Buddy Cianci, the colorful former mayor of Providence, Rhode Island, whose political career was kayoed by a racketeering conviction, died Thursday. He was 74.
Cianci was a known as larger-than-life figure who revived his sleepy Rhode Island city by turning it into a tourist destination and dominating the political scene by the sheer force of his personality.
But the same glad-handing politician who charmed crowds and laughingly referred to his toupee as "the squirrel" could also be thin-skinned and quick to settle scores both while in office and later — after he got out of prison — as a radio talk show host.
Still, Cianci became synonymous with his beloved city and become a national figure thanks to his numerous appearances on TODAY and other news programs.
In fact, Cianci died after he was rushed from the set of a local ABC affiliate to a hospital Wednesday night after suffering severe stomach pains, the station said. The exact cause of death has not been revealed.
Born Vincent Albert Cianci Jr. on April 30, 1941, Cianci was a doctor's son and a prosecutor in the Rhode Island attorney general’s office before he ran for mayor, vowing to clean up Providence's widespread municipal corruption.
Cianci won — despite being a Republican in a Democratic town at a time when the GOP brand had been battered by Watergate. But Cianci's star was on the rise and his victory earned him the chance to address the GOP's 1976 convention. There was even talk of a cabinet position in the Ford Administration.
Cianci later cut ties with the Republican Party, although he remained a lifelong conservative.
His first stint in City Hall ended in 1984 with his resignation after he pleaded no contest to charges of hitting a contractor with a hot fire poker — after accusing him of sleeping with his estranged wife.
Cianci made a comeback run in 1991, winning the Mayor's race again. He transformed his town by burying the rail lines running through the city, building a major mall, reviving the Roger Williams Park Zoo, and leading the so-called "renaissance" of Providence.
But Cianci's term was cut short when he was convicted on a count of federal racketeering conspiracy (RICO) in 2001 and sentenced to 5 years in federal prison. NBC affiliate WJAR aired an infamous video of one of Cianci's top deputies accepting a cash bribe.
After doing his time, Cianci returned home to Providence to host a popular radio talk show, write a book, and wage a successful battle against colon cancer. He also ran again for mayor in 2014 but was defeated.
But his post-prison life was at times lonely. Cianci would sit out on his tiny porch at night, alone, and chain smoke cigarettes. He would often be found at the Tammany Hall Pub Parlor chatting up the locals and regaling them with some of the stories of his past as a mayor.
Then in his twilight days Cianci found love again with a local TV host some 40 years his junior named Tara Marie Haywood. They had recently announced their engagement.
Cianci is also survived by the three grandchildren he cared for after his daughter died in 2012.