No Place like Rhode Island

By Hey, Robert P. | The Christian Science Monitor, May 2, 2001 | Go to article overview

No Place like Rhode Island


Hey, Robert P., The Christian Science Monitor


Well, well, my home state of Rhode Island is in the news again, and for the too-frequent reason: charges of corruption by government officials. What a surprise: Dog bites man. Zzzzzzz.

Now the unwelcome spotlight bathes Providence's controversial mayor, Vincent "Buddy" Cianci - visionary, salesman, architect of the city's current renaissance. And, the feds charge, after a two- year probe, a penny-ante crook who's used his office to enrich himself and his campaign treasure chest.

Buddy says he's innocent, and he may be right. That's for the courts to decide.

But for decades, charges like these have been as much a part of the Ocean State's landscape as its glorious beaches and breathtaking coasts. Disgust with corruption produced major changes in the mid-1930s. But the result fell well short of perfection, as the ensuing years showed.

My own education in Rhode Island governance began in the late 1930s, in the apple-green kitchen of our Edgewood home. Peeking bug- eyed around my grandmother's skirt, listening as an agitated Mr. Dwyer, the neighborhood laundryman, told of voting the day before in nearby Pawtucket, a distinguished part of the industrial Blackstone River Valley and home of the fabled Slater Mill.

No sooner had he slid the voting booth's curtain closed than a beefy hand reached in. A voice growled "I'll take that vote," and the hand pulled the straight Democratic lever. Protests to officials of both parties on poll duty were met with threats, as was a complaint to the cop on duty ("Run along or I'll run you in"). Pawtucket, that year, was for sale.

Other years, too. During the '40s, it seemed as though whenever the splendid Providence Journal or its p.m. confrere, the Evening Bulletin, needed an expose, they'd turn to politics in Pawtucket, or sometimes politics elsewhere in the state. A mother lode if ever there was one.

And if the crime subject wasn't politics, then it was crime itself. For decades, organized crime in New England was run out of guess which little state. The papers said it, the FBI knew it, the police must have had some inkling, and - like crime in politics - nothing of a permanent nature changed for years. It kept on keeping on.

Which brings us to today's era. Corruption charges of one kind or another landed a former governor in jail and pressured two state supreme court justices to resign. …

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