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Why Do We Elect Corrupt Politicians?

Voters, it seems, are willing to forgive—over and over again—dishonest yet beloved politicians if they think the job is still getting done.
(Photo: kentoh/Shutterstock)

(Photo: kentoh/Shutterstock)

Vincent “Buddy” Cianci, the twice-indicted former mayor of Providence, Rhode Island, has been ostensibly finished in nearly every election cycle since he first ran on a now-ironic anti-corruption platform in 1973. He was supposed to be exiled—from local politics, as a public figure—in 1981, when an Associated Press reporter described him as a “no longer rising star,” and again in 1983 when the Washington Post said the toupee’d Italian-American’s legal problems were making the “city of 160,000 cringe.”

Eight years later, in 1991, a Wall Street Journal poll indicated that almost half of Providence’s voters thought Cianci’s re-election would be an embarrassment to the city. Just to give you an idea, he was to become the model for Jon Lovitz’s character “the pathological liar” on Saturday Night Live. And in 2002, just before being shipped off to prison, Cianci was called the “P.T. Barnum of Providence”—as in, nice suit, but this administration is a circus.

Yet it wasn’t until earlier this month that Cianci finally lost a mayoral election, with a margin of just seven percent. He’s still the longest-serving mayor that the tiny post-industrial city has ever seen, with a cumulative 21-year rein, and until fairly recently, when the polls tipped in favor of his challenger, it looked as though he might win again.

While Fernández-Vázquez is quick to note that he can’t say exactly how his research will apply to American politics, he has found that voters are far more forgiving of corruption when it benefits them directly.

Cianci certainly has a seat in the pantheon of mayors who’ve been frowned on by the law. You can call them toxic leaders or rogue politicians, depending on how charitable you’re feeling—slammed by other politicians and vehemently adored by their fans, they’re the beloved fuck-ups, the charismatic grandstanders, corrupt or once-disgraced local incumbents. On the national stage, they can appear more like mascots for their cities than anything else: Buddy, the patron saint of Providence’s mob rule; James Michael Curley, a symbol of Boston’s poor, mid-19th-century Irish population; Marion Barry, an object lesson in being black—and thus a perpetual target—in Washington, D.C.

Their federal offenses aren’t the same, but their appeals to voters appear to come from similar places—even Rob Ford has somehow successfully re-branded himself as just a “regular guy.” Various estimates claim politicians lose, on average, only a little less than five percent of their votes in the wake of scandal. After all, who doesn’t love an underdog? And when it comes down to it, who really trusts the feds?

Cianci’s career covers a lot of ground: he’s got both the private fit of jealous rage and the large-scale corruption case. The first time he left office, in 1984, it was because he plead no contest to charges of kidnapping, assault, and attempted extortion—having lured his ex-wife’s lover to his home that spring, the mayor reportedly attacked the local contractor with a fireplace log and a lit cigarette, as a patrolman and a public works director looked on.

“There is no question everyone makes mistakes in their lives,” Cianci said at the time. “But one mistake I never made was loving the city of Providence too much.” He was re-elected five years later, after receiving a suspended sentence but no jail time.

In 2001, a four-year-long federal investigation called “Operation Plunder Dome” brought Cianci down again, slapping him with 28 charges, among them racketeering, bribery, and extortion. During the trial, supporters stood outside with signs; the papers were peppered with gleeful quotes from locals convinced the mayor had been framed. One Providence Journal writer interviewed a man who bribed his way into the courtroom, paying off another spectator to see the “best show in town.”

Cianci was charged with only one count—of running city hall as a criminal enterprise. He was sent to federal prison—which he later described as like “living in a gated community”—for four and a half years. The judge who sentenced him charitably said the charismatic leader was actually two people: a Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde. Responded Buddy, reportedly: “He didn’t give me two fucking paychecks.”

In 2003, Darrell West, then of Brown University, co-authored a report inspired by the idea of the “popular rogue”—dishonest, yet beloved, politicians embodied by mayors like Cianci. The authors interviewed a sample of Providence voters both before and after the trial. “The interesting thing,” West says, “was that there were people who thought he was dishonest and rated him highly on job performance ... people were willing to overlook his ethical imitations because he was doing a good job.”

But what constitutes a good job? Cianci was crass and charismatic, the kind of guy to march in a Forth of July parade 10 days after he’d been publicly indicted. He presided over a Providence in which historic buildings were rehabilitated, but where asphalt and manhole covers were covertly lifted by his associates and sold for scrap. He loved marinara sauce—and other symbols of his Italian heritage—so much that he bottled and marketed his own, claiming to use the proceeds for a charity that may no longer exist. Like a good mayor in a small town, he was out on the pavement, attending Little League games, playing bingo with drag queens, and kissing pigs. He likes to boast that he always answers his phone.


Buddy Cianci at the Bristol Fourth of July Parade in 2009. (Photo: Bill Price III/Wikimedia Commons)

As a politician, Cianci was the opposite of the Super Mayor, an increasingly popular term most often used to describe people who are members of the global elite and also happen to preside over influential cities. Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has taken to consulting for other urban centers on municipal issues, is the perhaps the definitive example. That sort of high-profile city management is likely to catapult a politician into further spheres of influence, but it doesn’t exactly engender loyalty—and if you’re particularly gifted in political theater, as Cianci was, it’s likely a local audience is simply a more receptive one to play for.

As West wrote immediately following Cianci’s incarceration, the benefit of the monolithic power that ultimately put the man behind bars was the sheer efficiency of an administration of one. “One of the reasons developers liked Providence under Cianci was that they knew if the mayor signed off on a project, it was going to happen,” West wrote. “With power concentrated almost completely in City Hall, the mayor’s okay was the only one that mattered.”

When I lived in Providence in 2007 as, if not a college student then a similar type of young transplant, Cianci’s popularity was a warm, if puzzling, joke; it seemed a remnant of the older, oilier Providence. Once known for its dramatic mob presence and flailing post-industrial economy, Providence had by that time been somewhat revitalized—there was a shiny new megamall, a curious Burning Man-lite tourist attraction called Water Fire. Cianci took credit for most of this, which through the ‘90s was referred to as Providence’s “renaissance.” But the mayor’s legacy at that time felt more in line with the cheap smoke shop where aggressive men in Italian suits mumbled around cigars all day, or the bars that let you stay past the 1:00 a.m. closing time as long as you didn’t glance toward the back room—just the sort of vanishing local color that would lead the New York Times, in 2008, to describe the city as a town Ivy Leagers may not want to flee after graduation, after all.

This election cycle, perhaps understandably, there was quite a bit of federal weight thrown into ensuring Cianci’s defeat. After all, how embarrassing to have a convicted felon in office. At the end of September, Cianci was leading his Democratic challenger, Jorge Elorza. Two weeks later, in what was widely considered an “unprecedented” move, three former U.S. attorneys held a press conference with the sole aim of persuading Providence to vote for anybody but Cianci. The Republican candidate, Daniel Harrop, a self-described “sacrificial lamb,” donated a grand to the democratic contender’s campaign (the legal limit); shortly after, President Obama himself endorsed Cianci’s opponent. There was a note of panicked, pandering incredulousness to the whole thing.

We’ll never know if Cianci would have won without Washington’s campaign against him, but it seems at the very least a possibility. In the end, it was the east side of Providence—the clean, tourist-friendly side of town, home to Brown University—that walloped him back into his daytime talk show gig. “If the people of Providence could read, I’d never get elected,” Cianci reportedly used to joke to his aides. Yet it seems just as likely his constituents simply didn’t care about his trespasses.

When I spoke to Pablo Fernández-Vázquez, who is a researcher at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions at Vanderbilt University, he told me about a saying in Brazil that might also apply here: “He steals, but he gets things done.” Fernández-Vázquez recently studied the mayors of Spain—a favored location for this sort of data, as it is considered one of the most corrupt countries on the planet.

While Fernández-Vázquez is quick to note that he can’t say exactly how his research will apply to American politics, he has found that voters are far more forgiving of corruption when it benefits them directly. He uses the example of the housing bubble, where mayors took bribes or waived necessary licenses, allowing construction in areas where it otherwise might not have been strictly legal—which created jobs and stimulated the economy. There, he says, people “are very happy turning a blind eye.”

Does this indicate a lack of faith in the integrity of the government? Absolutely, Fernández-Vázquez says. “It’s a paradox.... In a place where corruption is more widespread, even voters who are aware and concerned about [corruption] might not have the incentive to punish.”

Voters may not have the incentive to punish, but federal judges certainly do, and it’s likely we’ll see fewer of these bounce-back local campaigns in the future.  In 2004, the U.S. Sentencing Commission recommended far harsher terms for public officials. Ray Nagin, the former mayor of New Orleans, was recently sentenced to 10 years in prison; Kwame Kilpatrick, whose long history of fraud and mismanagement has been blamed for hastening Detroit’s bankruptcy, is about to go away for 28.

We’re not in Spain, but we are in the United States, where a recent Gallup poll found that 79 percent of Americans consider corruption widespread in their government. We live in a country where there are no limits on campaign donations, where corporations, not people, dole out bribes. As one Providence local—a tattoo artist too young to remember Cianci’s first years in office—described it in 2003: “Everyone’s lining their own pockets. At least he put it back into the town.”