Buddy Cianci does not have a cold. In fact, the 73-year-old twice-convicted felon and six-term Providence mayor is in fine fettle on the early fall day that I catch him in his campaign headquarters. Cianci officially launched his comeback bid just this morning, though he’s basically been in campaign mode since filing to run two months earlier for the mayoralty that he had to leave in 2002 after being convicted of racketeering and subsequently spending four and half years in the federal clink. Cianci’s in particularly good spirits when I see him because he’s personally counting the campaign checks that have come today, and he’s landed quite a haul. As I take a seat in his office, he orders an underling to go make a deposit at the bank, handing over an impressively fat stack of checks. The staffer better get him “something cold to drink” while he’s at it, Cianci commands in his thick Rhode Island brogue.
Cianci may be in good shape—he insists that doctors have given him a clean bill of health, despite his battling colon cancer—but he looks a little frailer than the last time he ran for mayor, back in 1998. Gone is Cianci’s famous toupee, the “squirrel.” (He was forced to lose it when he went to prison, a traumatic experience—losing the toupee, that is—though he recently told the New York Times that he “enjoys life without the squirrel.”) Instead, he now frequently sports eyeglasses; squint, and he almost looks distinguished. The epicurean ex-officeholder is now considerably skinnier than the last time around, as well. (That’s not to say Cianci’s taking care of his health, exactly—he maintains his decades-long Marlboro habit.) He is, he says, “a little older, a little wiser, a little more mellow.”
“Mellow” is not a word one would traditionally associate with Vincent “Buddy” Cianci. Wildly ambitious from a young age, the Cranston, Rhode Island, native began his career as a prosecutor before being elected mayor of Providence in 1974, at just 33 years old. More transactional than ideological, Cianci ran as a Republican because it made the most electoral sense. His brand was “anti-corruption” and clean government—he defeated the barfly incumbent, Democrat Joseph Doorley, and when he was still a prosecutor, Cianci even went after Raymond Patriarca, the don of the New England mafia. At the time, Providence’s politics were positively Middle Eastern, dominated by ethnic conflict. Cianci was the candidate of the Italians; Doorley, the Irish.
After winning election, Cianci looked like he was destined for bigger things than mere mayor of a then-declining New England city. A rare Republican mayor, Cianci addressed the 1976 GOP convention and was even tipped as a possible vice president. Indeed, it was an open secret that he coveted one day becoming the first Italian-American president. All the while, he threw himself into his job, embracing the historic preservation of Providence’s fabulous stock of architecture and trying, with mixed results, to lure development downtown. He also cultivated something of a cult of personality, showing up at parades, weddings, Little League games, business launches, and concerts. As the old joke goes, Cianci is the kind of politician who would have attended the opening of an envelope. While he lost a 1980 bid for Rhode Island governor, Providence voters rewarded his attention by reelecting him in 1978 and 1982, that last time as an independent.
But Cianci’s frenetic energy has always had a disturbing dark side. In 1966, while a law student at Marquette University in Milwaukee, he was accused of raping a woman at gunpoint. Then there was the infamous incident in 1983, in which the then-mayor assaulted a man he suspected of having an affair with his wife. While a Providence policeman held the victim captive, Cianci burned him with a lit cigarette, attacked him with a fireplace log, and chucked an ashtray at him. For that charming conduct, Cianci was given a five-year suspended prison sentence and forced to resign his office, which he regained in 1990, running under the slogan “He Never Stopped Caring About Providence.” Pulitzer Prize-winner Mike Stanton’s exhaustive biography, The Prince of Providence, describes numerous instances of minor violence, tantrums, and petty tyranny. There was the time, for example, when a restaurant Cianci favored was too crowded to let him in, and he was turned away at the door. A little later, the Providence fire marshal shut the place down for overcrowding, and its entertainment license was revoked.