BY ANDREW MARANTZ
Hollybeth Runco, a blond woman in her forties, lives in a two-story Craftsman-style house on the east side of Providence, Rhode Island. On a recent Sunday afternoon, she and her husband, Tom, sat at their dining-room table with a few friends, drinking Cabernet and waiting for their guest of honor, Vincent Cianci, Jr., who is known by his nickname, Buddy.
“When we moved here, ten years ago, all I heard was Buddy jokes,” Tom said.
Susan Teeden-Cielo, a friend from the neighborhood, said, “When Hollybeth announced this, she got a lot of hate just for giving Buddy the time of day.” (Responding to Runco’s invitation, one neighbor wrote, “This waste of skin is a cancer to Providence.”)
“People think he’s a stain on the city, and they are worried that he’s slick enough to make people forget what he’s done,” Tom said.
Cianci was the mayor of Providence from 1975 to 1984, and again from 1991 to 2002. (Philip Gourevitch wrote about Cianci for The New Yorker in 2002.) He is the most influential figure in the city’s modern history, and many people credit him with bringing economic life to what was once a post-industrial backwater. He is also a convicted felon who is something of a local joke.
Though he left prison seven years ago, stores still sell T-shirts that say “Free Buddy”; his face is on the label of a popular brand of pasta sauce, Mayor’s Own Marinara. He also hosts a call-in radio show, which he describes as “lucrative.” Improbably, he is running for a seventh term, as an independent. Even more improbably, he has a decent chance of winning: a recent poll has him six points in the lead. He seems to belong to a special class of zombie politicians—Marion Barry, Eliot Spitzer—who can be embarrassed by scandal but not shamed into silence.
Runco, a former engineer, is now a homemaker. She has two children, one of whom has special needs. A few weeks ago, she heard a rumor that the public schools would be cutting back on special-education services. She called the school board and met with the current mayor, but their answers were not satisfactory.
“Finally, I found the name of Buddy’s campaign manager and cold-called her. She was on my couch the next day,” Runco said. Cianci offered to attend an informal meeting about the issue, and Runco invited a dozen friends. “Some are skeptical, some are haters, some are agnostic,” she said. “I don’t think anyone is ready to say they’re a supporter, including myself.”
A Lincoln Town Car pulled up, and Cianci climbed the stairs to the house, a bit unsteadily. He was once cannonball-shaped, with a charging gait and a voluminous toupee. Now, at seventy-three, he is thinner, slower, and openly bald. He wore khakis, a buttoned blazer, and thick glasses that magnified puppy-dog eyes. “I’m mostly here to listen,” he said, before talking for fifteen minutes.
“The city has changed, but not really,” he said, sitting at the dining-room table. “The biggest thing this time around is the technology. We hired a company that breaks down voters and their behavior—you know, people who like baseball are more likely to vote for me, that kind of thing. It’s remarkable how much privacy we’ve given up in this country.” Noticing that he had his back to some of the guests, he turned and said, “My apologies, ladies. I’m not used to doing theatre in the round.”
Runco, seated across from Cianci, said, “I’m going to sit right here, because I’m partially deaf and I read lips. It’s not that I want to make out with you.”
“Good,” Cianci said. “I’ve got enough problems.”
In 1984, Cianci’s first term was interrupted when he was found guilty of assaulting a man who was dating his ex-wife. In 2002, after undercover federal agents recorded hundreds of conversations in City Hall, Cianci was indicted on twenty-nine charges of corruption. He told the group at Runco’s house, “I was found not guilty of the RICO”—crimes defined by the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act—“but was found guilty of conspiracy to commit RICO. Go figure.” He served a four-and-a-half-year prison term but still professes his innocence, preferring to speak vaguely of “regrets.” “I gave a speech and some kid sits in the front row and says, ‘What would you have changed in your life?’ Being a smart-ass, I said, ‘The verdict.’ ”
Runco and her guests voiced their concerns. Kirsten Murphy said, “My son can see our elementary school from his window, but the city told us that they would allocate funds to bus him to another school.”
“That’s just stupid!” Cianci said.
“What’s your plan for busing?” Runco asked.
“Look, I was mayor when we were going through voluntary desegregation,” he said. “I know I don’t look that old, but I am. But now you have to revert to neighborhood autonomy.” He added, “My good friend Richie Daley, in Chicago, he’s done a pretty decent job with the schools out there.” (Daley, Chicago’s former mayor, survived several scandals.)
Cianci took a call on his iPhone—it had something to do with an upcoming city-council vote. As he talked, he took a bite of one of the meatballs Teeden-Cielo had put out, and made an A-O.K. hand gesture.
He hung up the phone. “I want to talk about the story of American cities,” he said. “I made a decision years ago not to knock down our historic buildings. That was the big thing back then—knock ’em down, build something new. I don’t want to name names, but New Haven and Hartford did that.” He continued, “People ask other questions—whether we should invade Iraq and all that. That’s not me. I pick the garbage up.”
“I don’t know if this is too personal, but I have to ask,” Kira Greene said. “In the past, obviously, things didn’t always go the way you wanted them to go. I don’t know how to phrase it, but—could you be a better mayor because you made mistakes?”
“Oh, absolutely,” Cianci said. “In hindsight, if I want to be honest, I wouldn’t have voted for myself in 1974. It took a few years to get running. But I had a lot of vitality and devotion to the city, and that hasn’t diminished at all. They ask me, ‘Isn’t it a shame for you to run again?’ I’m not the problem. The city is in debt, failing schools—that’s the shame.”
He stood up. “Hey, listen, I talked too much—that’s been my trouble my whole life—but I really enjoyed it.”
After showing him out, Runco said, “I think it was less about deciding ‘I’m definitely voting for him’ and more just about getting comfortable with the idea.”
“It’s harder to hate someone when they’re sitting right in front of you,” Tom said. He had been in the anyone-but-Buddy camp, but he was reconsidering. “Our friends warned us not to get taken in: ‘He puts on a good show, but don’t believe a word he says.’ Well, unless you hook him up to a polygraph, I guess it’s impossible to know.”