Final Analysis: The Buddy System

When the desultory style of Seattle’s mayor leaves you wishing for a felon.
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Friends and I were talking recently about one of Seattle’s infrastructure problems — don’t remember if it was the abysmal traffic, rising homelessness, the messy waterfront — and I said, as I often do in these situations, “Maybe it’s time for Buddy Cianci.”

All told, Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci, who died in January, was mayor of Providence, Rhode Island, for 21 years.

He also was a convicted felon.

Cianci’s first tour as mayor, from 1975 to 1984, ended when he received a five-year suspended sentence after pleading no-contest to assaulting a man he believed was romantically involved with Cianci’s estranged wife. His second tour, from 1991 to 2002, ended after he was convicted of racketeering and was sent to federal prison for five years.

Having grown up in Rhode Island, I enjoyed watching this Italian-American Republican in a city long dominated by Irish-American Democrats traffic in plainspoken, gregarious, fearless, unapologetic attitude.

Cianci oozed political savvy. He’d have his picture taken with every Little League baseball team in Providence just so he could send autographed photos to the kids and their parents.

He mastered the sound bite. When the ACLU was challenging a nativity scene set up outside City Hall, Cianci barked: “They’re just jealous because they don’t have three wise men and a virgin in their whole organization.”

And he got things done. Providence today is a pretty cool city largely because of developments that occurred — or were started — on Cianci’s second watch. Buddy was more than happy to take credit, because that’s how he rolled.

Contrast Cianci with Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and you have an instant point-counterpoint festival. Brash versus polite. Blunt versus diplomatic. Snarky versus cordial. Boastful versus modest.

Then again, Murray is not a felon. But his criminally enervating approach to trying to make Seattle operate efficiently — at a time of unprecedented economic prosperity, rampant development and rising population — has made me wonder if we’d be better off with a take-no-prisoners dictator who could miraculously make things happen in spite of the legendary “Seattle process.”

The desire for someone doing something dramatically different from the incumbent is precisely why Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are polling well in the presidential races. It happens almost all the time in national politics, even when the outgoing incumbent has done well. 

Wishing for Ed Murray to be more bombastic, more in your face, more Cianci-like won’t make it happen for Seattle. But the mayor’s reaction to a fatal shooting at a homeless encampment in January illustrates why that wish rises in the hearts of many. Murray was giving a speech about the homelessness problem when the shooting occurred. He went to the scene of the crime and spoke with reporters in the calm, evenhanded tone that is his signature style.

Given that he had declared a state of emergency on the homelessness front a couple of months before, Murray must have been angry, distraught and flustered by the shooting. I didn’t sense any of these emotions as I watched the nightly news, however. He seemed almost detached.

Do emotional outbursts make a leader more effective? Probably not. But personal charisma and an appreciation for the theater of municipal management do go a long way toward persuading constituents that someone is in charge and getting things done.

Buddy Cianci, a flawed politician to be sure, understood these things. He loved his city. He got others to love him, warts and all. It’s not too late for Ed Murray to understand that his own ability to move the needle — and the city — has a lot to do with the art of managing expectations. 

John Levesque is the managing editor of Seattle Business magazine. Reach him at john.levesque@tigeroak.com.

 

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