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Cicilline in the Tank: Worst Approval Rating Ever in U.S.?

Friday, February 24, 2012


Political experts say they can’t remember a time when an elected official had lower approval ratings than freshman Congressman David Cicilline, whose job rating plummeted to 14.8 percent in a Brown University poll released Thursday.

Cicilline, who served as Mayor of Providence for eight years prior to heading to Washington, has seen his first-term in Congress marred by revelations of severe financial problems in the capital city. Mayor Angel Taveras, who inherited a $110 million structural deficit, has threatened that the city may be forced to file for bankruptcy.

Jennifer Duffy, senior editor for the Cook Political Report, said the most striking thing about Cicilline’s approval rating is that such dismal numbers are normally reserved for members of Congress who find themselves under indictment or involved in a “huge scandal.” She pointed to former Florida Congressman Mark Foley, who was forced to resign after he allegedly sent lewd instant messages to Congressional pages.

“We can’t think of an incumbent that has survived [with such low numbers,]” Duffy said. “I really think Cicilline's problems are largely driven but what's going on in Providence. Every time the Mayor has to do something, it reflects on him.”

DiPrete & Sundlun Never this Low

According to Darrell West, Vice President and Director of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C, it is possible that Cicilline has the lowest approval rating among any politician in Rhode Island’s history.

West said Governor Ed DiPrete, who ended up serving a prison sentence for questionable deals made while he was in office, had an 18 percent approval rating in 1990. He was soundly defeated in his re-election bid by Bruce Sundlun. Four years later, Sundlun’s approval rating hit 19 percent, according to West.

“The numbers for Congressman Cicilline are dismal and show his vulnerability in the upcoming election,” West said. “With over 40 percent rating his performance as poor, he needs to do a better job explaining what he is doing to help the district.”

Gemma Rips Cicilline

Cicilline has been unable to avoid criticism of his handling of the capital city’s finances during his time as Mayor. Taveras has warned that the city may be unable to make payroll by June and has said he plans to freeze cost-of-living-adjustments (COLAs) and cut benefits for retirees in order to save the city money. The Congressman has defended the decisions he made in Providence, blaming prior administrations for giving away five and six percent compounded COLAs that have created a massive unfunded pension liability.

In a statement released Tuesday, Cicilline spokesman Richard Luchette said the Congressman is focused on his job in Washington and would worry about politics down the road.

"The only thing David is focused on right now is working hard on behalf of the men and women in the First District of Rhode Island who want better paying jobs, more secure housing, and a better future for their children,” Luchette said. “There will be plenty of time for politics and campaigning later when it will become really clear how much it matters who Rhode Islanders send to fight for them in Washington."

But that didn’t stop Cicilline’s most vocal critic, former Congressional candidate Anthony Gemma, from ripping the Congressman.

Gemma, who is expected to announce his candidacy in the coming weeks, said Republicans are salivating at the prospect of running against Cicilline and that the Congressman is giving a black eye to entire Democratic Party.

“Make no mistake, my fellow Democrats: To enable David Cicilline is to bear a share of the responsibility for his dishonorable and incompetent public service and the consequences they have wrought,” Gemma said in a statement Tuesday. “And make no mistake: There will be a price to be paid. A terrible price.”

The only candidate currently running against Cicilline is Republican Brendan Doherty, the former head of the State Police. Doherty has a clear path to November and has shown strong fundraising numbers since announcing his candidacy. He had $482,326 cash on hand as of Dec. 31 compared to Cicilline’s $517,687.

The only other name that has consistently been floated as a potential challenger to Cicilline is Democrat David Segal, who ran to the left of Cicilline in 2010, finishing third in the primary.

Analysts: Congressman on the Ropes

Quest Research pollster Victor Profughi said Cicilline should be worried.

“I wouldn’t count him out in November –if he gets past September— but I doubt if the reshaping of his district in Providence will be enough to make him a winner against a well known law and order opponent [like Doherty],” Profughi said. “Expect a very nasty fight if it’s a Doherty-Cicilline pairing. Now would be a very good time for any potential Democrat primary opponent to fish or cut bait.”

Brown Political Science Professor Wendy Schiller said Cicilline’s approval numbers are thanks to both Providence’s finances and shrinking support for members of Congress across the country. A recent Gallup poll had support for Congress at just 10 percent, the lowest in history.

“I think Cicilline is suffering from the double whammy of low Congressional approval ratings and the budget crisis in the city of Providence,” Schiller said. “Even Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse are somewhat below what you would expect for approval ratings.”

Duffy: Washington has Done Nothing

Cicilline supporters have continuously suggested that the Congressman should be judged based on the work he is doing in Washington, where he has been a solid Democratic vote during his first year in office.

That, however, might not give Cicilline the boost he needs, according to Duffy.

"Washington has done nothing and voters know it” she said. “It's a hard argument to make."

Still, Duffy said she wouldn’t completely count Cicilline out yet.

"This is Rhode Island. Stranger things have happened."

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