By Scott Malone
PROVIDENCE, R.I., Aug 18 (Reuters) - The man who ran Providence, Rhode Island, for 22 of the past 50 years is convinced that his hometown needs him again and isn't going to let a little thing like the five years he spent in prison on a racketeering conviction stand in his way.
Vincent "Buddy" Cianci stunned the city's political wags early this summer when he told his radio talk show audience that he would run for a third stint as mayor of Providence, hours before the deadline to declare his candidacy.
Both of Cianci's turns as mayor ended in court. In 1984 he pleaded guilty to assaulting an acquaintance and in 2002 he was convicted of racketeering conspiracy after a sting operation on corruption in city government, which the Federal Bureau of Investigation had nicknamed "Operation Plunderdome."
Cianci, who is running as an independent, has a reasonable shot at coming out on top of what is expected to be a three-way race, joining a long line of U.S. politicians to win back voters' support after scandal, according to political analysts.
One factor that could ease the way is Cianci's long history in a small city, which is home to just 178,000 people, many of whom Cianci met personally during his frenetic years as mayor from 1975 to 1984 and 1991 to 2002.
"It's easier to make a comeback at the local level," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics and a veteran political analyst. "A local election is much more of a friends and neighbors vote than it is anything else. What do we do with our wayward friends when they repent? We're quick to forgive."
NOT GOING TO HIDE
Cianci, now 73, was convicted in 2002 of racketeering for overseeing a city government in which officials solicited bribes and engaged in extortion and mail fraud.
In a recent interview, Cianci proclaimed his innocence and questioned the logic of a jury that found him not guilty of 11 counts of engaging in corruption and guilty of one count of conspiring to take part in it. In any event, he said, he had done his time.
"I'm not going to bury my head in the sand and say I was convicted by this one judge and so I'm going to have to hide out, hang my head in shame. I'm not doing that," Cianci said. "I have a great respect for the people of this city and if I get elected mayor again, I'll be the best mayor they ever had. I'll hit the ground running."
Cianci, who has never lost a mayoral campaign, could join a long list of local U.S. politicians who won voters' support after scandal.
After being caught on an FBI surveillance video smoking crack in 1990, Washington, D.C., Mayor Marion Barry finished out his term before serving a prison sentence and won a fourth term after his release.
More recently, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, who took a two-month leave of absence to enter a rehabilitation clinic after admitting to smoking crack in a "drunken stupor," is holding near the front in his race for re-election.
Former New York Congressman Anthony Weiner resigned in 2011 after accidentally sending a lewd picture of himself to his public Twitter account while exchanging sexual messages with a woman he had met online. He subsequently was an early leader in last year's New York City mayoral race before the news broke that he was once again sexting. He abandoned his candidacy.
COPS AND JOBS
At the sprawling, low-slung office building adorned with photos and newspaper covers from his years in City Hall, Cianci said he is preparing a campaign that will start up in earnest after the Sept. 9 Democratic primary. His first priorities, he said, will be lowering the crime rate and attracting more jobs to Providence.
The city has struggled to recover from the 2007-2009 U.S. recession, with an unemployment rate that stood at 9.5 percent at the end of July, well above the 6.3 percent national average. It is also struggling with a high crime rate, with reported murders up 10 percent so far this year, though other violent crime is down.
"There is no Democratic way or Republican way to do this. There's the right way," Cianci said. "Let's take responsibility for the future. That's what we have to concentrate on."
The challenge will be whether he can apply that take-charge attitude to government without re-establishing the City Hall culture that led to criminal activity, said Wendy Schiller, an associate professor of political science at Brown University in Providence.
"It used to be that he ran the city with an iron fist, people did what he said or they suffered the consequences," Schiller said. "How will he square the new Buddy Cianci, who plays by the rules, with the old one who wrote the rules?" (Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Dan Grebler)