It might be surprising to some that Representative David Cicilline, a Democrat from Rhode Island, finds himself on the list of endangered incumbents as he heads into election season. For one, he’s just that: a Democrat from Rhode Island. But facing a fierce primary challenge and, even more gravely, trailing his presumptive Republican opponent by double digits, Cicilline finds himself in the fight of his political life.
Should Cicilline, who was elected to his first House term in 2010, be defeated this fall, it won’t have much to do with his job performance as a congressman. His standard down-the-line Democratic voting record—scant as it is—offers little to offend his district. Rather, Cicilline now faces retroactive judgment on his eight-year tenure as mayor of Providence, which left the city of 180,000 in a fiscal catastrophe.
Not that voters would have known that when Cicilline mounted his first congressional campaign. He served as mayor of Providence (Rhode Island’s capital and largest city) from 2003 to 2011 and ran for his House seat mostly on the supposed strength of his record. In the course of the campaign, he described the city’s fiscal condition as “excellent.” When attacked by opponents for Providence’s heavy borrowing, he blamed state cuts. Only when Cicilline was safely ensconced in Washington did the extent of his mismanagement—and his mendacity—become apparent.
Immediately after taking office, Cicilline’s successor, Angel Tavares, commissioned a review of Providence’s finances. The results belied Cicilline’s claims of rude fiscal health, finding that the city faced a $70 million structural deficit, and a projected $110 million deficit in 2012—this on a city budget of less than $700 million. Mayor Tavares called the news a “Category 5 hurricane,” and warned that Providence was headed for bankruptcy. In a particularly grim turn of events, last year the city sent termination letters to every single one of its 1,926 teachers. (Most were ultimately hired back.) Only after Tavares instituted major reforms and extracted concessions from city unions did Providence manage to avoid Chapter 9.
An internal audit commissioned by the city laid much of the blame at Cicilline’s feet. It found that he had not provided financial information on a timely basis to the independent auditor, the city council, or the internal auditor, and that he had not provided the city council with monthly financial statements or with projections of year-end surpluses or deficits. Even more damning, it found that Cicilline had papered over huge deficits by depleting the city’s reserve funds—this without the approval of the city council. John Igliozzi, then-finance chairman of the Providence city council, accused Cicilline of “hiding the scope of the city’s fiscal woes through illusory revenues, borrowing, and other tricks.”
The first openly gay mayor of a state capital, Cicilline governed Providence as a liberal’s liberal. He did nothing to reform the city’s public pensions, the main culprit in its yawning deficits. He proposed taxing college students. He pushed light rail. He fretted about the city’s environmental impact. Before being elected mayor, he served as a state representative from 1995 to 2003. There, he was a “fierce champion of political reform and gun safety,” according to his website. In a bid for racial harmony, he spearheaded an unsuccessful effort to remove “Providence Plantations” from the state’s official name. Few realize it, but the smallest state has the longest official name: “The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.” (Obsessing over the state name was political correctness run amok, by the way; the plantations in question were Roger Williams’s colony, having nothing to do with slavery.) The son of a famous mob lawyer, Cicilline worked as a defense attorney himself before entering politics. When he ran for mayor, Brown University’s alumni magazine noted that he owned a Porsche, a Jaguar, and a Rolls-Royce.
He now faces a belated verdict on his time as mayor. Cicilline suffers from an approval rating of 14.8 percent, according to a recent Brown University poll, and it’s unlikely that has much to do with his congressional record. He trails his Republican opponent, former police colonel Brendan Doherty, by some 15 points. And he faces a primary challenge as well, from Anthony Gemma, a local businessman whose claim that he would win the seat, while Cicilline would lose to Doherty, is the centerpiece of his bid for the nomination. Nonetheless, Gemma is still several points behind Cicilline in polling for the September primary.
And so Cicilline is now attempting frantic damage control. In an interview with a local news channel in April, Cicilline apologized for his claim that Providence’s finances were “excellent.” “I should not have used that word,” he said. “It obviously doesn’t describe the condition the city is in [and] it was never my intention to mislead people intentionally.” He’s also trumpeting his support for the Paycheck Fairness Act and gay marriage, and his opposition to the Defense of Marriage Act.
But the congressman’s cultural liberalism looks unlikely to save him. Cicilline’s district, which includes blue-collar bastions like North Providence and Pawtucket, is no Berkeley or Portland. In fact, it’s something of a category mistake to refer to Rhode Island as liberal; it’s more machine-Democrat. Consider, for example, that Rhode Island and Maine are the only New England states that haven’t legalized gay marriage. (And even Maine looks set to enact it in November.)
The state is clearly willing to elect Republicans—it hasn’t voted in a Democratic governor since 1990. Catholic, “ethnic,” and economically depressed, Rhode Island is not a natural fit for a self-styled “progressive” like Cicilline. When he was elected to his first House term in 2010, replacing Patrick Kennedy, Teddy’s son, who had served eight terms, Cicilline beat his Republican opponent by a mere 10,000 votes (6 percent)—this before his mayoral shenanigans had come to light. That raised eyebrows, given the Democratic makeup of his district. But electorally, that may have been his finest hour.