Less Room for Cianci's P.R. in Court (reprinted from Providence Journal, July 22, 2001)

By Darrell M. West

A survey conducted at Brown University has generated a wide range of public comment since its results were published several weeks ago. Among other things, the poll found in regard to Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci's indictment on corruption charges that 70 percent said Mayor Cianci has provided strong leadership for the city and 64 percent gave him good marks for how he handled his job, but that 50 percent did not think he was an honest person and 41 percent believed he was guilty of the federal corruption charges.

A June 20 editorial in the Providence Journal claimed the results demonstrated that "corruption is just fine in the Ocean State, and that most citizens are too ill-informed or apathetic to care." William Collins, a policy director for Mayor Cianci, responded in a June 25 column by arguing that the people give the Mayor high job ratings because he is a strong leader who has played a major role in the transformation of the city.

In order to understand what our poll actually was saying, we have undertaken additional analysis of the data since their release. The results provide greater insight into the message that statewide voters were trying to send about Mayor Cianci. We cross-tabulated the results of the honesty and job performance numbers to see how people felt about Cianci. Nineteen percent of the overall sample placed him within the category of honest and good job performance, 27 percent described him as dishonest, but doing a good job, 21 percent believed Cianci was dishonest and not doing a good job, 2 percent claimed he was honest and poorly performing, and 31 percent were unsure how to evaluate him.

There were variations by gender, party, and personal financial status in how citizens assessed the mayor. Women were more likely than men to say Cianci was dishonest, but doing a good job. Those who said they were better off financially were more likely to put Cianci in the dishonest and good performance category. Political independents were the most likely to say Cianci was dishonest and doing a poor job as mayor.

Similar percentages were found when views about his guilt and job performance were cross-tabulated. Nineteen percent believed he was not guilty and doing a good job, 24 percent felt he was guilty but doing a good job, 16 percent thought he was guilty and not doing a very good job, 2 percent thought he was not guilty but doing poorly, and 40 percent were unsure.

Women were more likely than men to believe the mayor was guilty of corruption, as were those who were better off, white, politically independent, and aged 35 to 55. Young people under the age of 35 and non-whites were least likely to think he was guilty.

To assess perceptions about Cianci's guilt as well as views regarding his job performance, we conducted detailed statistical analysis of two questions: do people think he is guilty and how good a job do they think he is doing as mayor. The factors we examined to determine what would predict people's responses to these items included assessments of Cianci's leadership, management, and honesty as well as factors such as age, sex, party affiliation, financial status, and race.

The results show that the major factors that were statistically significant for his guilt were views of his honesty and impressions of his management skills in city government. The less honest people saw the mayor and the less effective they thought he was in managing city government, the more likely they were to conclude he was guilty of federal corruption charges. There was no statistically significant relationship between views about his leadership and impressions of his legal guilt.

However, on the question about Cianci's overall job performance, impressions of leadership and management ability were much more important to overall job ratings than views about honesty. When it came to job assessments, voters were willing to rate Cianci positively in his overall job because they thought he was a strong leader. There was no statistically significant relationship between views about his honesty and how he was performing his job.

What these results demonstrate is that voters employ different criteria of evaluation between political and legal settings. Legal questions centering on guilt focus more on factors related to honesty and integrity, whereas questions concerning overall job performance lead people to focus on a wider range of qualities beyond personal honesty such as leadership ability, management ability, and personal compassion. Depending on which venue is at stake, voters exercise quite different standards in response to corruption accusations.

Since our survey asked both political and legal questions about the Mayor, it allowed voters to send a complex but coherent message that includes elements reflected both in the newspaper editorial and the Collins rejoinder. On job performance, honesty is but one factor in assessing political office-holders. Voters are perfectly able to conclude someone is dishonest but an effective leader. If combined with a charismatic personality or inept opponents, these kinds of leaders can maintain political support even when there are widespread doubts about their personal integrity.

At the same time, however, views regarding dishonesty are quite central in legal assessments. In impressions regarding guilt, views of honesty and integrity were much more crucial to public evaluations than feelings about leadership qualities. The major risk facing Mayor Cianci is his legal indictment. When the venue switches from a political to legal setting, voter assessments are much more likely to be swayed by factors such as honesty than leadership effectiveness. In legal questions, citizens consider the evidence and form impressions using different criteria than typically is the case in election campaigns and governing contexts. This gives politicians under an ethical cloud less room to engage in public relations tactics designed to improve their image or damage that of opponents. In Mayor Cianci's court case, facts, evidence, and legal reasoning are going to matter a lot more than what people think of the mayor's leadership ability.