Business trip to Philadelphia by two R.I. state officials echoes ‘Buddy Cianci syndrome’

Fear and loathing in the City of Brotherly Love

June 12, 2023 5:00 am

Two Rhode Island state officials who went to South Philadelphia to tour an old trade school converted into a thriving hub for artists, nonprofits and small businesses left a bad taste with the building’s developer and tenants. (Photo by jeffreyw, WikiMedia Commons)

Two Rhode Island officials apparently behaved very badly while on a recent business trip to Philadelphia. One of the two men involved has blamed a mental health crisis. While this is an increasingly common excuse for all kinds of reprehensible behavior, I am personally familiar with the fact that when you are in a bad personal space, and are in a situation you are not prepared to deal with, you can feel like a runaway train, and bad things can happen. 

I am always less interested in individual bad behavior than I am in the systems and cultural blinders that prevent people from recognizing that they are being, whether in the moment or more pervasively, bad actors. Why did neither of these men recognize that they were increasingly in trouble? They suffered, I suspect, from what I have been calling “Buddy Cianci syndrome.”

An undated photo of Providence Mayor Vincent A. ‘Buddy’ Cianci Jr. (Photo by Sharperimage0/Creative Commons)

In the late 1990s, I was employed by the former Providence mayor (may he rest in peace) on a short-term project. In office space loaned to the mayor by the Rhode Island Historical Society, I worked to create a nonprofit organization in the City of Providence to accept ownership of the Sloop Providence, which was then the State’s official tall ship. I was in and out of the mayor’s office, and interacted with many of his staffers (one of whom, it was whispered, had “done time for him”). 

One day, while I sat in my office, two very burly men walked in. One asked if I was Mrs. Taylor while looking at a long list printed on a dot matrix printer. I noticed that they wore tool belts, which seemed normal, but these belts had things like staplers and credit card impression machines in them. I said I was the person they were looking for; they had my full attention. 

“Mrs. Taylor, how many tickets to the mayor’s fundraiser would you like to buy?” 

“None, thank you,” I replied.

“Mrs. Taylor, do you like your job? You might want to rethink that.” 

After a fast mental calculation involving the state of my finances, whether I had aspirations in municipal government and if I cared if my contract was terminated, I did not buy tickets. Nor did I tell anyone about the interaction. I went back to work, finished up my project, and moved on. 

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When Cianci was indicted in 2001 on federal charges of racketeering, conspiracy, extortion, witness tampering, and mail fraud, the only surprising thing was the blatancy of his activities, including the one in which I was almost involved. I believed then, and do now, that Cianci thought all that mattered was the opinion of his friends and neighbors and relatives right here in Rhode Island. They had already made their judgements about his criminal and criminally adjacent behavior. After all, he had been convicted once and was still “the Mayor.” He was smart and savvy, but parochial enough to think that outside his bubble, no one was watching, or cared. As it turns out, the FBI was watching, and they were obliged to care. 

Buddy Cianci syndrome, then, is the mistake of thinking that you will be judged only by those very close to you who will be inclined to cut you a break. It is mistaking the things that are acceptable at home, or in your small pond, for what the law, propriety, and national standards will require. It is hardly uncommon. If the email speaks the truth, I suspect these two gentlemen forgot they were out in the great big world, where some of these behaviors, which might have been OK at their favorite local restaurant, were really not going to fly. 

As an aside, here is my favorite Buddy story. I was often sitting in his office waiting for his attention. I did not mind; this project was clearly not as important as getting the Providence Place Mall built. And the drama was always entertaining, though also sometimes alarming. While he worked, Cianci smoked Merit cigarettes one after the other and used his bottom left desk drawer as an ashtray.  One day, he was having particular trouble with a city councilor and his aide asked him “Mayor, should we have her killed?” I assumed he was joking, but there was a long silence while Cianci smoked. Too long. 

The hairs started to stand up on my neck and I wondered if he would notice if I just got up and slipped out. The mayor tossed his butt into the drawer, looked up at me and smiled. 

“Naaah,” he said. “Those days are over.”



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Ruth S. Taylor
Ruth S. Taylor

Ruth S. Taylor retired at the end of 2022 after 16 years as executive director of the Newport Historical Society. She now serves as a consultant working to improve the governance of nonprofit organizations. She also serves as chair of the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission.