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This convicted mayor wants a 'final rodeo'

By Kevin Conlon and Jeff Simon, CNN
updated 7:29 PM EST, Mon November 3, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Buddy Cianci is running for mayor of Providence for the third time
  • Cianci resigned the post twice before over felony convictions
  • Cianci to CNN: "I've made mistakes in my life obviously, I've paid the price."
  • President Obama campaigns for Cianci's opponent Friday

Providence, Rhode Island (CNN) -- Tuesday's election in the littlest of states is causing the biggest of stirs.

When President Barack Obama hits the campaign trail here Friday to lend his star power to Jorge Elorza, the first-time candidate running in the city's deadlocked mayoral race, he won't be the most famous politician in the Ocean State that day.

That distinction belongs to the politician running against Elorza, the larger than life man who's never lost a political race, the man who served as Providence's mayor twice before -- and who was forced to resign each time in disgrace: Buddy Cianci.

"You're not going to get a Pulitzer Prize or an Emmy by saying 'Buddy Cianci is a convicted felon.' Cianci told CNN at his Providence headquarters this week. "Everybody knows that."

He added: "I'm probably the most vetted candidate in America right now. They know everything about me."

Cianci, a back-slapping machine politician reminiscent of a bygone era, served as the city's mayor from 1975 to 1984 and then again from 1991 to 2002, epochs recalled locally as Buddy I and Buddy II.

Buddy I came crashing down after Cianci was convicted of using a fire log and a lit cigarette to assault a man he accused of having an affair with his wife. Buddy II ended after Cianci was convicted on federal corruption charges. At the end of his 2002 trial, the judge rebuked Cianci before sentencing him to federal prison for five years.

"In this mayor's two administrations, there has been more corruption in the city of Providence than in the history of this state," said Judge Ernest Torres.

Cianci isn't shying away from his past.

"I've made mistakes in my life obviously, I've paid the price," he told CNN. "We all stumble, I stumbled. That doesn't prevent me from running for office...I've done my time, and I think I'm a contributing member to this society and this city."

While Cianci's stumbles didn't prevent him from running for office, his 37-year-old opponent hopes that they'll prevent him from capturing it. "We have a storied history of corruption here in our city," Elorza said at a recent press conference. "And those incidents of corruption are very well-documented in Mr. Cianci's administration."

Three former U.S. attorneys -- among them current U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse -- doubled down on those sentiments, urging voters to reject Cianci at a press conference they convened October 14. "I would very much doubt that the return of this particular shadow would do our applications any good," said Whitehouse, referring to federal grant applications.

But for Buddy, it's a familiar refrain. In fact, it's Cianci's past -- warts and all -- that lay at the heart of the campaign message driving the 73-year-old's "final rodeo" -- the quest for a Buddy III.

"They can talk all they want about me and my background," he said. "The question is: if you went into a hospital and you had to have open heart surgery, would you want the intern to do it or would you want the experienced doctor even though the doctor might have had a couple of problems in his life?

Everyone in Providence it seems has an opinion about Cianci, and they typically fall into one of three categories.

There are those that love him, such as Sandra Perrone. "I think of him as a Robin Hood." she told CNN. "I just think he should be given another chance."

There are those that don't. "Buddy Cianci is someone who's very flashy," said Joshua Shockly. "I think it's all show with him, there's not any substance behind what he does."

Then there are the conflicted.

Cianci "is someone who is incredibly charming, actually very intelligent, very funny, (and) very glib," said Kent Mallard. "But somebody who I would never vote for for mayor."

"I think Buddy Cianci loves this city and that he did some good things for this city," added Shockly. "I just don't think this city needs somebody like him at this point in time where Providence and Rhode Island in general needs to take a step forward out of a past which has really kept us kind of behind everyone else."

That even Cianci's detractors concede that there is much to like and admire about the man reveals the underlying conflict facing voters in the city of nearly 180,000 as they head to the polls on Tuesday: Do they go with the candidate with a shadowy past but who nevertheless worked tirelessly to bring a once blighted, ne'er do well city out from those very shadows? Or do they go with the less experienced and younger Elorza, a candidate who Obama -- a politician who knows a little something about being young and inexperienced and running for office -- says will "will bring honest leadership to Providence?"

"A lot of positive things happened while (Buddy) was in office but a lot of negative things happened," said resident Dennis Emsley. "I mean, he's a celebrity, he has a certain cache, but there are other candidates that are more connected to what's going on in the city today and that are going to be more able to lead the city into the future and I don't think that'd be Buddy Cianci."

As for any other celebrity -- presidential or otherwise -- campaigning against a Buddy III, Cianci says his opponent can have them.

"You know what they all have in common? None of them live in the city of Providence."

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