Will 2010 be the year of the crook?

Patrick Kennedy's exit opens a door for Buddy Cianci, who could join Jim Traficant in the felon caucus

Published February 12, 2010 2:45PM (EST)

News broke last night that Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., has decided not to seek reelection to the seat he’s held since 1995.

Kennedy was always something of an unusual sort in Congress. The awkward scion of our most famous dynasty, he seemed to have run for office out of familial obligation, rather than natural knack. Personal demons have hounded him through his career, and though he managed his embarrassments with a certain amount of grace, it always seemed like the public eye was no place for this guy. The illness and death of his legendary father last year seem to have combined with his personal troubles to convince Kennedy that it was time to go.

But if Kennedy is a rare breed of one kind -- the melancholy politician -- then his departure may clear the way for another type of odd duck entirely, and one that’s much more fun. Buddy Cianci, the former mayor of Providence -- former because of the small matter of a federal felony conviction -- is thinking about running for Kennedy's seat, presumably as an independent.

Cianci, who happens to have broken the news of Kennedy's retirement in his current role as a local political commentator, is an intriguing figure. On the one hand, he’s highly accomplished and, in some quarters, deeply beloved. He oversaw Providence's revitalization in the 1990s, renovating the city and its reputation from its status as a Rust Belt post-industrial New England town to a bustling center for the arts, tourism and education. In 1998, he was so popular that nobody ran against him. He even has his own local brand of pasta sauce.

On the other hand, Cianci did spend five years in federal prison for his part in a racketeering conspiracy. And that's not all. The tenure as mayor that Cianci is nationally famous for, from 1991 to 2002, was actually his second time in City Hall. He was also elected mayor in 1974, but had to resign 10 years later after pleading no contest to charges of assault with a dangerous weapon. Convinced that a local contractor was sleeping with his wife, Cianci attacked him with a lit cigarette, an ashtray and a fireplace log.

This guy has spent about 20 of the last 35 years as mayor of Rhode Island’s biggest city. He’s had to resign from both stints after being found guilty of significant crimes. He sounds like just the thing for Washington.

Actually, Cianci probably would have a hard time getting elected to Congress if he decided to run. He’d probably face a Democrat and a Republican on the ballot, which alone is enough to stop most independent candidates. It’s not clear whether affection for him is diminished since his last term as mayor and its ignominious end; even if it is, for all that some in Rhode Island may love him, do they really want him representing them on a national stage? (Then again, Cianci also ran as an independent the last time he made a prison-to-politics comeback, when he edged out Republican Frederick Lippitt and Democrat Andrew Annaldo in the 1990 Providence mayor's race.)

If he is a candidate, Cianci will join a rarefied group: federal convicts seeking federal office. This year, Jim Traficant, a former Democratic congressman from Ohio, is seeking to run for Congress, as he put it back in December, "somewhere." Traficant, who spent seven years in prison on bribery, racketeering and tax fraud charges, has got enough signatures to qualify in two different congressional districts. And he says some people want him to aim a little higher.

"There's a group out of Washington, and in several cities around the country, that want to bring back the old Reform Party, combine it with the tea party and bring the Libertarians in and everybody, and they want me to run as an independent for president," Traficant said in December. "I told them I think you’re all getting high smoking dope. And you know what they told me? They said, 'to the contrary, you have a base following in all 48 contiguous states.'"

As of the end of the year, the group’s meeting was scheduled for tomorrow in Washington, and Traficant planned to address them -- assuming authorities would let him leave Ohio. It’s unclear if the event is still on.

By Gabriel Winant

Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale.

MORE FROM Gabriel Winant

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2010 Elections Crime Patrick Kennedy D-r.i.