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New political start for sullied Providence.

Voters went to the polls here Tuesday to choose a new mayor, but the absentee residents who mailed in their ballots were the ones who made the final selection.

The race was a dead heat until absentee ballots were counted Wednesday afternoon, when it became apparent that Joseph R. Paolino Jr. (D) had defeated independent Frederick Lippitt - by only 17 votes.

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A recount Wednesday night added another 100 votes to Mr. Paolino's lead.

At this writing, the results have not been officially certified, and Paolino has not claimed victory. It's possible Mr. Lippitt will contest the vote and force a runoff election.

The special election stemmed from the resignation last April of former Mayor Vincent A. Cianci Jr., who lead the city for more than nine years. Mr. Cianci was compelled to resign, under terms of the city charter, following his conviction on an assault charge.

When the new mayor takes office, he will have the difficult task of restoring public confidence in city government. In recent months, 14 city employees have been indicted on charges of conspiracy related to kickbacks, ties to organized crime, and charging the city for overtime work not performed. Federal, state, and local investigations continue into alleged cases of wrongdoing.

Paolino, a Democrat, campaigned on a pledge to ''heal the city's wounds.'' He promises to run ''the city like a business,'' and says he will implement ''common-sense'' management changes.

Paolino says he will probably follow recommendations of a management study by the Rhode Island Public Expenditures Council on ways to streamline city operations. The report is due later this month.

Paolino served on the Providence City Council for six years, and was the City Council president for the past two. He was catapulted into the mayor's office upon Cianci's resignation.

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During his three months in the spacious corner office of the restored, granite City Hall, he says he has made progress in setting the city on the right course. But he said being mayor ''will be a lot better with the mandate of the people.''

A fourth-generation real-estate developer, he and his family own considerable downtown property. His fortune is estimated at $1.6 million, and he has agreed to place his holdings in a blind trust for the duration of his term. At 29, he will be the city's youngest mayor.

Lippitt served for 22 years as a Republican in the Rhode Island House of Representatives. He ran for mayor as an independent.

A lawyer and a descendant of one of Rhode Island's founding families, Lippitt gained the endorsement of controversial former Mayor Cianci in the last days of the campaign. He credited the endorsement with giving his candidacy a boost.

Numerous opinion polls had shown Paolino leading Lippitt - in some cases by as much as 15 percentage points. But the polls also showed a large number of undecided voters, many of whom were believed to be Cianci supporters.

Cianci had made several attempts to have his name included on the ballot, but he was repeatedly rebuffed by the courts. He finally threw his support behind Lippitt.

Neck-and-neck elections are not an exception in this city of 156,000, situated at the head of Narragansett Bay. In the 1982 mayoral election, Cianci won by only 1,000 votes, and it was more than 10 days after the election that he was officially declared the winner.

Twice, Paolino retained his seat on the City Council solely on the strength of mail-in ballots. Tuesday night, trailing by 68 votes, he said: ''I've been this route before.''

State Rep. Kevin A. McKenna, with almost 20 percent of the vote, trailed the two front-runners. Emmanuel Torti, a building contractor, ran a distant fourth with less than 1 percent.

Voter turnout was a bit better than expected; almost 45 percent of the registered voters cast their ballots in the special election.

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