CHAPTER THREE: THE MAKING OF A MAYOR
MARC SMERLING: So you moved to the Parks Department.
JAMES DIAMOND: Correct.
MARC: Okay. That must have been a great job, working at the Parks Department.
MARC: James Diamond ran the Providence Parks Department in the 1970s. And the reason it wasn’t a great job? The Parks Department was in charge of the zoo, which was a mess.
JAMES: You had bison on Interstate 95, the police towing them back to the zoo by their horns. You had dogs breaking in and killing animals in the night.
MARC: And to clean up the mess, James needed to overhaul the zoo’s workforce. There was one zoo employee, in particular, who needed to go: Chet.
JAMES: Chet was most famous because we had a tortoise in the zoo. It was the older than the United States. And it died in the birdhouse, which is where tortoises were kept in those days. And the zoo director, announced it was dead, get the backhoe and dispose of it, because it was much too heavy for people to pick up. And Chet said, “Oh no, he’s alive.” And Chet continued to feed the dead tortoise for 3 days.
Every zoo, whether they tell you or don’t tell you, has a major population of mice and rats. Because the animals don’t clean up their plates, and it’s rat and mouse heaven.
So anyway, rats ate the eyes out of the tortoise. And after that happened, Chet agreed that the tortoise was dead, and the tortoise was buried. But feeding a dead tortoise for three days did not strike me as a sign of remarkable zoological knowledge. Hope maybe, faith maybe, but remarkable zoological knowledge? No.
MARC: In the 1970s, there were a lot guys like Chet in Providence. City jobs were handed out in exchange for political support, regardless of a person’s qualifications. Corruption was everywhere.
But then, a thirty-two-year-old state prosecutor known for going after the mob, Buddy Cianci, decided to run for mayor.
BUDDY CIANCI ARCHIVAL: I will introduce a system for our city employees where hiring is based on qualification, and promotion is based on merit. I will support measures to guarantee that city employment is no longer used to control the ballot box. [applause]
MARC: Buddy thought he could rid the city of corruption. But before Buddy could be Mayor and rid the city of anything, he had to get elected.
ZAC STUART-PONTIER: When we last left Buddy, he had just tried to put mob boss Raymond Patriarca behind bars, and had his sights set on the mayor’s office.
MARC: Today’s episode: the making of a mayor. How dirty does Buddy need to get to clean up the city of Providence?
ZAC: I’m Zac Stuart-Pontier.
MARC: I’m Marc Smerling. Welcome… to Crimetown.
MARC: When Buddy announced his candidacy for mayor, a handful of people remembered him as a mob-fighting prosecutor. But for most people here in Providence, Buddy was a political unknown.
ARCHIVAL MAN-ON-THE-STREET: [What do you think Buddy’s chances are in November?] He hasn’t got a chance. He’ll never make it in this Democratic city. He hasn’t got a chance. Buddy who?
MARC: He was just thirty-two years old. No political experience. Italian, in a city that had been ruled by Irish Democrats. And he was a Republican. Here’s Paul Campbell, who worked with Buddy for years.
PAUL CAMPBELL: It’s tough to almost find a Republican in Providence. Very small party. And I’m sure they were very wary of Buddy in 1974, partly because of his ethnicity. But they were so tired of the Democratic Machine and that whole crowd.
MARC: The Democratic Machine ran Providence for decades. It worked like this: deliver votes for Democratic candidates, and get a city job in return. That patronage system ensured that Democrats were elected to public office and stayed there.
But at this particular moment, in 1974, the machine was showing signs of wear and tear, which offered Buddy his first break.
See the Democratic machine was controlled by a guy named Larry McGarry. McGarry was the party chairman and a legend in Providence. He used a wheelchair to get around, and he operated out of a small, smoked-filled back room in the public works department. He was arguably the most powerful man in the city. They called him “Mr. Democrat.” Again, Paul Campbell.
PAUL: Larry McGarry was the guy that ran, basically, public works. And the old story was that before you talked to him, he had a little cigar box on his desk, you had to make a contribution in the cigar box before you talked to him.
MARC: McGarry loved those cigars—and the contributions—but he had lost his love for the incumbent mayor. The city was hurting and McGarry wanted to make a change.
So, in the Democratic primary, McGarry backed another candidate. And by doing so, he split his own party. Half remained loyal to McGarry and voted for his candidate. The other half backed the incumbent. It was a trainwreck.
A trainwreck the young Republican candidate, Buddy Cianci, watched with interest, from afar—sitting by his parents’ pool. Here’s Buddy talking about that time with his autobiographer.
BUDDY CIANCI: And I was sitting by that pool one afternoon just getting a suntan. I was a bachelor, I was, you know, I had the world by the balls. And, I’ll never forget, I picked up the newspaper and the Providence Journal had a big story about the fight between the previous mayor and the chairman of the Democratic Party in Providence. Larry McGarry was fighting the incumbent mayor. And I said, this is the beginning of the end for them. Whoever wins I don’t care, because whoever doesn’t win will be my ally. And I said, that’s when I realized the possibility existed that I could win.
MARC: And it turned out that Buddy was right. In the Democratic primary, McGarry’s candidate lost. And McGarry figured, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. So, he hooked up with Buddy and offered Buddy help in the general election.
Mr. Democrat, the boss of the Democratic Machine, in bed with Buddy, whose entire campaign was about destroying that machine.
BUDDY IN CAMPAIGN COMMERCIAL: You know, we could have a fantastic city here. It all depends on who’s mayor the next four years. If the Democratic Machine candidate wins, we’re all gonna be the losers. Join me, Buddy Cianci, and together we’ll beat machine politics in our city, bring business and life back downtown, stop neighborhood decay, and get our city moving.
Vote for Vincent “Buddy” Cianci, the anti-corruption candidate.
MARC: Buddy and McGarry were an odd couple. But they got to work. They started a movement: “Democrats for Cianci.” McGarry’s job: to rally die-hard democrats to Buddy’s cause.
Democrats like Peggy DeFelice. Here she is in an interview from Buddy’s archives.
PEGGY DEFELICE: I came home from work and my husband informed me that I was to go to a banquet that evening. I said, “A banquet for who?” He says, “Vincent Cianci.” “Vincent Cianci,” I said, “who’s Vincent Cianci?” He says to me, “He’s running for mayor.” “Running for mayor,” I says, “He’s a Republican, he better run for a streetcar.” I says, “He’s not going to get anywhere in this city.” Well he says, “You’re going anyway.” I says, “Alright.” So I went.
I wasn’t too impressed. Until he got up to make a speech. When he made the speech I was absolutely mesmerized.
BUDDY CIANCI SPEECH: We have enthusiasm, talent, pride. What we lack is leadership. It doesn’t make any difference if you’re a Republican, it doesn’t make any difference if you’re a Democrat, it doesn’t really make any difference if you’re independent. Cause I’m going to say something that you may not believe. That one political party doesn’t have the corner on honesty, integrity, leadership, innovation, creativity, or good ideas. [applause]
MARC: After just one speech, Peggy became a true believer.
PEGGY: After that, we used my house as the headquarters for the 6th ward. I said, doesn’t make a difference if you’re a Democrat or what you are, I said you gotta vote for the person. You have to see this man, you have to get his ideas and see what he wants to do for Providence.
MARC: But for Buddy to win the Mayor’s office in Providence as an unknown first-time Republican, he’d need help from more than just open-minded Democrats like Peggy DeFelice.
He needed the support of a different kind of Democrat—the kind that doesn’t hold bake sales and potlucks, the kind Buddy might not want to be seen shaking hands with in public. And Larry McGarry could supply that kind of Democrat, too.
JERRY TILLINGHAST: I got involved with Larry McGarry. I loved the guy. He was the power. They called him The Machine.
MARC: That voice sound familiar? It’s Jerry Tillinghast. The guy from the last episode. The guy on the mob chart with all those numbers next to his name, including number one, for murder. That Tillinghast. Apparently, Jerry wasn’t just a talented mob enforcer, he was also a talented vote collector.
All about that, after the break.
MARC: Welcome back. Before the break, Buddy Cianci had just made a deal with Larry McGarry to attract Democrats to his mayoral campaign. So McGarry reached out to one Jerry Tillinghast.
JERRY: He said, “We’re gonna start a movement, Democrats for Cianci.” I said, “What?” I said, “I ain’t fucking voting for that fucking piece of shit.” He was a prosecutor before, he already tried to put me in jail three times and I beat him. I said, “I’m sorry, I can’t do it.” And I was adamant about it.
MARC: Tillinghast stormed out of McGarry’s office. But it wasn’t long before he got a phone call.
JERRY: Some friends of mine called, asked me to do ‘em a favor. I told them “no” at first. They said, we were talking to so-and-so and he said to get you and figured you’d help us because he’s going to help us. Everybody, I guess.
MARC: This is mob-speak. Let me translate.
That call? It was from Joe Badway. Badway was close to mob boss Raymond Patriarca. You might remember Badway from episode one. The guy who flew to Maryland with Raymond Junior in what police believed was an attempt to intimidate a witness.
And what Badway was telling Tillinghast was that he needed to back Cianci.
JERRY: He says, will you do me a favor. I says, of course I’ll do you a favor, you put it like that.
MARC: A favor for a friend of Patriarca. Jerry couldn’t refuse.
It was well-known that Patriarca had politicians and judges in his pocket. In secret FBI recordings, he was often overheard talking about his political contacts and contributions. Once, he told an associate that he should become more interested in politics, since that is the real method of power.
Patriarca understood one thing above all others: how important it was to have influence in high places.
So Jerry did as he was asked. And according to him, he got together with Buddy face-to-face.
JERRY: I said, “Listen, here’s the deal.” There was four environmental control inspectors in the city of Providence. That was a good job. You go answer calls and stuff like this, you’re on the road all the time. I said, “I want two jobs. One for me, and one for my partner Al.” Between me and Al we could grab two thousand votes. That’s big. He says, “Ok.”
MARC: Cianci said this.
JERRY: Yeah. And I says, “I got your word on that.” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “Ok.”
I said, “You know who sent me.” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “Because I wouldn’t do this on my own.”
MARC: With that, Buddy was in business with a guy who represented everything he had fought against as a prosecutor. And he was trading a job for votes, fully embracing McGarry’s Democratic machine.
BUDDY: It was almost like a Jekyll and Hyde. In order to get elected I had to maintain this anti-corruption mantra. And I’m with the East Siders and I’m with the professors from Brown during the daytime, and at night, I’m meeting with the guy in the wheelchair with the cigar. And the question is, do you want to sell yourself out? Well, I didn’t sell myself out but, you know….ah. You have to make arrangements.
ARCHIVAL NEWSREEL: It’s a pandemonious scene, it’s just unbelievable, the noise. And there you see one very, very happy Vincent A. Cianci Jr.
MARC: And surprise. It worked. Buddy won. By just 709 votes.
BUDDY: Thank you all very very... [laughter] I want to thank all the Republicans, I want to thank the Independents, but most of all, I want to thank the Democrats. [cheers]
MARC: To true believers like Peggy, it felt like miracle.
PEGGY: I remember the night he won. Not only was he surprised, I think we all were. I think it was 709 votes. And I’ll never forget that.
I often wondered about that, how he won. ‘Cause nobody knew him. And like I said before, he was a Republican. That was a dirty word in Providence. I still, up to today, don’t know how he won.
MARC: Jerry Tillinghast thinks he knows how Buddy won.
JERRY: Now he only won by a thousand or under a thousand votes. Who can say it was ours? But we know we helped. But we play that. We say, it was our votes that got ya. Well, how can you prove it didn’t, you know? You're elected, ain't ya?
BUDDY SWEARING IN: I Vincent Cianci Junior... [Do solemnly swear...] Do solemnly swear... [That I will support the Constitution and laws of the United States...] That I will support the Constitution and laws of the United States... [So help me God...] So help me God. [Congratulations.] [applause]
MARC: But as Buddy got settled into City Hall, he looked around the mayor’s office and realized something important: he had no idea what he was doing. Here he is, talking about his first day, thirty-five years later at an event to promote his autobiography:
BUDDY: The mayor’s office in Providence is a very opulent place, you can tell it was definitely built by the executive branch of government. It has beautiful high ceilings, and it has a dining room, and it has Oriental rugs and a fireplace and leather walls, it overlooks the city. It’s pretty heady when you’re thirty-two years old to have all that happen. If I knew now what I knew then, I would never have voted for myself. [laughter] I didn’t know how to be mayor.
MARC: Soon after Buddy was elected, there was a line of people outside his door, trying to get close to the new mayor.
One of those people was Jerry Tillinghast. Coming to collect.
And Buddy? He made good.
JERRY: So he gave us the jobs, he kept his word.
MARC: Providence, meet your new environmental inspector. The job’s official duties involved checking out everything from leaky sewage pipes to rusty oil tanks.
But apparently, Tillinghast spent more time inspecting something else altogether.
JERRY: We used to go into City Hall, and next door, room over, there were a lot of secretaries. So we used to mess around with them, flirt, bullshit like that. So he told us one day, he says, “You guys gotta stop doing that. Once you go in there, you get the girls all riled up, they don’t want to work.” You know? So. And I can see why they got riled up, I was kind of a hottie. I’m just sayin, I’m just bragging a little bit, just bragging. I show you my picture?
MARC: No, go, show me. Oh yeah, oh man you gotta send me that! That’s awesome. Oh wow.
JERRY: I was 31 there. That’s the year I went to jail.
ZAC: Can you describe that picture?
JERRY: Yeah, I’m in a white suit. With a beard, my full beard. My full head of red hair. I still got it but it’s all red. White suit with a nice dark blue pinstripe shirt and dark blue tie, to break it all up. And everybody used to think that I looked like Barry Gibb on the Bee Gees.
ZAC: I see it.
JERRY: I say, I was better looking than him, I just didn’t have his money. I said, But if I ran into him I might have wanted to mug him, I don’t know.
JAMES DIAMOND: This was an absolutely mind-boggling appointment from our point of view.
MARC: This is James Diamond again, the guy who ran the Parks Department. He worked in Buddy’s new administration.
ZAC: And who was Jerry Tillinghast?
JAMES: My understanding is he was enforcement for Raymond L.S. Patriarca. Hiring people who make no claim to be rehabilitated and have long criminal records when you’re claiming to be a reform anti-mafia mayor is hypocritical and sub-optimal personnel policy. Basically, you do not hire professional murderers, period. And Buddy said that’s the way the game is played in Providence and these people have the power.
MARC: And he was appointed as an environmental inspector, what is that job?
JAMES: I have no idea what he was appointed as but the critical thing was he became the union steward immediately. ‘Cause remember, the mob controlled the Laborer’s Union, which was the city’s union. So he became the steward for Local 1033 for Public Works and that’s where his power was.
MARC: Since Providence was a mob town, the mob had infiltrated the city’s unions. A lot of important union jobs were held by wiseguys. For Jerry Tillinghast, that meant, basically, he couldn’t be fired. No matter what he did.
JERRY: I was on the steps of City Hall, and Cianci come down and he had his little flunky with him. And he says, “Look it, I need you to go to the city to get me a couple quarts of oil for my car.” To the city yard. I said, “What?” I said, “Are you on fucking drugs?” I said, “You fat cocksucker, go fucking get it yourself.” So Buddy turns to the guy and says, “He can’t talk to me, can he?” He says, “No, Mr. Mayor, he can’t.” And he wanted to fire me. But...it wasn’t going that way.
MARC: Buddy was stuck with Tillinghast. That was the arrangement. But the whole purpose of that arrangement was for Buddy to get into office, to do some good for the city.
NARRATOR: In the city of Providence, when a problem arises, it is brought to the early morning staff meeting, where Mayor Vincent Cianci’s day begins.
MARC: This is a television ad for one of Buddy’s later campaigns. The camera follows him around for a day.
BUDDY IN TV AD: Antonelli’s Poultry Company on Depasquale Avenue has called, he’s got a problem, he’s got a crater in front of his store. The customers can’t get in or out of the store. So get back to him and let’s see if we can’t solve his problem as soon as possible.
OLDER RESIDENT: That Mayor Cianci, he’s really getting things done. He’s planted trees, refurbished the neighborhoods, really brought the property value back, he’s also done something for the elderly, and that’s more than any mayor has ever done for our city before.
MARC: Buddy worked day and night. He was everywhere. Here’s Buddy at his book event, describing his first years in office.
BUDDY: They say I would go to the opening of an envelope. I went everywhere. The opening of a wound, I’d go to.
PAUL CAMPBELL: You know, going to the opening of the envelope. That was not hyperbole at all.
MARC: Paul Campbell again.
PAUL: He wanted to do ribbon cuttings and groundbreakings, tennis court openings, road improvements. And my job was to coordinate massive amounts of those things. So I had this enormous chart and I had to ensure something was happening virtually every day.
I remember leaving work sometimes late at night and the lights were still on down in the mayor’s office. He was looking for problems, solving problems. Is there a problem with my city?
I went to a fire in my neighborhood once at 2:30 in the morning. And a limousine pulls up, who gets out? Buddy. I said, “Buddy what are you doing here? It’s 2:30 in the morning.” He said, “There’s a fire! There’s a fire in my city. And I want to know about it.”
He was possessive. He was...the city of Providence was his mistress, you know?
MARC: Buddy was a rare success. A young, Italian, Republican mayor of an American city. He started getting national attention.
PAUL: He was an Italo-American mayor, and the Republicans were really looking for ethnic—similar to what they’re doing today with Latinos. Back then, the Italians were a group that they wanted to attract to the Republican party in large numbers. And they saw in Buddy someone that was talented, was smart, and might even have potential on a national stage.
MARC: Buddy was asked to speak at the 1976 Republican National Convention. And with the most powerful Republicans in the country watching from the packed arena, Buddy did what Buddy did best: he talked.
BUDDY: My name is Vincent “Buddy” Cianci, mayor of the great city of Providence, Rhode Island.
MARC: At the Democratic convention the month before, their candidate, Jimmy Carter, had referred to Italian Americans as Eye-talians. And Buddy? He wanted to make a point.
BUDDY: I’d like to address myself to Mr. Carter. Mr Carter, I’m not an Eye-talian but an Italo-American, and proud of my ethnic background. For too long, ethnics have been treated as votes and statistics by Democratic political machines that stifled their hopes, laughed at their ambitions, and scoffed at their dreams. Yes, our Republican ranks contain many of us who are proud that we come from Federal Hill in Providence. Because it shall be from the cities and neighborhoods that Republicans, Independents, yes, and even Democrats, with names that end in “O” and “I” or “ZI” or “SKI”, they’re the ones who’ll help us with the big win, because when we win the neighborhoods, we’ll win in November! [applause]
MARC: In the old television footage, Buddy’s smile is as wide as the room itself. He soaks in the applause. And then he goes back home, to a city that loves him even more.
In 1978, Buddy won re-election by a landslide. He was no longer a young prosecutor sitting by his parents’ pool. He was a politician.
BUDDY: I have never met a politician in my life, I don’t care who they are, that wakes up in the morning, pours coffee and says, “What can I do to help the elderly this morning?”
MARC: This is Buddy talking to the co-author of his autobiography.
BUDDY: You know, I don’t think that that’s on their agenda. They always have an ulterior motive, whether it’s their own ego, whether it’s their own power, or whether it’s to get their own money or whatever.
DAVID FISHER: I want to ask you one question. So when you woke up in the morning, what was your motivation?
BUDDY: When I woke up? Nothing but ego and power.
BUDDY: That’s it.
ZAC: Next week on Crimetown. Inside the most audacious and expensive robbery in Rhode Island history: the Bonded Vault heist.
ROBERT DUSSAULT: I love to talk about the Bonded Vault. It was unique. It was one of the scores of the century, as far as I’m concerned. It was the ultimate. I went from rags to riches!
MARC: Crimetown is me, Marc Smerling, and Zac Stuart-Pontier.
We are produced by Drew Nelles, Austin Mitchell and Mike Plunkett.
We are edited by Alex Blumberg and Caitlin Kenney.
Fact-checking by Mick Rouse.
This episode of Crimetown was mixed by Matthew Boll.
Sound design and scoring also 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 Martin Peralta.
Our intern is Yuya Kudo.
Our design director is Ale Lariu.
Our digital editor is Kate Parkinson-Morgan.
Alex Blumberg is the Podfather. Wwe know you tried to fire us…but it wasn’t going that way.
This season of Crimetown is dedicated to the memory of Zachary Malinowski. We miss you, Bill.
Special thanks to David Fisher, the co-author of Buddy Cianci’s autobiography, Politics & Pasta.
Thanks to the Providence Journal, the Rhode Island Historical Society, Brad Turchetta and the Cianci Estate, Ed Dimeglio at Retro Media, Paul Campbell, Austin Thompson, Julia Heymans, Emily Wiedemann, Dan Barry, Mike Stanton—check out his book “The Prince of Providence”—Mary Murphy and everyone who shared their stories with us.
Providence is a special place and we are honored to tell a part of its story.
For a full list of credits visit our website at crimetownshow.com