The former mayor of Providence was released from federal prison today after serving four-and-a-half years on a corruption charge. Many Rhode Islanders still revere him and his release is causing a buzz throughout the state.
Vincent "Buddy" Cianci's served as Providence's mayor for 21 years and was a colorful figure with his trademark toupees and his gregarious demeanor. He was known for attending even the smallest parade and community dinner.
Even a trip to the Providence Zoo in 2001 to see the polar bears turned into an impassioned political speech.
"Twenty-five years ago, the first call that I got when I was mayor was that the animals were escaping from the park," he said. "I didn't learn 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."
But Cianci's confidence and brashness could just as quickly morph into vindictiveness or anger. A local radio commentator, Rudy Cheeks, says Cianci ran city hall like it was a fiefdom.
"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," Cheeks said.
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.
"I don't believe he's guilty. He's very popular, and he did a lot for the city and he shouldn't be forgotten," he said.
The current Providence mayor and the Rhode Island governor say that 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 newly-elected Providence city councilman. He says the local government is still paying the price for Cianci's wrongdoing.
"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," he said.
Cianci was released to Boston halfway house this 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.
Nancy Cook reports from member station WRNI