Vincent “Buddy” Cianci Jr., who was twice elected mayor of Providence, Rhode Island, and twice forced from office after felony convictions, has died at 74. A violent and corrupt man who saved his city from seemingly irreversible decline, Cianci embodied a particular mayoral stereotype—tough, effective, unfathomably corrupt—but added a charisma and a brutality that were his alone.
In 1974, Cianci ran on an anti-corruption platform and became mayor of a city known for organized crime. His first mayoralty ended a decade later when he summoned a contractor named Raymond DeLeo to his home, accused him of sleeping with Cianci’s estranged wife Sheila, verbally abused him for hours, assaulted him with an ashtray and a log from the fireplace, barely missed his eye with a lit cigarette, and finally attempted to extort $500,000 from him—the amount Cianci had agreed to pay Sheila in their divorce settlement. Cianci pleaded no contest to assault and resigned from office.
Cianci spent six years hosting a talk show on WHJJ-AM. In 1990 he was re-elected, because Providence voters thought he was effective and entertaining and weren’t particularly bothered by what he did to Raymond DeLeo.
During his second stint in the mayor’s office, Cianci led the redevelopment of Providence’s desolate downtown, luring artists to the area with tax breaks, developing the Providence Place mall, and uncovering the city’s rivers to create pedestrian walkways and waterfront parks. The jewel in the crown of his achievement was the weekly WaterFire events—a work of art, a civic festival, and a tourist attraction in one—that brought tens of thousands of people to what had been a ghost town. Providence had lost more than a third of its population between 1950 and 1980. During Cianci’s second tenure it grew by 8 percent.
In Providence, Cianci was ubiquitous—launching a brand of marinara sauce with his face on the jar, drinking at the Biltmore Hotel bar, wandering into undergrad house parties, telling stories and shaking hands. He made himself into a character and used that character to do business. Everyone who studied at Brown in the ’90s, as I did, heard the same rumors: He had arrived at a frat party on a horse; he had married a woman named Nancy Ann and made her Nancy Ann Cianci. A University of Rhode Island political scientist called him “the most talented politician that New England has produced since John Kennedy.”
In 2001, Cianci was indicted on 27 federal charges of racketeering, conspiracy, extortion, witness tampering, and mail fraud, after a four-year investigation code-named Operation Plunder Dome. Prosecutors accused Cianci’s administration of taking bribes for city jobs and funneling cash to Cianci’s campaigns. Judge Ernest Torres said Cianci “presided over an administration that is rife with corruption at all levels” and “engaged in an egregious breach of public trust by engaging to operate the city … as a criminal enterprise to line his own pockets.” Convicted on a single count of racketeering conspiracy, he served five years in federal prison at Fort Dix, New Jersey. After his release in 2007, Cianci joined the Providence ABC affiliate WLNE-TV as chief political analyst, where he hosted a daily political segment called The World According to Buddy and a weekly public affairs program, On the Record With Buddy Cianci.
In 2014 he ran for mayor yet again and lost for the first time, to Democrat Jorge Elorza. During the campaign, he said, “All the things that they celebrate in this city are the things that I did.”