He was twice elected Mayor of Providence and also served as a prosecutor and attorney. Notably, he was forced to resign from office twice due to felony convictions. His first administration ended in 1984 when he pleaded nolo contendere to charges brought against him. His second stint as mayor ended when he was forced to resign following his conviction for one count of racketeering conspiracy, and he served four years in federal prison.
Cianci was first elected mayor as the candidate of the Republican Party. While in office, he declared himself an independent and, as of 2009, he said that he had no party affiliation. On his radio show in June 2014, Cianci announced that he would run for mayor again. He was defeated by Democratic candidate Jorge Elorza.
Cianci was born on April 30, 1941, in Providence, Rhode Island. His family lived in nearby Cranston, where he grew up in the Laurel Hill section of the town. He was the younger of the two children of Dr. Vincent Albert Cianci and Esther Cianci, née Capobianco (her great-grandfather served as mayor of Benevento, Italy) who married in 1937. Cianci's paternal grandfather Pietro, a carpenter who emigrated from Roccamonfina, Italy in 1896, married Carmella Cianci. Cianci's father, one of thirteen children, was born in 1900. Cianci's maternal great-grandfather, Nicolo, was an active member of the Democratic Committee in Providence's Fourth Ward.
His only marriage, in 1973, to was Sheila Bentley McKenna; the couple divorced in 1983. They had one daughter, Nicole, who died in 2012. Shortly before his death in early 2016, the 74-year-old Cianci announced his engagement to model and actress Tara Marie Haywood, who was then in her 30s.
At the age of seven, Cianci had already begun his radio career, appearing regularly on WJAR’s Kiddie Revue, broadcast every Sunday from the Outlet Department Store on Weybosset Street in downtown Providence. After briefly attending public school, Cianci moved to the Moses Brown School a boarding school on the east-side of Providence, where he became the roommate of Adrian Hendricks, the first black student allowed to attend the prestigious school. After graduation, Cianci would go on to earn a bachelor's degree in government at Fairfield University. He would later receive a master's degree in Political Science at Villanova University, and a law degree at Marquette University Law School in 1966. Cianci held honorary Doctorates in Public Service awarded by his alma mater, Fairfield University; in Business Administration from Johnson & Wales University; in Law from Roger Williams University; and most recently, a Doctor of Jurisprudence from the Southern New England School of Law.
Cianci enlisted in the United States Army on November 29, 1966 and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Military Police Corps on April 24, 1967. He served on active duty until 1969 and then in the Army Reserve as a civil affairs officer through 1972.
After being admitted to the Rhode Island Bar Association in 1967, Cianci was hired by Rhode Island Attorney General Herbert F. DeSimone as a special assistant attorney general in 1969. The position was part-time but prestigious. In 1972, Cianci backed up lead prosecutor Irving Brodsky in the trial of mob boss Raymond L.S. Patriarca. Patriarca was found not guilty, but Cianci won praise for being an Italian-American fighting "The Mob", in the same year that the film The Godfather was painting an unflattering image of Italian-Americans in the media.
In 1973, he became the prosecutor of the Rhode Island Attorney General's Anti-Corruption Strike Force, a position he held until his first election as mayor in 1974. As part of this task force, Cianci was involved in an investigation of Providence Mayor Joseph A. Doorley Jr. Cianci was gaining a reputation as an anti-corruption crusader.
During this time, Cianci gained political experience working on Attorney General Herbert DeSimone's unsuccessful campaigns for governor in 1970 and 1972.
In the fall of 1974, Cianci narrowly beat incumbent Mayor Joseph A. Doorley Jr. on an anti-corruption campaign. Cianci was aided in his win by a revolt of some Democrats who were upset with Doorley's administration. Cianci presented himself as a visionary reformer, outlining plans to revive an economically troubled downtown, rebuild the waterfront, restore blighted neighborhoods, create parks, and improve schools. Positioning himself as "the Anti-Corruption candidate," an Italian-American candidate taking on the Irish-American Democratic machine, Cianci won his first election by 709 votes.
Cianci became the city's first Italian-American mayor, ending a 150-year "power monopoly" held by Irish Democrats. Cianci was also the youngest man elected to the office at age 33, and the first Republican Mayor since the Great Depression. Cianci was well known as an extremely charismatic and media-savvy politician. His propensity to attend parades, weddings, public events, and backyard neighborhood barbecues, led to a common joke during his tenure that Cianci would jump to "attend the opening of an envelope". Cianci was revered by many residents of Providence, and credited with the revitalizing of the city's economy and image.
During his first tenure in office, Cianci and his allies on the Providence City Council clashed with the anti-Cianci majority on almost every issue, the budget being the most heated one. In the mid to late 1970s, Cianci found himself as a rising star in the national Republican Party. After being introduced by Bob Dole, Cianci made an address at the 1976 Republican convention. There was talk of him being the first Italian-American vice president. Cianci was also seriously considered for a federal Cabinet seat in the prospective Gerald Ford administration, had Ford been elected in 1976. After Ford's loss to Jimmy Carter, Cianci tried to promote himself as a Senate candidate, in an attempt to expand the Republican Party's ethnic votership. Cianci clashed behind the scenes with John Chafee, who he actively lobbied to step aside from his Senate run so he himself could gain the Republican nomination for the seat instead. Chafee was elected to the Senate in 1976 and Cianci was re-elected as Mayor of Providence as a Republican in 1978.
Cianci ran for governor in 1980, losing out to incumbent J. Joseph Garrahy. After this loss, Cianci drifted away from the Republican Party, particularly as he was not given a presidential appointment despite his support of Ronald Reagan and intimations by Reagan's campaign manager, John Sears. In 1982 he was re-elected as an independent.
Cianci was forced by law to resign from office for the first time in 1984 after pleading nolo contendere or "no contest" – neither admitting nor disputing – on an assault charge alleging an altercation with Bristol, Rhode Island contractor, Raymond DeLeo. Cianci claimed that the man had been romantically involved with his wife, from whom Cianci was separated at the time. Both DeLeo and Cianci's estranged wife disputed the relationship. Providence municipal regulations prohibit a convicted felon from holding public office; ironically, Cianci had promulgated the rule a few years earlier.
After Cianci's resignation, a special election was held to name a replacement. Cianci attempted to run in the election under the rubric that he had been convicted of a felony, but received a five-year suspended sentence rather than being sent to prison. After a few weeks it was decided by the Rhode Island Supreme Court that Cianci could not run in the special election, because the legislative intent was that the convicted incumbent could not succeed himself in office. The special election was won by City Council Chairman and Acting Mayor Joseph R. Paolino Jr.
Cianci spent the next few years as a radio talk show host on Providence AM station 920 WHJJ and as a television commentator. In 1990 he successfully mounted a re-election campaign with the slogan, "He never stopped caring about Providence."
In the early 2000s, Cianci also made several guest appearances as himself on the television show Providence.
It was during Cianci's second run as mayor, beginning in 1991, that the city of Providence entered its "Renaissance phase."
During his tenure, Providence became visibly cleaner and more tourist-friendly. Cianci brought the Providence Bruins hockey team to Rhode Island from Maine, and pushed to further several projects in the city, including new hotels, the Providence Place shopping mall and the Fleet Skating Center. He also helped to orchestrate the establishment of the summer weekend festivals known as WaterFire in downtown Providence, which continues to bring up to 100,000 people to the downtown area alone on the summer nights it takes place.
In 1996, Cianci pushed to create an Arts and Entertainment District in downtown Providence by offering income and sales tax breaks to attract artists to downtown. Cianci said the tax breaks were part of an arts-centered economic development strategy. The idea was to develop an image of Providence as an "artist-friendly" city; this would attract not only artists, but well-educated workers, high-technology firms, economic development, and tourism. The strategy was copied as a model by Baltimore and other cities.
In 1998 Cianci ran again for re-election, unopposed on the ballot. The popular Cianci had never lost a mayoral election, until losing to Jorge Elorza in November 2014.
Cianci was indicted in April 2001 on federal criminal charges of racketeering, conspiracy, extortion, witness tampering and mail fraud. Several other Providence city officials were also indicted. Judge Ronald R. Lagueux said of the case: "Clearly, there is a feeling in city government in Providence that corruption is tolerated. In this mayor's two administrations, there has been more corruption in the City of Providence than in the history of this state."
Much of the trial was focused around a video tape showing top Cianci aide Frank A. Corrente (the City's Director of Administration) taking a bribe. Jim Taricani, a reporter who aired the tape on local television station WJAR, was sentenced to six months of house arrest for refusing to reveal his sources to the court. Rather than maintaining a low profile after the indictment, Cianci poked fun at the investigation, code-named "Operation Plunder Dome". Nine people (including Cianci) were convicted in the trials, which were presided over by Judge Ernest C. Torres. Cianci was acquitted of 26 of 27 charges, including bribery, extortion and mail fraud. He was, however, found guilty of a single charge of racketeering conspiracy (running a corrupt criminal enterprise).
He had been planning on running for a seventh term in 2002, and at the time of his conviction was again running unopposed.
In September 2002, Cianci was sentenced to serve five years in federal prison by Judge Torres, who opted for a higher sentence than the minimum required by the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. Cianci was forced by law to resign immediately following the sentencing. Between his sentencing and the start of his jail term, Cianci resumed his radio career hosting a midday show with former Providence radio host (and former director of communications to Governor Don Carcieri) Steve Kass on AM talk station WPRO. After some legal wrangling, Cianci's lawyers managed to have him sent to prison closer to Rhode Island, and Cianci served his sentence at the Federal Correctional Institution, Fort Dix, in Burlington County, New Jersey. Cianci appealed the conviction to the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, but was unsuccessful. In August 2005, Cianci made a request for early release, but was denied.
Cianci was released from prison on May 30, 2007, to a halfway house near Northeastern University in Boston. A noticeable difference in Cianci's appearance was that he had embraced his bald head, and no longer wore a hairpiece. Initially, Cianci wore the toupée at the halfway house while he worked in Providence. Upon his return one evening, he sat and ate with two other residents of the halfway house, and asked them about his famous toupée. The other residents, identified as "Dave" and "Anthony" encouraged him to "Ditch the toupee and be himself." The next day, it was history. His sentence formally ended on July 28, 2007, and he was moved to home confinement. In numerous interviews after his release, Cianci maintained his innocence, continuously stating the one charge he was found guilty of was basically being the "captain of the ship."
Upon his initial release from federal prison, he had already secured a job in marketing and sales for the XV Beacon, a luxury hotel in Boston. However, he ultimately chose to return to Rhode Island and began work at the 903 Residences in Providence.
On September 20, 2007, Cianci returned to the airwaves on local Providence AM radio station WPRO, hosting a weekday talk show. He said that he had no plans to run for political office again, although he had not entirely ruled it out when pressed on the issue. On October 24, 2007, Cianci appeared on WLNE-TV ABC6 to announce that in addition to his radio show, he was joining the television station as chief political analyst and contributing editor. The work included moderating a weekly political segment called Your Attention Please, which was renamed Buddy TV. The timeslot became a daily segment in July 2008, and was renamed The World According to Buddy as of May 2011. His position at WLNE began on November 1, 2007. Cianci also hosted the station's weekend public affairs program On the Record with Buddy Cianci. He began in October 2008 as co-host of the program with WLNE weeknight anchor John DeLuca and became solo host in May 2011.
Cianci became eligible to run for mayor again in the year 2012, three years after his probation ended (due to the provisions of the 1986 Rhode Island constitutional amendment, aptly named "the Buddy amendment"). The next election in which Cianci would have been eligible to run was the November 2014. In 2010, Cianci was quoted as saying that he was "taking a good look" at running for the U.S. House seat to be vacated by Democrat Patrick J. Kennedy. He did not declare his candidacy.
In May 2014, Cianci, after being successfully treated for cancer, was cleared by his doctors to run for mayor in the 2014 November election. On June 25, Cianci declared his candidacy for Mayor of Providence as an independent, but he lost to Democrat Jorge Elorza, conceding the election on November 4.
In January 2014, Cianci was diagnosed with colon cancer.
Cianci died on January 28, 2016, at the age of 74. He had been taken to the hospital the previous day after experiencing abdominal pain while filming his television show, On the Record with Buddy Cianci, at the WLNE-TV studio.
Thousands of people viewed Cianci's open casket as his body lay in state for two days in Providence City Hall, the first mayor to be so honored since Thomas Doyle in 1886. A horse-drawn carriage carried his casket through the city during a snowstorm on February 8, as it made its way to the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul where Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas Joseph Tobin presided over a funeral mass. The funeral procession then passed through Olneyville and Silver Lake, where Cianci grew up, ending at St. Ann’s Cemetery in Cranston for a private burial next to his parents and daughter, Nicole."Buddy" Cianci: The Musical, an off-Broadway musical created by Jonathan Van Gieson and Mike Tarantino. The musical incorporates much of the material from The Prince of Providence.
On the animated sitcom Family Guy (set in Rhode Island), Chris attended Buddy Cianci Junior High School. One episode was titled "Fast Times at Buddy Cianci Jr. High".
Cianci launched a brand of tomato sauce, "Mayor's Own Marinara Sauce." It was claimed that proceeds from sales were "Benefiting Providence School Children" and helped hundreds of students attend college. However, an August 2014 Associated Press report found that "in recent years, no money from the sauce's sales has been donated to Cianci's charity scholarship fund, The Associated Press has learned. From 2009 to 2012, the sauce made a total of $3 in income, longtime Cianci adviser Charles Mansolillo told the AP. In 2009, they lost $2,200 on the sauce, Mansolillo said. The following year, they made $2,974, while in 2011, they lost $2,969. In 2012, they made $2,198 profit, he said. That adds up to a profit of just $3 during the 4-year period."
Providence hip-hop artist, Zumo Kollie released a song titled "Buddy Cianci" on November 4, 2014.