Close to 15 years after it happened, it remains the finest political moment I have ever witnessed in person.
I was in Providence, Rhode Island, part of a big crowd milling around after commencement ceremonies at the Rhode Island School of Design.
Providence’s charismatic mayor, Buddy Cianci, had spoken at the ceremony. Or, more accurately, he had appeared at the ceremony — swooping onstage just long enough to waive the graduating seniors’ parking tickets, present the honorary doctorate recipients with jars of his marinara sauce, and play to the back rows with his own infectious brand of political prosciutto.
I think everyone in the crowd after the ceremony figured Buddy had blown in, blown out, and gone back to running the city or something.
But then a pair of state troopers began pacing deliberately through the crowd, pushing politely but firmly, and calling in thick southern New England accents: “Cleah a pahth for the mayah! Cleah a pahth for the mayah!”
And in their wake followed a massive black stretch limousine, with two or three boomerang antennas sprouting arrogantly from the trunk lid, and Rhode Island state plates with the numeral “1.”
In Nineties Rhode Island, the governor didn’t get Plate #1. Buddy Cianci, mayor of Providence, got Plate #1.
And this was Buddy’s limo inching through the crowd, making the most conspicuous getaway possible, reminding thousands of newly minted grads and their relatives that underneath the civic-minded glad-handing was a man who truly savored the perks and muscle of being Boss.
It was pretty damn impressive.
Yes, there’s something about a mayor that makes people sit up and take notice. Even a low-key, man-of-the-people sort of mayor draws attention when he mingles with the common people or turns out to support a civic cause.
That’s what was going on during this week’s calendar entry, imported directly from Halloween Week 1973:
The mayah — er, mayor — in question has shown up in this space before.
Julius M. Wilensky was elected Stamford’s mayor in a three-man race in 1969, earning my grandfather’s vote. He was re-elected two years later, in a race that did not earn special notice on my grandpa’s calendar.
On Tuesday, Oct. 30, 1973, Republican Wilensky would presumably have shown up at the Springdale Methodist Church to press the flesh and ask for the people’s support in the upcoming municipal election exactly a week later.
(I do not know for sure whether my grandpa met Wilensky in person that night. But if he did, I know he had freshly cleaned teeth.)
Wilensky’s campaign gambit did not work. Nov. 6, 1973, was a big day for Democratic candidates across the country, as voters voiced their Watergate-era displeasure with Republicans.
Democratic winners that night included New Jersey Gov. and future arena namesake Brendan Byrne; Abraham Beame, New York City’s first Jewish mayor; Coleman Young, Detroit’s first black mayor; and Frederick Lenz Jr., Wilensky’s opponent for mayor of Stamford.
Lenz served one term and was replaced by Louis Clapes, a popular Republican who earned four terms.
Clapes was replaced in turn by ambitious young Democrat Thom Serrani, the last of 13 mayors of Stamford to have William, Corine and Pauline Blumenau as subjects. It was early in the Serrani administration that my grandparents and great-grandma pulled up stakes, leaving Stamford for western New York after 40-plus years.
I do not think my grandpa was particularly attached to any of the men who ran his adopted home city during his years there. While he was a regular voter, he was not a diehard political animal by any measure.
But the all-caps treatment on his calendar — “MAYOR in church” — suggests he viewed a visit from Hizzoner as something special. Something to get dressed up for, and make a point of attending.
Mayoral visits can be that way. Even without stretch limos and jars of marinara sauce.