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Steve Peoples: Cicilline Forms Special Bipartisan Caucus

Wednesday, April 13, 2011


WASHINGTON—David Cicilline may be struggling to find friendly faces back in Rhode Island, but the freshman Congressman hopes to have as many as 40 or 50 new friends in Washington, D.C. by the end of the month.

Cicilline will distribute a letter in the coming days to all members of Congress inviting them to join the Common Ground Caucus, a new group with some quirky rules that the Ocean State Democrat hopes will soften the bitter partisanship that often consumes the hallways of Congress.

“I don’t expect that everyone will join. It would probably be best if it starts out with 40 or 50 members so that when we do things it will be manageable,” Cicilline told GoLocalProv. “I think that if we don’t intentionally create opportunities to build relationships, it’s not going to happen on its own.”

While most caucuses—there are dozens of loosely organized groups of elected officials ranging from the Congressional Wine Caucus to the Congressional Caucus on Lumber—hold meetings somewhere on Capitol Hill, this one was designed specifically to do things a little differently.

First, to join the Common Ground Caucus, members have to bring someone from the opposite party. And second, the meetings aren’t really meetings at all. Cicilline prefers to call them “activities.” He’s planning dinners, Washington Nationals baseball games, or even bowling.

Teaming up with Tea Party Republican

Cicilline has already found a Republican to help launch the effort.

His co-chair will be New York Congresswoman Nan Hayworth, who rode the Tea Party wave to her first term in Congress last fall, and in some ways, couldn’t differ more ideologically from Cicilline, an openly gay progressive.

“That’s exactly the point,” Cicilline said. “If I found a Republican who agreed with me on most of the issues, it likely wouldn’t convince many members of the Republican caucus to join me. We can have very different views...but still find a way to work together for the country we love.”

The unlikely political partners worked together to author the invitation letter.

“While we are both new to office here in Washington, we have heard a consistent message from our constituents that nearly every member of this body has also encountered at some point in their career,” they wrote, according to a draft obtained by GoLocalProv. “The men and women we serve do not just want their government to work, and work well, they also expect their representatives to be willing and able to work across the aisle.”

The two sat next to each during President Obama’s most recent State of the Union address and have been friends ever since.

“I’m honored to be invited by David, my good friend from the Democratic Caucus, to be a co-founder of the Common Ground Caucus,” Hayworth told GoLocalProv. “This is an opportunity for us to get to know each other outside of the rigors of legislating.”

Could it help Cicilline with independents?

It’s unclear what impact the move with have on Cicilline’s political career, which appeared to hit a new low late last month.

Just 17 percent of Rhode Islanders told Brown University pollsters that Cicilline is doing an “excellent” or “good” job in a survey released March 24. And while many members of Congress have suffered from low approval ratings recently, perhaps more troubling was public opinion relative to Providence’s financial problems. Nearly 80 percent of respondents said that Cicilline, the former Providence mayor, deserves significant responsibility for the city’s massive budget shortfalls.

There is plenty of time for Cicilline to recover, however, especially as he works on projects that appeal to independent voters, according to Darrell West, a former Brown University pollster, who now serves as the vice president of governance at the Brookings Institution, a left-leaning think tank based in Washington, D.C.

“If Cicilline can persuade independents he is doing good work in DC through a bipartisan caucus or policy actions, that would help him in 2012,” West said. “Winning independents is key for Cicilline’s political future. They constitute about half of the Rhode Island electorate and determine who wins and loses.”

West continued: “Finding common ground is a winner with political independents. They are the voters most likely to want the parties to work together and address real problems. They don’t like political polarization and see it hurting the country.”

But not all of Cicilline’s activities on Capitol Hill are geared to bi-partisanship. He is a member of the Progressive Caucus, the Out of Afghanistan Caucus, and serves as co-chairman of the Equality Caucus.

Meanwhile, he expects the first meeting of the Common Ground Caucus to be held by early May at the latest. His office will work with Hayworth’s to coordinate the activities.

“I don’t know whether it helps or hurts politically,” he said when asked about his political problems. “But it’s the right thing to do.”

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Steve Peoples is a former Providence Journal political reporter who covers national politics for Roll Call. As the GoLocalProv Washington Correspondent, he will provide periodic coverage of Rhode Island affairs from Washington, D.C.


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