He shed the toupee and thirty-five pounds. But after four-and-a-half years in jail, how has the former mayor of Providence changed on the inside? In his own words, Buddy reflects on prison, his career and the $64 million question.
I left Providence in a snowstorm. It was a poignant experience—I remember listening to Christmas carols playing at the skating rink across from the Biltmore hotel as I said my goodbyes and saw the city for the last time. It was almost surreal driving through the snow, thinking about the ups and downs of my career. I knew that I’d be facing an important challenge the next day, but my life has been defined by challenge. I thought, ‘How could I get myself into this situation?’ I concluded that I had tried my best and fought the good fight. I pleaded not guilty and ended up with one conviction out of twenty-seven charges. That charge was a conspiracy to conspire so to speak.
I was immediately assigned to work in the kitchen at Fort Dix, doing things like mopping floors and cleaning the food line for eight hours a day. I heard they spent $1.70 a day on meals for each prisoner—the food isn’t exactly the Old Canteen. After six months in the kitchen, I was accepted to be a clerk in the leisure library. I was like the celebrity host—I’d answer questions and recommend books. I also tutored people who were trying to get GEDs and taught some classes in American history and political science. I read 500 books, a lot of biographies, books on history and Winston Churchill. I read David McCullough’s 1776 and David Halberstam’s books on the ’50s and ’60s.
I got good reports and never had a problem with any inmates or guards. I didn’t align myself with anyone; it wasn’t like I was running for office. Inmates have their own system of acceptance, rejection and discipline; the key was to survive and get out alive by staying under the radar. There are prison rules, and then there are the rules the population creates. Like, don’t ask another inmate why he’s there, though if you get to be friendly, he’ll usually tell you. And never cut in line. Prison is like living at the DMV: You have to wait in line for everything; getting a sock or a T-shirt may be an all day proposition. The other rule is respect. In order to earn respect, you have to give respect; you learn what that word really means because you’re all in the same boat no matter what route you’ve taken in life. The rules are the same whether you were mayor, drug dealer or Mafia Don. I had always enjoyed a good relationship with the minority community, and that reputation preceded me, which helped because the population was about 70 percent Hispanic and African-American. Also there were many men in their thirties who had respect for my seniority.
There were a lot of victims of the crack cocaine laws, which in my humble opinion ought to be changed. There are people doing far too much time because of sentences that are inconsistent with their crime. But everyone hopes a law will be changed that will affect his situation. I read relevant cases, but I didn’t spend a lot of time researching my case. I was concerned when we lost our appeal, but with one disappointment after another, you got used to it.
Fort Dix changed from a low to a medium security facility while I was there; it wasn’t the country club that some people think. For the last eight months, I was in a two-man cell, but prior to that I was in a twelve-man room. If there was an infraction, all twelve of us were disciplined. If someone was missing during cell counts, it was a problem. You were locked in, and any movement was done on the hour; for example, you had ten minutes to be at your job or gates and doors would lock. If there was a fight, you had to take your shirt off to show you weren’t part of it. It all became rote, like when I rode the horses at Lincoln Woods as a child; no matter how you steered, the horse went the direction it was supposed to, and you always ended up back at the barn.
The prison had its own economy. You earned money from a prison job and could have money sent, but you could only spend $290 a month. I bought cigarettes and food with protein like tuna or soups that I’d cook in the microwave. Mackerels cost $1 a pouch, and if you wanted to take care of the guy who gave you a haircut, you gave him a couple ‘macks.’ People were always bartering, ‘I’ll give you two macks for a battery,’ or ‘I’ll give you two macks for a candy bar.’
Prison is what you make it: For some it’s a trip to loneliness with a side trip to boredom and monotony. There’s a saying in prison, ‘You can do the time or the time can do you.’ Best you do the time; accept where you are and accept the rules. You can think of the future—that’s what sustains you—but don’t imagine what life would be like at that moment if you were outside prison walls. Every day is the same routine; holidays are not celebrated. I spent a lot of time reading, writing and thinking, ‘What am I going to do today to improve myself when I’m out?’ I’m not a spiritual person, but there was a transformation in my approach to life. I’m definitely more tolerant of other people’s views, much more patient and even-tempered. I think that as mayor I always listened to other people’s views, but when decisions must be made in a hurry, sometimes you don’t listen as long as you should.
The key to happiness is freedom, and the key to freedom is courage. In prison, you need to conjure up your courage every day. I was never more self-sufficient or self-confident than in prison. I find that strange, but I had no choice except to rely on myself. I had to raise that confidence daily by telling myself I could get through it, other people had gotten through it.
Being so self-sufficient was a bit shocking at first. I was sixty-one and used to having a driver, having my clothes washed and my trash emptied for me. But I adjusted to fending for myself and even enjoyed it—I took pride in having a neat locker. Now I have a scheduler and a driver again, but I still change my own sheets.
The biggest challenge was lack of communication with the outside world. You find out that friends have died by reading about it in a newspaper that comes a week late. If there’s a family emergency, you don’t know about it; there were deaths in my family that I didn’t hear about until I called home. You only get 300 minutes a month to talk to whoever is on your approved phone list. At first we were allowed thirty visitation hours a month, though later that was changed to unlimited hours on specified days. At most, you could have ten different visitors a year—as long as they’d been cleared by the prison—plus immediate family.
You don’t make real friends in prison because by law you can’t see them again for a number of years. But you eat with people, you talk about personal problems, so you develop relationships. I used to watch these guys leave with their whole life in a laundry bag. I’d watch them walk to the release point as the sun was coming up. When you see someone going home, it’s a good feeling because you know your day is coming. But it’s also sad because you shared a life behind bars together yet you’ll never see them again.
Prison makes you very reflective of what you might have done differently. There are a lot of things I could say I could have done differently. I would have run for Senate in 1976. I think I would have won, and that opportunity didn’t present itself again. I would have spent less time on the road and more time with my family. I’m trying to correct that now by being more involved with my daughter and three grandkids. I hate to say no to people, so as mayor I would go to seven or eight events a night. In a city this size where there’s one degree of separation from each other, people expected you to go to the opening of their envelope. Now I can say no. If I’m invited to five events I may pick one or two to attend. If I were mayor, I would do the five and look for three more.
Right now I’m eligible to run for federal offices but ineligible to run for any state or local office until three years after my probation ends in July ’09, which means July 2012. Would I run for mayor again? Let’s just say I intend to live my life in a very positive manner, which could include going to the seven or eight events a night. The possibility is there when it’s legal, and we’ll deal with it at that time. I never say never to anything.
I regret that I didn’t take any time off to retreat and wonder where we all were. As mayor, you can’t not make bad choices because you’re making choices every day. But I regret certain decisions about people. I tried to bring in enemies and turn them into friends by making them part of my administration. But you can’t buy your enemies, you can only rent them.
I was never into the real nuts and bolts of running the city. People have this impression that I was very hands-on and knew how many paper clips the city bought, but nothing could be further from the truth. I was more or less involved in a visionary role of trying to move the city forward.
In jail you don’t have much control of what goes on with your life outside, so sometimes you feel a bit taken advantage of or exploited because you’re somewhat defenseless. I didn’t like people generalizing when they really did not have all the facts. I’m not saying there weren’t problems in my administration —as there are problems in the present administration—I’m saying that I could never defend myself against certain sweeping accusations. But I trust that many people will look at the total record and say the city came a long way during the years I was mayor.
When I first ran in 1974, there was no real vision of what Providence could be. I tried to build hope and make people believe we had a future when they were at their lowest point. It wasn’t so much building houses in those days or getting houses repaired; it was getting people fed. On the Fourth of July it wasn’t, ‘Is the city going to have fireworks?’ The question was, ‘Do we have enough trucks to put the fires out?’
In order for me to be an agent for change I had to get elected. And in order to win the 1974 election, I had to build a coalition of the disenchanted Democrats who had barely lost a primary and the more liberal, economically gifted East Side residents who were very supportive of me. The East Side was looking for historic preservation and open government whereas the Democratic remnants of the machine were interested in patronage jobs.
I think many people don’t realize there were political obligations because you couldn’t get allocations through if you didn’t have the support of the side with council votes. It was almost like playing two parts in a play. But I disagree with those who say I’m both Jekyll and Hyde. In order to be successful in politics, you have to speak the language of the people you’re dealing with, so there are different styles one needs to portray depending on your audience. Winston Churchill said the difference between a politician and a statesman is a politician gives the people what they want and a statesman gives them what they need. If you’re attempting to give them what they need, you have to convince them that they want it. A mayor can provide a vision and one or two ideas of his own, but you’ve got to put together the coalitions that make all these things happen. Uncovering the rivers, breaking down ‘The Chinese Wall,’ those ideas didn’t originate with me; everyone had them, but no one knew how to do it. I like to think I was persistent and able to convince people to believe in their dreams, but a lot of credit goes to those middle-level designers and managers, the university community, people who were developing the ideas.
I ran for mayor because I loved Providence and I loved history. I always believed the future of our city was in its past. The choices made back then were critical to the Providence of today. If I had listened to the pundits, if we had married with the business community, we would have ripped down City Hall and most of the buildings downtown. We would have ended up like Hartford with tall, ugly buildings.
We worked very hard to develop buildings that were architecturally significant and consistent with our vision. I don’t want to be critical, but I’m concerned about Providence. I’m not saying I don’t support the mayor or the governor, I just have some disagreements over what would have happened and what shouldn’t have happened. Those two Waterplace residential towers are probably wonderful inside, but they are not what the original founders of the capital city had in mind. I think [preservationist] Antoinette Downing would have been very disappointed.
Some people talk about my radio show and say, ‘the punching bag is back,’ but I think they’ll be surprised by what I might say about current leadership. A radio show can be used as a public forum not to be negative or get even but to have a discourse about issues that will make our community better. Obviously I’m going to have fun, but the humor will be good humor. I have no axe to grind; I’m not recalcitrant or bitter—I have no reason to be bitter. I love this city and I love this state, and I’m going to be as supportive as I can. I know how hard it is to hold office.
But I would like the program to address how we can improve state finances with possible metropolitization. There’s a lot of duplication of services; we have forty-some-odd fire chiefs and police chiefs. That’s the kind of leadership that can be suggested to the politicians. But they don’t have to listen to me; I’m a nobody, and I’m not the guy to make those changes. But if we’re going to solve our state’s financial problems, we’ve got to have that dialogue. We just go from budget to budget with no overall vision as to how we’re going to pay these bills. I would also advocate for making the city’s budget year consistent with the state.
I’m going to live my future as a positive individual, but I will write about my feelings in a memoir and address certain misconceptions. When you get on top, some people are trying to make you fall and fall hard. But the measure of a man is how he handles adversity. John F. Kennedy said something once about how the lies don’t hurt you because they can be corrected, but the continuing myth hurts you. You can’t listen to people who are critical for their own personal, political or economic advantage. Those people perpetrate this myth of corruption.
Let’s face it: I was a tough mayor. But that roguish attitude was a good part of the myth because people relate to that part. The worst thing you can do is be indecisive and watch the city fall apart. If you’re decisive, sometimes that decisiveness is interpreted as being bossy, and the people who don’t like certain decisions add to the myth, ‘Oh he makes these decisions unilaterally or gives people jobs.’ Did I ever give people no-show jobs? Absolutely false. No one ever got one that I knew about. Did I make arrangements politically for support for certain things that I got out of the legislature? Absolutely. What else is new? We didn’t get the mall built or historic tax credits past without being involved—in a good sense—politically with people.
I didn’t want gambling in the city, and I went to see the Pequot Indians at Foxwoods casino. I told their tribal council that if they paid us a substantial sum of money we wouldn’t build a casino in Providence. My impression is they thought that was roguish [and the deal didn’t happen]. Now it’s the same result, we’re not going to have a casino, so we should have been paid for it. Those are the kinds of things that add to that roguish reputation. But it’s not that bad; I mean, there’s nothing illegal about it.
Success is measured by reaching into your soul and saying, ‘What makes me happy and how do I achieve those goals?’ Those goals right now are having someplace to work every day, spending time with my grandkids and friends. And now I know who my true friends are, not the glad-handers who want to use me for a tax break. I’ve never been busier than I am today, with the talk show at WPRO, a political analyst TV possibility, my marinara sauce on more shelves and its proceeds for a scholarship fund, establishing an urban studies center and my real estate projects. I’ll never retire unless I’m physically forced to.
I’m very at peace with myself, probably more at peace than I was before prison. My life is much more well-defined. I know where I’m going, and I’m not dependent on any election results. I certainly have made mistakes, but I will live my life with the deep conviction that I have made a contribution to the renaissance of this city. The warm reception I have received, the outpouring of support and goodwill, has confirmed that this is my home.
I’ve always pleaded not guilty. I have served my time, and I will focus the rest of my life on being extremely positive and as supportive of this city and state as I can.