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Rhode Island Political Legend Buddy Cianci Dies at 74

Ian Donnis/File Photo/RIPR
Former Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci campaigning for mayor during his second comeback attempt in 2014.
A U.S. District Court judge likened Cianci to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde -- a gifted person who could be his own worst enemy.

Rhode Island’s legendary rascal king, Buddy Cianci, died Thursday morning.

Cianci was hospitalized with stomach pain while taping ABC6 On the Record, a TV show, Wednesday night.

He died at age 74 at about 9:30 this morning, according to a former aide, Artin Coloian.

Cianci first won election as the mayor of Providence in 1974, after serving as an anti-corruption prosecutor in the attorney general's office, and he ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1980

Cianci left the mayor's office after pleading nolo in an infamous 1983 assault of a man he suspected of having an affair with his estranged wife. Cianci then staged a comeback in 1990, winning election as mayor again and presiding over the "Providence Renaissance."

In 1999, federal investigators unveiled an investigation dubbed "Plunder Dome," and Cianci was ultimately convicted of one count of racketeering conspiracy, serving about five years in federal prison. In sentencing Cianci, U.S. District Court Judge Ernest Torres likened him to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde -- a gifted person who could be his own worst enemy.

After getting out of prison, he worked as a talk-show host on WPRO and attempted a second comeback in 2014. He lost to a political newcomer Jorge Elorza.

Cianci's 2014 comeback attempt prompted three former US attorneys to warn voters not to vote for Cianci.

Mayor Jorge Elorza, who beat Cianci by 10 percentage points as a first-time candidate, said in a statement, "My thoughts and prayers are with Mayor Cianci’s family and loved ones during this difficult time. Mayor Cianci’s love for the City of Providence is undeniable and his mark on the city will not be forgotten. I have ordered flags at City Hall to be flown at half-staff as we make arrangements to recognize his memory.”

Credit Ian Donnis/File Photo/RIPR
Former Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci campaigning for mayor during his second comeback attempt in 2014.

To some, Cianci was a champion of Providence who raised the city's fortunes with his personality and brio. Critics pointed to the many underlings convicted of corruption during his time as mayor in panning his impact.

“I could have made better choices,” Cianci once told RIPR, in reflecting on his time in office.

Cianci appealed to voters who perceived him as a man of action in a seamy political world. "I think everybody in this state's politics is corrupt to begin with, but that's the way of the world," one Providence resident told me in 2014.  

In 2014, Jon Stewart said, “No one does corruption better than the Northeast, baby. You got Serpico, Abscam … I think the mayor of Providence might have assaulted a guy with a fireplace log.”

Coloian, who served as an aide to Cianci during "Buddy II," said he'll remember Cianci whenever he goes anywhere in the city.

Born Vincent A. Cianci Jr, Cianci became nationally known as a distinctive character during his political career, reviled by some and admired for others for his charisma, wit, and energy.

Earlier this year, plans by Cianci emerged for Cianci to marry a woman decades younger than him.

Cianci's biographer, former Providence Journal investigative reporter Mike Stanton, dubbed Cianci "The Prince of Providence."

“There was the charismatic Buddy that wanted to be your friend, that would do anything to help you, was entertaining and made you feel good about your city,” Stanton said in a 2014 interview. “And then there was the other Buddy, who whether as he says he didn’t know about it or not, presided over a City Hall where there was a range of corruption, there was a range of people doing things that they shouldn’t be doing.”

Former Providence Mayor Joe Paolino, a close friend of Cianci, released the following statement Thursday morning:

With this morning's passing of Providence's longest serving mayor, Vincent A. Cianci, Jr., the people of Providence and the City itself have lost its greatest champion. He gave his heart to Providence, and the city's energy and its very soul will always reflect his love and his brilliance in forging the Providence Renaissance.
Our thoughts and prayers are now with his family and his fiancée. As arrangements are made, more information will be released.

Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas Tobin said, "Throughout his career, Mayor Cianci was unfailingly helpful to the Catholic Church in Providence and for that we will always be grateful. As Mayor of Providence he was keenly aware of the enormous contributions the Church makes every day to our community and he wanted to support that mission."

"On this occasion we call to mind the saying, 'Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.' While we reflect upon Buddy’s past contributions, we are also comforted by the future that awaits him in the presence of a merciful God. May Almighty God be good to him, forgive his sins, and reward the many good things he accomplished during his time on earth."

Cianci was a distinctive character during his political career, reviled by some and admired by others for his charisma and energy.

House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello said, “We have lost a giant on the Rhode Island political landscape. Buddy Cianci moved the City of Providence forward with many impressive accomplishments. In his second career as a radio and TV host, he was an informative voice who engaged many Rhode Islanders in the political process. He will be deeply missed.”

U.S. Senator Jack Reed said, "At this difficult moment, I hope his family and friends find peace and comfort in their memories of a unique personality and life.  This is a time for reflection. Clearly, Buddy Cianci cared deeply about his native city.”

Providence City Councilors offered these comments:

“Today is a sad day as our city mourns the loss of its longest-serving mayor,” said Council President Luis Aponte. “We extend our deepest sympathies to his family and friends. Mayor Cianci’s shadow looms large over the City of Providence. His brilliant mind, charisma, passion, and love for Providence are woven into his legacy."

“This is a tremendous loss,” said Majority Leader Kevin Jackson. “He had a great vision for our city and he will be deeply missed.”

“I’m in deep sorrow,” said Councilman Terrence Hassett. “For me, this is a great loss. He was a personal friend for many years, and I’m sincerely going to miss his counsel and his advice on the challenging issues we face every day in city government and city life.”

This post has been updated.

Copyright 2016 WRNI-FM. To see more, visit WRNI-FM.

Ian Donnis has been the political reporter for Rhode Island Public Radio since 2009. The Washington Post has called him one of Rhode Island’s best political reporters. Besides reporting, Ian tweets at @IanDon, hosts RIPR’s weekly Political Roundtable, and contributes to the station’s On Politics blog.

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