After supplanting Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci Jr. almost four years ago as the 800-pound gorilla of Providence politics, Mayor David N. Cicilline — who seems a sure bet for reelection, at least at this point — continues to trumpet an agenda of civic reform and economic development. But a looming challenge to a longtime city councilor on Providence’s East Side, by a ranking member of Cicilline’s administration, is sparking questions about whether the mayor is making a Machiavellian move to consolidate power by remaking the City Council this year. While other explanations are possible, the situation could also point to the future day when Cicilline may represent Rhode Island Democrats’ best hope for retaking the governor’s office.
Cliff Wood, the director of Providence’s Department of Arts, Culture, and Tourism, would represent the closest thing to an automatic council vote for Cicilline. At the same time, Wood’s anticipated Democratic match-up against Ward Two Councilor Rita M. Williams, who has held the seat representing the College Hill, Blackstone, and Wayland neighborhoods for 15 years, is particularly striking since Williams has been a strong supporter of the mayor. The currently imprisoned Cianci, who made a practice not just of punishing his enemies, but also screwing his friends, might appreciate the irony.
Wood declined comment on whether he is even considering a council run, and Cicilline says he is not encouraging any challenges, including one by Wood, to incumbent councilors. “I have a pretty hard and fast rule that I will focus on my own election,” says Cicilline, who could go without a serious opponent this year. While he wouldn’t rule out the possibility of soliciting candidates for an open seat, the mayor says it is the responsibility of the residents in particular wards to select their councilors. Recalling his own experience in being advised against running for the state Senate and for mayor, Cicilline adds, “I certainly don’t discourage people from running for public office.”
Such neutral notes notwithstanding, word of Wood’s incipient campaign is starting to percolate throughout Providence. Although some may exaggerate Cicilline’s role in seeking challengers to council incumbents, it’s hard not to suspect that the mayor and Wood are on the same page. Wood, after all, was working for philanthropist and downtown developer Arnold “Buff” Chace — an enthusiastic supporter of Cicilline’s 2002 campaign — when he became an active campaign volunteer, and the mayor tabbed Wood to join his administration, as deputy chief of policy, after he won election. Cicilline promoted Wood in November 2003, moving him into the newly created arts’ czar post in November 2003.