The former mayor of Providence, Rhode Island, was the kind of politician that Fred Thompson's TV character once went after. Vincent Buddy Cianci was released from federal prison after serving four and a half years on a corruption charge. He was mayor for 21 years, a colorful figure known for his toupees and his gregarious demeanor. And his release is causing a buzz throughout Rhode Island.

Nancy Cook at member station WRNI reports.

NANCY COOK: Vincent "Buddy" Cianci was known for attending even the smallest parade and community dinner when he was mayor. Rhode Islanders knew him by his toupees. Even a trip to the Providence Zoo in 2001 to see the polar bears turned into an impassioned political speech.

Mr. VINCENT "BUDDY" CIANCI (Former Mayor, Rhode Island): Twenty-five years ago, the first call that I got when I was mayor was that the animals were escaping from the park. I didn't - it's funny that when I went to mayor 101 school, but we were able to recapture them and began a long process of making this zoo one of the 10 best zoos in the entire United States of America.

(Soundbite of applause)

COOK: Cianci is a larger-than-life figure, one of the longest serving mayors in the country and Providence's first Italian mayor.

But Cianci's confidence and brashness could just as quickly morph into vindictiveness or anger. A local commentator, Rudy Cheeks, says Cianci ran city hall like it was a fiefdom.

Mr. RUDY CHEEKS (Radio Commentator): Buddy operated in back rooms. Buddy operated arm-twisting, a lot of the old traditional machine politics system. That's the old Providence, and it's gone now.

COOK: Cianci's racketeering conspiracy conviction was for running a criminal enterprise out of Providence's city hall. He has always claimed he was innocent. One of Cianci's aides also served time after being caught on a hidden camera accepting an envelope full of cash.

Even after his prison time, Cianci is still a hit amongst Rhode Islanders such as Frank Stapello(ph).

Mr. FRANK STAPELLO: I don't his guilty. He's very popular. And he did a lot for the city and he shouldn't be forgotten.

COOK: The current Providence mayor and the Rhode Island governor say Cianci, like any convicted felon who has served his time, deserves to go about his business. But not all of Rhode Island's elected officials feel this way. Cliff Wood is a new Providence city councilman. He says the local government is still paying the price for Cianci's wrongdoing.

Mr. CLIFF WOOD (Councilman, Providence, Rhode Island): We're still living with runners of contracts and labor negotiations. There's a lot of deferred maintenance on infrastructure, schools, roads, the way we pay for those things or have failed to pay for those things. Those things are long term legacies that we're still working through.

COOK: CLIFF WOOD Cianci was released to Boston halfway house Wednesday morning. For now, he'll work in sales and marketing at a luxury Boston hotel. Friends and associates say he'll return to Rhode Island this summer and work in radio. He's not allowed to run for office again. So even if his voice takes hold with a local radio audience, it won't be heard in city hall.

For NPR News, I'm Nancy Cook in Providence.

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