I know. This is also a little outside the autism world, but I'm a born meddler, an Asperger brain really needs to weigh in on this election, and it's my embarrassing hometown.
In what is more surrender than endorsement, I hope Buddy Cianci wins the mayoral election. Yes, he's a polarizing gambler with no concern for the social issues I care about, and he's a two-time convicted felon who reveals me to be a massive hypocrite. But no one loves, knows, or steals from Providence based on what it is rather than for what too many wish it was. Whether he's a wakeup call or a savior, Providence needs both.
The face of Providence?
But First, a Disclaimer
Before I get to Buddy's value, or lack thereof, as potential mayor, take what I say with a giant grain of salt, as I am no beloved son of Providence. Growing up there in the 1970s and early 1980s -- "high Buddy time" -- I had both undiagnosed Asperger's syndrome (now autism) and a father who had been killed in Vietnam. How much fun my upbringing was has been alluded to in another blog post, but before you give me too much pity, understand that I made things worse as a child by never acquiescing to the criticisms, were they of my father, my patriotism, or how my brain worked. In what gave me long-term psychological benefit but short-term misery, I figuratively hit back at those unprepared grownups and subsequently grew up with a bit of a streetpunk mentality. And as embarrassing as such origins might seem to my executive or authorial present, I am paradoxically grateful that I took the defiant route as, upon arriving in New York, my sense of self was remarkably intact. Granted, I had a loving, patient family and a high school (School One) that saved me, but under the philosophy of "whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger," I was a beneficiary of the Providence that I knew, not a victim -- someone in need of refinement but not confidence.
In all those early years, as some of us navigated what was a destitute, mob-run dump. we knew, or we trusted, that the wild-west upbringing we were experiencing -- the crooked cops and politicians, the fact that not one downtown bar would refuse us service when we were 13 years old -- was of a uniqueness that was the indirect embodiment of one of the most unique political figures this country has ever seen. Yes, romanticizing a delinquent atmosphere has its drawbacks, but everyone needs to feel good about where they come from. Well, try explaining expatriate Providence pride to New Yorkers, who learn through national news outlets about the great comedy that is Rhode Island politics, or who go see an off-Broadway musical about Buddy containing a song about Providence called "The Armpit of New England." Well, Providence is burning again over Buddy, and once again, we annoyed exiles have to answer for it.
We were too engrossed in ourselves as teenagers to analyze our mayor back then. But the mystery of him, and the relentlessness subliminally struck a positive chord. Acting like the unrefined, rebel kid from the streets, his background spoke of the opposite, with his doctor father and Moses Brown education. Bravely, he had fun with his perceived unattractiveness, and we joined in. But the poker-playing instincts were not to be belittled -- too many times we later heard outsiders remark "How did he do that?" when Cianci escaped feds who hated his guts or got developments pushed through without sign-offs from commissions or community groups. Lastly, his undeterred focus on Providence (be it through love or opportunism) tragically made a sacrifice of his entire personal and family life. He seemed more a force of nature than human, an entity in need of scientific study rather than loathing or admiration.
The quality of said uniqueness was, and is, worthy of debate. But he seemingly had no rival in remembering people, their names, and why what they said they wanted sometimes didn't gel with what they really wanted. He could lead, even if in following too close you ended up doing time.
Yup, Buddy got things done partly because of a fear factor -- he swam with the sharks, after all -- but he got things done, even if an examination of how made our ethical tummies turn over. And when Buddy went to jail, a renaissance was predicted wherein Providence would shed its image. Oops. Here we are again. And based on Providence's economic woes, the more well-meaning mayoral successors arguably failed not because of the economy (most of which was a reflection of the national downturn) but instead because Cianci's support base was never reached out to. They wanted to put the blame on an individual and not on the culture in which the individual thrived.
Democratic candidate Jorge Elorza seems like a good person with a great story to tell. But the growing perception is that Providence has "been there done that" with the likes of good-guy past Mayors David Cicilline and Angel Tavares, perceived now as weaker (i.e., more fair) negotiators. And the indisputable, irrefutable proof of their collective inability is the very fact that Buddy Cianci -- with all his negative history -- has a chance to come back and win another election. The culture change never happened.
In light of such a caustic revelation, the almost 10-percent unemployment rate from the Northeast's third largest city tells us that Providence might need the guy who built the Providence Mall and renovated downtown. He could also bring back pride -- sophomoric, anti-authoritarian or not -- from the city's majority should they vote him in. Cities, as Cianci knows but as we often forget, are image- and results-oriented businesses, not process-oriented nonprofits.
I promise you: Buddy's most committed foes are much more in line with my personal politics than Buddy's supporters are. But this community -- what would be mine if I lived there -- doesn't just fail to see its own shortcomings; it runs from them. In a rare moment, it may acknowledge the laws of "perception equals reality" (in Buddy's word, "elitist") but instead of vigorously addressing the perception, my ideological brothers and sisters publicly negate or dismiss the possibility of an image problem (a character trait of deflection, I might add, that they share with Buddy). And so the ease with which Buddy supporters could paint them as condescending exclusionists becomes their fault and theirs alone, and their ability to change the city into the dream that I share with them becomes impaired.
Furthermore, having been surprised by Buddy's resurgence, their behavior thus far has not been pretty. A campaign of "Anything but Buddy" could use a little more "We're broke, and here's what we'll do to change that." Because, like it or not, the rebellious, "screw the man" Providence spirit that I knew well (and that I admit helped shape me) was never erased.
Do I think Buddy will win? Actually, I don't. Age, all those years drinking alone in the Biltmore, the unaccountability of his radio show, and the four years in prison probably dulled those brilliant senses of his, or at least reduced the once-relentless energy. Too many of his powerful connections are gone, and the last time he was mayor, the city was 18-percent Hispanic, and now it is 40-percent Hispanic. The election is probably better-man Jorge Elorza's to lose. But lose it Elorza could -- easily. At a forum on September 16, a debate was held wherein Elorza and Republican candidate Daniel Harrup spent the bulk of the event attacking Cianci for his criminal record -- thoroughly ignorant or dismissing of the fact that if Cianci has climbed this far back, then not enough people in Providence give a rat's ass about that past. They played right into Buddy's anti-establishment, sympathy-vote hands. And if Elorza's campaign fails to sell (or even communicate) its economic ideas and continues along that "You disgust me" vein, then (Jorge, wake up!) Buddy will be the next mayor of Providence. I have to assume Elorza's alarm will go off, he'll cut a deal with Harrup (for Harrup to step out), he'll stop listening to pompous voices, and he'll win comfortably. But so far? Ugh.
Providence people are not without brains -- it's an Ivy-League town, after all -- but because of their mysterious insecurities, good brains somehow go to mush when the subject turns to politics. Be it through Googleable articles by locals with big degrees or the conversations I've heard in 30 years of visits to friends and family, their political opinions often have holes big enough to fly airplanes through.
There's just something in the air there, probably a very long history of corruption that people wish to escape but not roll up the sleeves and fix. Their problem isn't Buddy -- never was. And in response to the surprise, what we're seeing from Elorza and his advisors is no plan for the city's resurrection. What we're seeing now is twofold: a tantrum, and a deer in the headlights of Cianci's speed-gathering 18-wheeler.
If the people really want Buddy, then give the people what they want. Let them have that last taste of the cowboy-culture pride before he passes; see if Buddy can pull some final rabbit out of a hat; give my anti-Buddy crowd four years to examine their failures with better, humiliated eyes; and then demand that the next mayor implement that real and true culture change by reaching out and not circling the wagons. Demand then that he or she run Providence like it's Providence, run it good, and run it well.
Buddy Cianci makes smart people look and act dumb, pressing buttons in us that we didn't know were exposed (or even existed). He makes hypocrites of us all, especially me, and that's not such a bad thing when it carries such potential for learning. But until we can reveal those hypocrisies ourselves before Cianci does, a broken Providence might need his potential for implementation, even if we can't fully trust the how.
Admit it without bitterness, Jorge, or lose: He's brilliant. And just because the phrase "For better or worse, he's our Buddy" has been driven into the ground or summons revulsion, this doesn't mean there isn't some reluctant truth to it.
Michael John Carley is the founder of GRASP and the author of Asperger's From the Inside Out (Penguin/Perigee), The Last Memoir of Asperger Syndrome (TBD), and numerous articles. In 2000 he and one of his two sons were diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome. More information can be found at www.michaeljohncarley.com.