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PROVIDENCE — Former mayor and two-time felon Buddy Cianci failed in his quest Tuesday to return to City Hall after a race that became a referendum on his criminal past.

Cianci, 73, was first elected in 1974 and had never before lost a race for mayor. Democrat Jorge Elorza put an end to the streak, beating the independent Cianci and Republican Dan Harrop, who came in a distant third — and even voted for Elorza instead of himself.

Elorza, 37, a law school professor and former municipal housing court judge, is the son of Guatemalan immigrants. A Providence native, he worked his way up from poverty and through Harvard Law School.

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But the race came down to Cianci’s criminal history during his 21 years in the mayor’s office.

Cianci was driven from office twice.

The first time was in 1984, after he pleaded no contest to using a fireplace log and lit cigarette to assault a man he believed was having an affair with his estranged wife. After a stint as a radio talk show host, he mounted a comeback and was elected mayor again in 1990.

But in 2002, he was convicted of racketeering conspiracy and was sent to federal prison for 4½ years.

The prospect of his return to office brought out several big names in support of Elorza and led to some unusual alliances. President Obama made a rare endorsement in a municipal election, and three former US attorneys from across the political spectrum, including Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, backed Elorza.

Even Harrop, Elorza’s GOP opponent, voted for him after donating $1,000 to his campaign. Harrop said the possibility of Cianci’s winning was such a threat to the city that it trumped partisan politics.

Elorza might not be done with Cianci yet. Cianci is on leave from his job as a host on WPRO-AM, where he began working after getting out of prison in 2007. If he returns, Cianci will have a powerful platform from which to criticize Elorza, one he has used in the past to go after his political opponents.

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