Thursday, April 19, 2012

buddy cianci..........the prince of providence

Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci, Jr., the ebullient five-term mayor of Providence, Rhode Island, has spent almost a quarter-century stirring things up in the city I was so proudly born in. Starting with his first squeaker of a victory in 1974, Cianci has kept the pot boiling through several re-elections, a forced resignation, a stint as a local radio talk show host, a triumphant return to office, and now a long run as his revived city's biggest booster. But these days, in addition to politics, Cianci has something else cooking -specifically, the Mayor's Own Marinara Sauce (MOMS). Cianci's adaptation of an old family recipe is a low-cal, no-cholesterol mix of tomatoes and lots of onions blended with garlic, olive oil, pepper, herbs, and carrots- the last, he says, to cut the acidity of the tomatoes. It's a bit thin for fans of chunky sauce (marinara isn't supposed to be chunky, Cianci says), but it's tasty enough to have won Rhode Island Monthly's blind taste test for the state's "best jarred spaghetti sauce." Donna Lee, food editor for the Providence Journal-Bulletin, approvingly calls it "a very light, gently seasoned marinara -- as opposed to the thick, heavy, over spiced sauces that are proliferating on the supermarket shelves and seem to be made with tomato paste instead of real Rhode Island grown tomaters." More impressively, in the two years since it went on the market, MOMS has appeared in the "Today" show, New England Cable News, and USA Today. Bill Clinton, Al Gore, the president of Italy, and the prime minister of Portugal have all taken jars home as souvenirs of Providence visits. Cartier, the posh New York jeweler, wreathed a jar in gems and placed it in the front window of its Fifth Avenue emporium. Making marinara may, in fact, one of the affable Cianci's most popular mayoral acts. Still, when students at Brown University did their own taste test, MOMS fell to supermarket brand Prego. So why all the fuss…..? And more importantly, why is the full-time mayor of a rapidly changing city spending his time mixing up sauce rather than mixing it up with his opponents….? The answer, perhaps, can be found on the label. Next to Hizzoner's beaming face is the official mayoral seal, which according to the Providence city charter can be used for a broad range of non-commercial activities. MOMS fits that definition: 100 percent of the profits from sauce sales goes into the Vincent A. Cianci, Jr. Scholarship Fund and thence into scholarships to high-achieving, college-bound Providence high school students who meet academic criteria, have a family income just beyond the federal government's Pell Grant guidelines, and demonstrate an active interest in their community… Hizzoner started the scholarship fund in 1991, financing it by hosting an annual golf tournament. Then, in 1994, he was preparing for a political event by mixing up a small batch -- only about 150 gallons -- of his pasta sauce recipe. "I always give a little gift away at my events," he explained. "So afterwards I had a few jars left over, and they were sitting on my desk the next day when I held a press conference. The reporters asked about it, they wrote about it, and people started to call asking where they could buy it." It occurred to him that this was one fundraising opportunity that wouldn't end with the golf season. At first it seemed like a joke, but my man Cianci is no novice to the publicity game. After all, he's spent the better part of the Nineties exuberantly and incessantly pushing Providence to lift itself out of the doldrums of class struggle, racial tension, and economic misfortune that plagued it throughout the middle of the century. This is also the same man who was forced to resign from office in 1984 after receiving a suspended prison term for assaulting a man who was allegedly having an affair with Cianci's estranged wife -- then was swept back into office six years later. And in 1996 he was dubbed by Rhode Island Monthly not only "best politician," but also "the Rhode Islander you'd most like to go on a date with." With that kind of background, promoting pasta sauce would seem to be, well, gravy…... So Buddy began by giving MOMS away, asking attendees at fundraisers and public appearances, "Would you like a jar of my sauce?" Then he found a way to get it on the shelves of small local markets. Then he found a distributor who could sell it to large supermarket chains like Stop & Shop. A local pizzeria created the Mayor's Own Pizza, topped with Hizzoner's sauce, as a special promotion during the city's 1996 Italian festival on Federal Hill. And before you could say "pass the parmesan, please," 28-ounce jars of MOMS were selling in mom-and-pop stores all over town, in supermarkets throughout Rhode Island and parts of southern Massachusetts, and even at the Providence airport gift shop……! That’s what I am talking about-Of course, charitable-minded pasta lovers have for several years been able to combine their good taste and their good deeds by buying actor Paul Newman's spaghetti sauce, "Newman's Own," which also contributes all its profits to charity. Competition……? No contest, says the mayor: "Would you rather buy sauce from someone named Newman, or someone named Cianci?" Someone must agree, because MOMS is currently selling at the brisk rate of 2,000 cases, or 24,000 jars, a month, not including sauce sold by the gallon for commercial use and in Providence public schools. The Vincent A. Cianci, Jr. Scholarship Fund is up to almost $500,000, including at least $150,000 in marinara money; 38 students thus far have received scholarships averaging $1,500. The mayor of Springfield, Massachusetts, was inspired to market his own civic-minded spaghetti sauce. And with four new hotels scheduled to break ground in downtown Providence in the near future, Hizzoner has four new restaurants and gift shops to target as potential outlets for that suicide wrist red gravy…. But he has bigger plans yet. After all, sauce isn't something you eat every day. September 1997 saw the introduction of "Mayor's Choice" coffee, a custom blend, buddy hopes will tap into the double-latte-mocha-chino java trend. "That's going to be as big as, if not bigger than, the sauce," he insists. The goal: to build the fund up to the million-dollar mark, enough to give away numerous scholarships without depleting the principal. And what happens when he leaves the mayor's office- a new career in catering, perhaps….? Hizzoner says he'll keep selling the sauce; as a former mayor, he'll have the right to continue using the name "Mayor's Own" as well as the mayoral seal. But, he adds in mock
surprise, "Who would ever think I would leave the Providence mayor's office………..?"

[blogger comment: Buddy Cianci was indicted in April 2001 as part of a federal investigation of Rhode Island politics which was cleverly dubbed "PlunderDome." He was convicted in June 2002 on a single count of racketeering conspiracy, and was sentenced in September 2002 to 64 months in prison, two years of probation, and a $100,000 fine. State law required him to leave office after sentencing. Hizzoner (buddy) has now paid his debt to society, he is again on the radio and enjoying his freedom….. all bullshit aside- we have to give credit where credit is due- and buddy, I can’t thank you enough for what you have done for the city we share……..!]