Sunday, June 29, 2014

Cianci, Curley, Newton, Rowland, And The Politics Of Salvation

Buddy Cianci – the once, and perhaps once again, Prince of Providence – is, to mix metaphors, the Pete Rose of Rhode Island politics.

We all know what Mr. Cianci did in office. When he was good, he was very good; when he was bad, he was very bad. A typical view of former jail bird and radio talk show host Cianci, may be found, following an announcement by Mr. Cianci that he is considering another run for Mayor, on the Linkedin site.

The author of the piece is anxious not to be misunderstood: His post is not to be taken as an endorsement of Mr. Cianci’s political ambitions. But still…

“This is the man who took a near-literal sewer and transformed it into a center of art and culture. He stole the Providence Bruins from Maine and brought in regional hubs of tourism and commerce: Waterfire, the Providence Place Mall, and the Fleet Skating Center. Cianci would attend the opening of an envelope; he returned pride to a once great city. Buddy Cianci is Providence.”

The devil must be given his due. Providence, once again has fallen on hard times. Indeed, the whole state appears to be in a tailspin that may be, considering most major indicators, more death defying than Connecticut’s race to the bottom. And so, maybe…

Here in Connecticut, we have our own Ciancis, more pallid, to be sure, than the “Prince of Providence,” a very readable and entertaining unauthorized biography of Mr. Cianci written by Mike Stanton, a former investigative reporter for the Providence Journal.

Former Governor John Rowland once again is chomping on a prosecution bullet. Like Mr. Cianci, Mr. Rowland spent some time cooling his heels in prison, having pleaded guilty to a fraud charge involving the deprivation of honest services. Mr. Rowland’s plea followed an impeachment proceeding that was hampered by a federal investigation. But when Mr. Rowland was good, he was very good. In Bridgeport, former State Senator Ernie Newton is once again running for The General Assembly, having spent some time in the slammer for bribery in office The FBI recently sent to prison a handful of uncooperative singing canaries, all of them associated with the failed U.S. Congressional campaign of former Speaker of the House Chris Donovan, who miraculously – and some would say unaccountably -- escaped the noose.

One begins to understand a) that power is a powerful aphrodisiac that, mainlined, may get you a stretch in jail, and b) there have in the past been brilliant second acts in politics. The much loved and notorious James Michael Curley of Boston administered the affairs of Boston from a prison cell.

Why not Newton, the self-proclaimed “Moses of his peeps?” Like Mr. Curley – who kept a campaign promise to “get the washerwomen of Boston off their knees” (by furnishing his faithful voters with long handled mops) – Mr. Newton had been unusually attentive to those in the past who had voted for him.

Mr. Newton’s latest legal scrape finds him facing five counts of illegal practices. Contributors to Mr. Newton’s recent campaign have told prosecutors that they filled out cards attesting that they paid contributions of $100 each to complete a &15,000 fund raising goal that would allow Mr. Newton to tap into public campaign funds when, in fact, they had not done so. To date, no one knows where the mysterious $500 came from.

Outside a court in which Mr. Newton had refused a plea bargain that included a fine he could not afford, Mr. Newton pulled heavily on the heartstrings of his past constituents. Mr. Newton referred obliquely to a proud boast made by Dr. Martin Luther King: “I may not be able to make a man love me, but I can stop a man from lynching me.”

With a wink in Mr. King’s direction, Mr. Newton said, “I may not be able to make the state like Ernie Newton -- but I can sure stop them from lynching me. So if this goes to trial for $500, this is what we've got to do."

That whirring sound one hears, so like the beating of angel’s wings the air, is the sound of both Mr. Curley and Bridgeport’s most famous showman, Phineas T. Barnum, spinning like dervishes together in their graves.

Bridgeport’s underdogs – those “lynched,” justly or not, by the state of injustice – may well have found a champion in the imperturbable Mr. Newton. At one point during his most recent campaign, Mr. Newton pointed out to an astonished reporter that a good many voters in his old district were no strangers to prison. At the molten core of crime infested inner cities, one finds an appalling spiritual vacancy: Marriages are non-existent; fathers have fled households; young men are in prison; others go to school in gangs. Mr. Newton himself went to prison for having done poorly what Mr. Curley did well. And now aggressive prosecutors want to deprive his constituents of their democratic rights because someone – no one knows who – paid five petitioners $100 each so that they might contribute their mite to see to it that their Moses should be reelected to office, from which he will be able to lead them from their Babylonian captivity to a promised land of milk and honey.

This is the politics if salvation. At bottom, all politicians, in one way or another, are accomplished Babbitts.  One supposes that Mr. Curley and Mr. Barnum are spinning in their graves not because they are offended – but because they are jealous.

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