, Buddy came up against Local 1033, part of the powerful, mobbed-up Laborer’s Union.
BUDDY: Union guys today are totally different from the guys I dealt with. You weren’t dealing with members of the Mensa society. You’re dealing with, basically, old-fashioned union guys from the past. I mean you had Arthur Coia, who was definitely a Patriarca guy.
MARC: A Patriarca guy. Buddy’s talking about Raymond L.S. Patriarca, the boss of the New England mob. And Arthur Coia, the secretary general of the Laborer’s Union, was a good friend of his.
One day, Buddy invited Coia to City Hall, to tell him that he wanted to cut the number of men on a garbage truck.
BUDDY: I told them we’re gonna do that. They said, “Oh, you can’t do this to us.” I said, “Why?” “Cause we’re a big union, we’ll destroy you.” I said, “Oh really.” They said, “There’s only one union bigger than ours.” I said “Which one is that.” They said, “The Soviet Union.” I said, “Oh that’s great.”
MARC: Buddy declared war on the Laborer’s Union. And they struck back -- literally. They went on strike.
BOB CHASE: The story I heard -- big muscular guy walked into the city collector's office and told the little old ladies there, out.
MARC: Again, Bob Chase, Buddy’s aide from the top of the show.
BOB: We’re going on strike. You know, there was no vote. No vote to go on strike.
ARCHIVAL STRIKER: It’s a citywide strike. Not only public works, the whole city.
ARCHIVAL STRIKER: Because we’re not going back to work until we have an agreement.
ARCHIVAL STRIKER: You know, there’s 200 ton of garbage out every day. If it’s not picked up, it’s gonna stay there.
MARC: With no workers to pick up the garbage, it began rotting in the streets of Providence.
During strike negotiations, Bob Chase acted as a messenger between Buddy and the union.
BOB: I remember shuttling in between City Hall and where the union negotiators were in the Biltmore and there was a revolving door and some of the union guys deciding to have a good time with me and trapped me in the door. Briefly, briefly. Just as I went to Field’s Point in the back of a police car to hand out a get back to work order to the union people down there and them just looking at me in the eye and crumpling it up and throwing it on the ground. I said, okay, I’m doing my job, you’re doing what you have to do. Nothing personal here. I understood that. Yeah.
MARC: When the garbage men wouldn’t go back to work, the fight was on.
BUDDY: I went down to the public works department, very bravely, with, I don’t know, about 110 policemen, and told them that they were fired.
ARCHIVAL NEWS: As Mayor Cianci told reporter Beverly Horne, the city was going to continue playing hardball.
BUDDY ARCHIVAL: Number one, strikers will not be paid for the days they were out. Number two, no reprisals against workers who did work. Number three, the garbagemen are fired and they will not be rehired by the city. If anybody else wants to hire them, that’s their business, but the city won’t.
MARC: Buddy refused to be intimidated. He hired garbagemen from a private company—scabs—to cross the picket lines and drive the garbage trucks.
BUDDY: The company that I had hired, I bring them in. And I’ll never forget their lawyers in my office, and the lawyers for the company said, “You know, Mayor, we’re afraid.” I said, “Look, you don’t have a police department. I do.” And I said, “There is going to be fourth man on the truck. It’s going to be a policeman with a shotgun.” So I put the shotguns and the cops on the truck.
ARCHIVAL NEWS: The trucks rolled out of the public works garage at 1:30 this morning. Moving the trucks out at that hour caught the union off guard. The trucks were manned by Capuano Brothers drivers and Local 1033 pickers. Police officers armed with shotguns also went along for the ride.
MARC: In the old news footage, you can see Buddy standing in the public works garage, looking on defiantly as the trucks roll out with armed cops hanging off the sides.
But Buddy had a trick up his sleeve. Those shotguns?
BUDDY: They weren’t loaded. No bullets.
DAVID FISHER: Who made that decision?
DAVID: And that was the secret.
BUDDY: That’s right. No bullets. But they didn’t know that. [laughs]
MARC: Finally, after a two-week stand-off, the union was ready to fold. But now, Buddy wasn’t ready.
BUDDY: Now the union wants to settle it. My popularity’s going up. I told the lawyers for the city...There’s no agreement, we’re gonna let this thing keep going and going. Because my popularity was going up, up, up. So, finally I had to settle it because someone was gonna get killed.
MARC: So the strike was settled.
From the outside, it looked like Buddy had battled the mobbed-up Laborer’s Union and won. He had finally taken on the patronage system that had nearly bankrupted the city.
Now, Buddy was back on top.
But this is Providence. Things aren't always as they appear.
So how did Buddy really break the strike? Well, no one knew how to make a deal better than Buddy Cianci. During the strike, he had called in a favor from some...associates.
BUDDY: The union that wanted to go on strike, there were certain members who, I believe, were probably, not members of organized crime, but certainly…
DAVID FISHER: Associates.
BUDDY: Yes. They became friends of ours. And they’re the ones who rode with the people who were hired. They took our side. The union did.
DAVID: You mean the mob.
MARC: Yeah. In other words, Buddy made a deal with a faction within the Laborer’s Union close to organized crime. And he got that faction to cross the picket line and end the strike.
The mob helped Buddy break the strike. Again, Buckles Melise.
BUCKLES: A lot of union members, I don’t want to mention names, they were very close to me that union was afraid of. You know what I mean?
CRIMETOWN PRODUCER: A lot from the guys from Federal Hill?
BUCKLES: Yeah a lot of employees at the time were from Federal Hill. A lot of Federal Hill employees crossed the picket line.
MARC: Federal Hill was Mob Boss Raymond Patriarca’s domain. But why would the mob want to undermine a mobbed up union? Money.
BUCKLES: Some of the city employees got transferred but a lot of them went with new contractor and they ended up getting more money working for private contractor.
MARC: Buddy had privatized garbage hauling in the city, which looked good to the voters. But in the end, no one lost their jobs. And there was no significant savings. The strike was largely theater.
BUDDY: We took on the municipal unions. We took on the municipal unions? We faced. We faced the municipal unions. I’ll change it. Spun off city services…
MARC: This is Buddy working on a speech for his re-election campaign in 1982. His victory against the Laborer’s Union was front and center.
BUDDY’S SPEECH: We faced the municipal unions, spun off city services to the private sector, and saved taxpayer dollars. Moreover, no administration has been more open than mine. I have crisscrossed this city thousands of times, attending meeting upon meeting, listening and responding to what the people had to say.
ARCHIVAL: Four more years! Four more years! Four more years!
MARC: It worked. Buddy won the mayor’s race in ‘82. And he did it with the support of his new friends—the Laborer’s Union. It would be his third term as mayor.
BUDDY’S VICTORY SPEECH: Two years ago they kind of sold us out. But I can tell you tonight that we have won the mayorship for another four years! [cheers]
MARC: Most of the voters in Providence didn’t know how Buddy had really settled the garbage strike. Even if they had known, maybe they wouldn’t have cared. Maybe they just wanted someone who was willing to make a deal.
JOE PAOLINO: He was good that way. He knew how to make a deal.
MARC: Again, former city council member Joe Paolino.
JOE: You talk about Trump, he says, I’m the best dealmaker around. Buddy knew how to make a deal. And remember this, I don’t care if it’s here, New York, anywhere in America, in politics, sometimes the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know. So even though a person could have warts, at least you know who that person is.
MARC: The city of Providence loved Buddy, warts and all.
But across town, at the Federal Building, there were some people looking into all this dealmaking that was going on at City Hall. People who were a lot less flexible about the kind of deals that should be made by a mayor. Those people were from the the FBI.
MARC: You’re from Rhode Island? No, you’re from Mississippi.
DENNIS AIKEN: No, I’m from Mississippi originally. Not a lot of difference. [laughs]
MARC: This is Dennis Aiken. He was an FBI agent who specialized in corruption cases. And he arrived in Providence in the late 70s.
DENNIS: I can understand the people here because Mississippi was a very corrupt place. When I came here to Rhode Island, I certainly felt out of place but I got to learn pretty early on that corruption was part of the culture here. It was understood, it was accepted, everybody believed they knew who was corrupt, but I don’t think they understood how deep the corruption ran.
MARC: So what was the first step into figuring out how corruption worked in Providence?
DENNIS: Well, I’m sort of simple. I went to City Hall. And started just hanging around in there, trying to see how it worked and trying to spot somebody that would talk to me. And I would get a few people to talk to me about this and that, and rumors and stories, but finding a witness or finding somewhere to go with that was very, very difficult.
MARC: And what were they scared of?
DENNIS: They were scared of Buddy. It was very clear to me that they were scared of Buddy.
ZAC: Next week on Crimetown, we’ll reunite with Jerry Tillinghast, the mob enforcer, and explore a murder case that could put him away for life.
VINNY VESPIA: So. I spot the car, open the car door, Basmajian’s in the backseat with nine bullet holes in him. I didn’t count them at the time, but it turned out to be nine bullet holes.
MARC: Crimetown is me, Marc Smerling and Zac Stuart-Pontier.
We are produced by Drew Nelles, Austin Mitchell and Mike Plunkett.
With additional production by Laura Sim.
We are 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.
Our title track is “Run To Your Mama” by Goat.
Original music by John Kusiak, Jon Ivans, Edwin and Bienart.
Our ad music is by Matthew Boll.
Additional mixing by Enoch Kim and Austin Thompson
Our digital editor is Kate Parkinson-Morgan.
Our design director is Ale Lariu.
Alex Blumberg is The Podfather. There is gonna be a fourth man in the booth. It’s gonna be a police officer. With a shotgun.
Special thanks to Mike Stanton. Be sure to check out his book about Buddy, The Prince of Providence.
And a very special thanks again to David Fischer, the co-writer of Buddy’s autobiography, Politics and Pasta.
This season of Crimetown is dedicated to the memory of Zachary Malinowski. We miss you, Bill.
Thanks to the Providence Journal, WPRI, Brad Turchetta and the Cianci Estate, Julia Heymans, Emily Wiedemann, Dan Barry, Lisa Newby, Mary Murphy, Paul Campbell, Greg Mallozzi, and everyone who shared their stories with us.
For a full list of credits visit our website at crimetownshow.com. And you can find us on Twitter @crimetown, and on Facebook and Instagram @crimetownshow.
And if you are 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 are honored to tell a part of its story.