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Ex-mayor Buddy Cianci receives folk hero’s welcome

Crowd greets Cianci not as a corrupt politician, but as the former mayor who revived downtown Providence

Buddy Cianci, former mayor of Providence, shook hands at Drag Bingo night in Cranston, R.I.Stew Milne/Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

CRANSTON, R.I. — On a damp night in Cranston, just over the border from Providence, four members of Buddy Cianci’s campaign team lingered on the edge of the jam-packed parking lot of the Riviera bingo hall, waiting for their man.

Jay Andoscia, Cianci’s social media director, studied his phone. “The good news is they’re on Broad Street. The bad news is they haven’t left from wherever they are yet,” he said. In another job, Andoscia had worked events at the Basketball Hall of Fame, sometimes with Michael Jordan. “It’s funny,” he said, “he” — Cianci — “gets more of a reception than Jordan does.”

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Behind him the glass doors glowed and the stucco hall thrummed, 900 people waiting to play Drag Bingo, a monthly AIDS-care fund-raiser hosted by Providence’s best-known drag queen, but really waiting for the latest stop on the Cianci comeback tour. The crowd was twice as big as anyone could remember, the grandmothers with their lucky bingo charms and the middle-class mothers on a night out, and the scattered clubgoers and college kids, some in Halloween costume, more in Cianci shirts or buttons.

A national TV crew waited, too, with some polls showing Vincent A. Cianci Jr. holding a narrow lead in a three-way race — the same Buddy Cianci whose name is paired in print with “twice-disgraced,” who left office the first time after pleading no contest to torturing the man dating Cianci’s former wife, who left the second time after a federal racketeering-conspiracy conviction and 4½ years in prison.

A Lincoln Navigator pulled up, splashed on all sides with photos of Cianci over the Providence skyline, “Vote Buddy” on the windows and “Leadership” spelled across the doors. One aide reached for the passenger door, and Cianci emerged. “Mayor,” Andoscia greeted him, as Cianci adjusted his suit jacket and rubbed his palms together and smiled.

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“Here he comes!” one woman called. “Buddy, I want a hug!” another shouted, and Cianci readily obliged, embracing the woman on the front steps. “I’m pushing for you.”

Inside, the crowd erupted, 40 seconds of pure adulation. “Buddy! Bud-dee! We wanna take a picture!” “Mayor, mayor! This way!” “Go, Buddy, go!”

To this room Cianci was not Buddy the corrupt politician but Buddy the populist, the folk hero who moved rivers and revived downtown Providence and who has returned now at 73, post-prison, post-radio talk show, and post-toupee, which he has dubbed “the squirrel.” And the fervor may explain how Cianci has stayed so competitive with his Democratic rival, 37-year-old Jorge Elorza.

Making his way through the throng, Cianci waved, held up both arms, flashed a dimpled “all-this-for-me?” smile, clapped backs, and cracked jokes.

He chatted with the host, Kitty Litter, a towering drag queen in a flashy gown. “Oh, you’re much too tall for me,” Cianci joked. “I know!” Kitty Litter rasped. “I should take off my heels.”

He was due on stage as the first-game caller and had more events scheduled after this, but still he worked every aisle and corner, 30 minutes to get around the room. He waded to the concession stand, where Lois DiBiasio, wearing a Buddy pin on her floral smock, reached out to clasp Cianci’s hand and reintroduce him to “Cousin Danny” and the rest of the crew.

“You’re wonderful!” DiBiasio shouted over the din.

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“He’s marvelous . . . another Frank Sinatra he is,” she added, after Cianci had moved on. She lives in Cranston but has encouraged all her Providence relatives to vote for Cianci, untroubled by a legal history that has drawn three former US attorneys to come out against him.

“I wonder what skeletons they have hidden in their closets,” DiBiasio said. “He’s human, guess what?”

From the stage, a man in a pontiff costume swore in 900 raucous bingo players at once — “I. State your name. Do solemnly swear . . . ”

The DJ played “Gonna Fly Now,” the “Rocky” theme, and Cianci laughed and made his way up past a table covered in sex toys and a plastic Halloween-print tablecloth, taking the microphone. Wearing reading glasses now, he told the crowd that he had previously served as a Drag Bingo celebrity caller in the 1990s, “and I’m back to do it again, cause I want to do some other things again, too, like be mayor of Providence.”

He said he pioneered same-sex partner benefits and was the first Providence mayor to marshal the gay pride parade. “Some of you might have read in the paper recently that I was in the Supreme Court again,” he added. “But it wasn’t for anything bad — it was for something good!”

The crowd roared, and Cianci explained that he was a defendant in a lingering lawsuit brought by firefighters he had required to drive a truck in the 2001 gay pride parade.

Then he took a seat next to a drag queen dressed as Wonder Woman, bingo ball-puller La Diva Jones, and started calling numbers. G-46, O-74, B-6.

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“B for Buddy!” Cianci said.

He went on, and Kitty Litter worked the crowd. Someone shouted “Bingo!”

“That’s beautiful,” Cianci said, thanking the crowd and rising from the stage, another ovation carrying him to the door. “Hopefully I’ll see you all on Nov. 4!”

Outside he stripped off the microphone from the TV crew and made his way to the sport utility vehicle. “I’ve got to meet with the Liberian community,” he said. Before he could get in, a woman called his name.

In an instant, Cianci stood beside a Hyundai in the middle of the street, leaning into an open window to greet the young couple and small child inside.

He turned back toward the Buddy-mobile, but this time a buzz-cut man in a hoodie beckoned. “Mind taking a picture?” he asked. It was Jose Santos, owner of the boxing gym that rents the bingo-hall basement.

“I’m really late,” Cianci said, “but . . . ” and in a moment he was inside the gym, jogging in place, popping an Everlast heavy bag with a left hook and a right. “That’s me,” he said, under his breath. “The punching bag.”

Someone produced a camera; Santos put an arm around Cianci. “OK, thanks a lot, make sure you put it in a good place now, thank you,” Cianci said, already moving toward the door. He paused to shadow box in front of a mirror, and tighten his maroon necktie.

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“Take a quick look here at the tie, still got three places to go,” he narrated to himself. “All right, I’m off to Roger Williams Park and the Liberian group.”

The SUV idled outside. Cianci climbed in, splitting the word “leadership” between the first and second syllable.


Eric Moskowitz can be reached at emoskowitz@globe.com.