Ex-Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci Considers Post-Prison Comeback

Buddy Cianci has served two stints as mayor of Rhode Island's capital city, and both ended in felony convictions. Now he may try for a third.

Cianci's charisma and shenanigans put him and Providence in the national spotlight - for good and ill - during his 21 years at the city's helm. He says he's leaning toward running again, 12 years after his conviction and prison sentence for overseeing widespread corruption in his administration.

The mere discussion of a Cianci candidacy has been met with dread in some quarters, as some residents and others worry it will hurt the city's reputation.

Cianci calls his 4 1/2-year prison term a "bump in the road" and says what's more important is the good he did in overseeing visionary changes, including moving rivers, building a huge shopping mall and investing in arts and preservation.

"If I were mayor again, I know that could happen. It could happen by sheer personality and experience," he said in a recent interview. "All the things that they celebrate in this city are the things that I did."

Cianci first won the office as a Republican in the heavily Democratic city in 1974 and later became an independent. He was forced out in 1984 after being convicted of assaulting a man he suspected of having an affair with his estranged wife.

He then launched a career as a radio talk-show host. In 1990, he ran again for mayor and won. By 2002, he was out again, resigning after being convicted of racketeering conspiracy and sent to prison for a single count of racketeering conspiracy. He left prison in 2007 and relaunched his broadcasting career with a radio talk show and a TV gig as a political commentator.

John Marion, executive director of the state chapter of government watchdog group Common Cause, said talk of the run paints an unflattering portrait of Providence. City government under Cianci was set up so that it was important to know people to get basic city services, he said. The FBI investigation into citywide corruption, called Plunder Dome, brought down several members of Cianci's administration.

Nikos Giannopoulos, 26, a teacher who moved to the city four years ago, doesn't like the idea of another Cianci mayoralty.

"He represents a Providence that no longer exists," he said. "He's very much the quintessential Rhode Island machine politician, and I kind of feel like that's not really where we want to go."

That's not how Lisa Powers sees it.

"I think it's wonderful. I think we need somebody who really cares," said Powers, 52, who served in the Cianci administration and testified before the Plunder Dome grand jury. "There's nothing wrong with the old Rhode Island and the old Providence."

Cianci doesn't know whether he would run as an independent or a Democrat. The filing deadline is June 25 for the race to succeed Mayor Angel Taveras, who's running for governor.

But there are questions about whether the city has changed too much to give Cianci the votes he needs to win. Since Cianci was last elected, the city's Hispanic population has grown, from 30 percent in 2000 to 38 percent in 2010.

Democratic candidate Jorge Elorza, 37, is a law professor, former judge and son of Guatemalan immigrants. He grew up in Providence, and Cianci was the mayor for most of his life.

"He was larger than life when I was growing up. I think everyone will agree, whether you love him or you hate him, that Buddy was a brilliant politician," Elorza said. "These are different times. You can't run a large city on a handshake."

Now 73, Cianci was diagnosed with cancer this year and underwent chemotherapy and radiation. He said his health is good now and won't be an obstacle to serving as mayor.

Cianci knows he has detractors, but he says he has the experience to get things done. He is considering the run not to redeem himself, he said, but to make a difference.

"I'm an older guy now, and I'm changed in many ways," he said. "People know me in this city. They know who I am. They know what I've done. They don't have to vote for me. It's America."


More from WBUR

Listen Live