Public Nuisance

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The first Republican president once said, "While the people retain their virtue and their vigilance, no administration by any extreme of wickedness or folly can seriously injure the government in the short space of four years." If Mr. Lincoln could see what's happened in these last three-and-a-half years, he might hedge a little on that statement.
-Ronald Reagan

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Tuesday, July 02, 2002
Josh Marshall has an amusing requiem on the career of Providence Mayor Vincent "Buddy" Cianci, recently convicted of conspiracy to engage in racketeering.

Although this wasn't his first felony conviction, as Marshall recounts, Cianci was a popular mayor and would probably have been comfortably re-elected. The USA Today article notes, "[Cianci] has presided over a renaissance in Providence that includes new parks, a $460 million shopping mall and more than $300 million in transportation improvements." Marshall says, "Cianci was just an incredibly good Mayor. Not just for the entertainment factor but equally in terms of rejuvenating the city."

Cianci is a clownish figure, as Marshall's recounting of his earlier adventures makes obvious, but he is an example of a phenomenon very common in the politics of the 90s. Numerous governors and big city mayors gained undeserved reputation as political genuises by riding the economic and social improvements that took place during the decade. Rudy Guiliani was perhaps the most conspicuous example, gaining a reputation as the man who saved New York due mainly to the sharp drop in violent crime during his administration. But almost every major US city had drops in the same period; several who didn't adapt Guiliani's celebrated "broken windows" policies actually had even more dramatic reductions than New York.

Providence and many other cities revived their downtown in the 90s. With jobs increasing, not enough new retail space in sprawl-conscious suburbs, and the cost of both office and retial spaces in the suburbs ever rising, it was pretty easy for big city governments to design new projects to revitalize downtown districts, and most were successful.

Governors such as Tom Ridge, Chris Whitman, and Tommy Thompson became known as a new kind of Republican, mostly because they implemented the popular part of the Republican agenda (tax cuts) while the Clinton boom meant they could ignore the down side (service cuts and/or budget deficits). During the height of the boom, a Governor could pretty much get sworn in, take a six month fishing vaction, and return to the capital just in time to take credit for the tax cuts that had just been enacted and the new jobs that would offset the revenue loss. George Bush was more hard line than the Republicans mentioned above, but even he was able to burnish his unimpressive moderate credentials by putting new money into education.

Most of these politicians were Republicans, and most were labelled as "moderates", guaranteeing a generally fawning press coverage. Quite a few, like Richard Riordan, came from successful careers in private industry, and an invariant mantra of theirs was that if elected they woud "run government like a business." Finding themselves more flush with money than any prior office holders due to the general economic good times, they spent the windfall buying their own popularity with new programs and lower taxes. Barely one of them did what a well-run business in the same circumstances would have and put money away for the inevitable slump. As a result, state and local governments all over the country are now facing the worst budget crises in decades, since nobody wants to undo those popular progams and the end of the boom means there are no longer tax funds to support them.