PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Lincoln Almond, who shepherded Rhode Island into a new millennium during two terms as governor after targeting the Mafia as a federal prosecutor, has died. He was 86.

Gov. Dan McKee announced Almond’s death Tuesday morning, hours before McKee was sworn in to his first full term as governor. He and other officials paid tribute to Almond during the noontime inaugural ceremony, including a moment of silence.

Almond was elected governor in 1994, his second try after an unsuccessful bid in 1978. Rhode Islanders were still reeling at the time from a massive banking crisis and the whirlwind gubernatorial tenure of Democrat Bruce Sundlun, as well as a series of corruption scandals that tarnished the reputations of a former governor and two state Supreme Court justices.

“The first governor to serve a four-year term, Governor Almond often said his number one goal was to make Rhode Island a place where people wanted to work and raise a family,” McKee said.

“Whether it was expanding the number of state-subsidized child care seats, increasing education aid, investing in Rhode Island’s institutions of higher education, creating thousands of good-paying jobs and laying the foundation for Quonset to be the economic engine it is today – Rhode Island was better off because of his eight years as governor,” McKee continued.

Pledging to promote honest government and a strong economy, Almond’s first term saw the state gain nearly 22,000 jobs as the national dot-com boom picked up and the redevelopment of downtown Providence continued. He was re-elected in 1998 – defeating Democrat Myrth York for a second time – and the state added another 20,000 jobs during his second term.

“We have lifted Rhode Island to new heights,” Almond declared in his final State of the State Address in 2002, when term limits barred him from running again.

Lincoln Carter Almond was born in 1936 in Pawtucket, the son of a bakery salesman, and went on to graduate from Central Falls High School. After serving in the U.S. Navy, he earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Rhode Island – where he met his future wife, Marilyn – and then his law degree from Boston University School of Law.

The newly minted lawyer quickly entered politics, serving three full terms as town administrator in Lincoln starting in 1963. But in 1968 he came up far short when he tried to win higher office as the Republican nominee against incumbent Democratic Congressman Fernand St Germain, receiving only 38% of the vote.

Almond rebounded almost immediately thanks to a Republican who did win office that year: Richard Nixon. The new GOP president tapped Almond to be Rhode Island’s new U.S. attorney, a prosecutorial post he would hold for almost a quarter-century except for a three-year hiatus in the late 1970s during the presidency of Democrat Jimmy Carter.

As U.S. attorney, Almond worked with other law-enforcement agencies to encourage the decline of the Italian mob, whose infamous leader Raymond L.S. Patriarca died in 1984. He was also involved in corruption investigations that targeted a variety of public officials, including one of his predecessors as governor, fellow Republican Ed DiPrete.

Almond defeated the endorsed Republican candidate, then-Congressman Ronald Machtley, to win the 1994 GOP nomination for governor, then went on to win the November election with 47% of the vote against both York and independent Bob Healey. He was proud to be the first University of Rhode Island graduate elected governor.

Over the years Almond carved out a legacy as a moderate man of integrity, though he was criticized at times for an alleged lack of work ethic, particularly following surgery for prostate cancer in early 2001.

As governor Almond backed significant new spending on health care, K-12 education, public colleges, conservation and infrastructure, and signed a law barring discrimination against gays. The state’s annual budget grew from roughly $3 billion to more than $5 billion on his watch.

On the economy, Almond pushed for multiple tax cuts and often urged the General Assembly to hold the line as a growing economy boosted state revenue. He championed the development of the old Navy base at Quonset Point into a business park, unsuccessfully arguing for a container port there, and wooed companies such as Fidelity Investments to the state.

Almond’s tenure also saw the launch of a large number of major infrastructure initiatives that reshaped the state, including the massive underground combined-sewage overflow project and the T.F. Green train station, as well as the Providence Place mall and planning for the relocation of I-195.

Almond was a fierce foe of legalized gambling. He opposed casinos and pushed to limit the expansion of slot parlors at Twin River (then Lincoln Park) and Newport Grand. That advocacy continued after he left the governor’s office, notably in 2006 when Almond was the face of a successful campaign to block Harrah’s from opening a casino in West Warwick.

Almond was also a champion of institutional reform. “Rhode Islanders have suffered decades of corruption, arrogance, and incompetence in their government, delivered like body blows from the front page of the morning newspaper,” he declared in a speech to the General Assembly just after he took office. 

Working with allies, Almond convinced voters to adopt a constitutional amendment mandating “separation of powers,” which scaled back the influence of the Democratic-dominated General Assembly. He also argued the governor should be given line-item veto power.

McKee has ordered flags at all state facilities and buildings to be lowered to half-staff until sunset on the day of Almond’s interment. Rhode Islanders are also asked to lower their flags as a sign of respect.

“We thank Governor Almond for his decades of service to Rhode Island and our thoughts and prayers are with his family and loved ones during this difficult time,” McKee said.

Funeral arrangements have not been announced.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook

Melanie DaSilva contributed to this report.