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Providence’s Buddy Cianci was once America’s longest-serving mayor who brought new life to a city in decline. But Cianci’s legacy was tarnished -- and two different administrations cut short -- by felony convictions in 1987 and 2002. This year, the infamous former mayor is not just on the ballot for a second comeback, he’s leading in the polls. Political editor Domenico Montanaro reports.
They say that the third time is the charm, and that's what voters are being asked to consider in Providence, Rhode Island, as the twice former mayor runs again, despite his two previous felony convictions and a prison term.
The NewsHour's Domenico Montanaro takes us there with this report.
VINCENT "BUDDY" CIANCI, Independent Mayoral Candidate: How you doing?
How are you, Buddy?
Good. Nice to see you.
In Providence, the improbable. Former Mayor Vincent Buddy Cianci, whose previous two reigns were each cut short by felony convictions, is running again.
We hope you win again.
To the shock of his detractors.
I think it's an embarrassing disgrace.
The delight of his supporters.
The perfect candidate to bring Providence back to where it needs to be.
The amazement of nearly everyone.
Some of this stuff is kind of like out of "Alice in Wonderland."
He's leading in the polls.
MAUREEN MOAKLEY, University of Rhode Island: He's not only back. He's not only running. But he may indeed win.
MIKE STANTON, Author, "The Prince of Providence: The Rise and Fall of Buddy Cianci": Absolutely, he could win.
Look it, I have been there, done it, bought the T-shirt. I know how to fix the problems in this city, and that's why we're ahead in the polls.
Cianci was once America's longest-serving mayor, holding office 22 years in all. His first go-round started in 1974, when he ran as a Republican on an anti-corruption platform.
Cianci is so incorruptible, he headed up the anti-corruption strike force in this state.
He really does embody the best and worst of American politics throughout his long and checkered career.
Mike Stanton, now a professor at the University of Connecticut, is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist for The Providence Journal.
He was like a breath of fresh air to a city that was really dying after the 1960s and the flight to the suburbs, and he became a great cheerleader.
I mean, Gerald Ford had him speak at the Republican National Convention. And, at the same time, there were nearly two dozen people arrested or convicted in his first administration involving kickbacks for street paving and snowplowing and other municipal contracts.
But it was his personal life that did him in, in 1984, when he had his police bodyguard bring him the man he thought was having an affair with his estranged wife.
Buddy, you know, slapped him and punched him and threw a drink in his face.
The facts show the defendant threw an ashtray at him.
And he had a lit cigarette, and he kind of tried to jab it in the man's eye. He ultimately pleaded guilty as he was about to go to trial. And he resigned his office. And we thought that would be the end of the Buddy story.
How are you? How are you? How are you?
But, by 1990, Buddy was back, winning a three-way race as an independent by just a few hundred votes. And Providence was on the cusp of a renaissance, a record that Cianci is running on today.
This was the city of Providence. Then a new mayor was elected, and that mayor's leadership changed everything.
We built the skating rink across the street. We did the zoo, built the mall, moved the rivers. This city was one of the five best cities to live in, according to "Money" magazine. It was one of the five renaissance cities, according to USA Today.
But Scott MacKay, former chief political columnist for "The Providence Journal," now political analyst for Rhode Island Public Radio, says Cianci doesn't deserve as much credit as he claims.
SCOTT MACKAY, Rhode Island Public Radio:
He'll tell you that he's like Moses, he parted the waters. You know, this — this whole revival of downtown Providence was something that took about 25 years, a whole bunch of different folks governors, mayors, senators. But Cianci happened to be in office at the apex of all of this, and he was just brilliant at taking credit.
MacKay's co-panelist, political science professor, Maureen Moakley, takes a more generous view of Cianci's roles.
They may not have been his ideas, but he got it. He He understood that it mattered for the city. And he made — he did everything to make it happen.
Yes, says MacKay.
He probably is the best cheerleader the town ever had. The problem is, he didn't pay attention to day-to-day running of city hall and the finances. And, you know, there's a conga line of people who worked for him who ended up being criminals.
We have got his chief of staff, his top aide, you know taking a grand in a bribe and the FBI taping it, and he didn't look like a virgin.
An FBI investigation, dubbed Plunder Dome, culminated in 27 charges of corruption against Cianci. In 2002, he was found guilty on one count of racketeering conspiracy and sentenced to prison.
I never was really convicted of taking money or anything like that. I was convicted of having in, in being the top of an organization of a few people who or some people who were, were taking bribes …
How do you reassure voters that there won't be corruption in a third administration?
Well, you know, what reassurance do people have? No one wants to sit in prison for four-and-a-half years. You have got a lot to think about.
What did you learn from that time?
Never to come back. And, frankly, I did my time. I did it like a man. I paid the price. And the law says I can run. And I'm running.
At age 73, he's doing what might be unthinkable anywhere else, in a bid to burnish a tarnished legacy.
In the old Italian American neighborhood the Federal Hill, older Italian Americans are closing ranks.
Dominico (sic) Montanaro.
(I suddenly felt a nickname coming on).
That guy right there, his name is John but his nickname is Shifty. That guy there, his name is Felix but we call him Bobo. Philip? Sharkey.
Philip Almagno (ph), a former city councilman, was chief of weights and measures in Cianci's second administration. Do you think he should be mayor again?
Anthony Annarino (ph) was Cianci's tax collector.
So, what was it like working for Buddy?
It was an adventure. He was always on you, made sure everything got done.
Do you think he had his hands clean?
Well, number one, they didn't find nothing on him.
They didn't prove anything.
Not as far as I'm concerned.
Yes, me, too.
Twenty-nine — 28 charges, and you charge him with one, RICO Act? Give me a break.
In my opinion, he shouldn't have done 30 minutes in jail.
Across town in the city's posh East Side, the feeling is very different.
WENDY SCHILLER, Brown University:
People are literally terrified that he will win again.
Wendy Schiller teaches political science at Brown.
There's a real divide between the old-timers who remember the glory days of Buddy Cianci, and the people here who want to look forward to the future and give Providence a new fresh start, a new reputation.
That was clear up the road from Brown's campus, at The Coffee Exchange.
Former journalist, now actor, Ted Fleming.
This place needs new blood to break it out of the established entrenched patterns of yesteryear. Buddy // represents the worst of it in terms of, how you say, his corruptibility quotient.
And, asks retiree Bill Deveney…
What businesses would come into Rhode Island and set up shop thinking there's a payola system here?
Still, the concerns haven't stopped Cianci's momentum.
I feel good.
The most recent poll has him in the lead, 38-32, over his closest challenger, Democrat Jorge Elorza.
JORGE ELORZA, Democrat Mayoral Candidate:
I'm running for mayor here in Providence.
Elorza, a political novice who grew up in a tough part of the city's West Side, is a Harvard Law grad and former housing court judge.
Are you ready for the fight?
Absolutely. And we will take the fight to him.
If it wasn't for Cianci, Elorza would likely be cruising into office.
How are you, sir?
Providence, after all, hasn't had a Republican mayor since Cianci's first campaign 40 years ago.
Very nice to meet you.
And the current GOP candidate, Dan Harrop, is polling at just 6 percent.
DANIEL HARROP, Republican Mayoral Candidate:
This is the Buddy Cianci show, featuring Dan Harrop and Jorge Elorza, and that's what the election is becoming.
Harrop, a psychiatrist, puts Providence voters on the couch.
Why are you really considering doing this again? I have often considered this as somewhat like battered spouses, is that they're fearful of the future, so they stay with the batterer and want to keep with them because at least it's what they know.
But Providence is a very different city than the one Cianci led 40 years ago. His Italian American base is shrinking. More than 60 percent of city residents are nonwhite minorities, with Latinos making up the largest group by far.
It's a group that Elorza, son of Guatemalan immigrants, is courting. But African-Americans could be a swing group, and Cianci is counting on them.
I feel honored to have this chance to present a track I did for Mr. Cianci, and it starts off with your commercial.
As I look around the city I love, I see we've lost our way….
Since Buddy left the office, I watched the city fold. And we really need him back cause Buddy was bold.
People, so vote for Buddy Cianci to find better jobs and homes for our families.
Despite Cianci being the most recognizable figure in the race, arguably in Providence history, 21 percent in the polls said they hadn't yet made up their minds, bad news for Buddy, says Wendy Schiller.
He's a well-known candidate, so if 21 percent are undecided and they know you well, they're likely leaning in the other direction.
Frankly I've got a legacy, that this city has. And I want to make sure that this legacy of the city of Providence improves and I want my legacy to improve also.
Hi. How you doing?
It's up to Cianci to convince voters beyond his loyal base that he has earned that chance.
Thanks a lot.
Whether he succeeds could determine how this controversial figure is remembered, as the comeback kid or part of the city's dark past.
The broadcast version of this story was edited slightly for time. After it aired, we learned that Anthony Annarino, who served as tax collector in Cianci's administrations, was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison on attempted extortion charges during Operation Plunder Dome. The 1990s Cianci campaign footage is from the documentary Vote for Me, produced by the Center for New American Media.
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