Dan Lawlor: David Cicilline Represents the Best & Worst of Politics

Wednesday, November 14, 2012


Who is David Cicilline?

Politically, the sitting Congressman from Rhode Island House District 1, former Mayor of Providence, and former State Representative from the East Side.

Why did he win re-election to Congress? Why did the party let him win?

He won because he had one heck of a ground game. Throughout his tenure as Mayor, for his first term he did good. In his last term, he did easy. In his later years as Mayor, Cicilline sacrificed hard decisions and hard choices to promote his political career- and, through a combination of delayed problem-solving and his limited reaction to state budget cuts, risked the capital city going into bankruptcy.

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Last Spring, Cicilline was polling double-digits behind Doherty. The Democratic Party establishment did not shun Cicilline, encourage him to leave, or put up a challenger. Despite numerous qualified and popular officials - including Lt. Governor Liz Roberts - no establishment person tried to hold Cicilline accountable. Outsider businessman Anthony Gemma launched a failed bid to unseat Cicilline in the Democratic Primary, and in the process brought forward a series of allegations - some depressingly true, some bizarre and fantastical - about misconduct and misuse of power. Associates of Cicilline have faced investigation and censure, Go Local's research into the city's loan program demonstrated repeated misuse of funds, and questions were raised about using a $100,000 city backed HUD loan as a reward to an organizer of a Cicilline mail-in ballot campaign.

Yet, there was no skyfall.

Despite numerous warning bells that Cicilline was headed toward defeat - alongside last minute grabs at "Democratic Unity" and repeated commercials about protecting Social Security - Cicilline continued his march toward the polls - and won. From Barack Obama down, there was a party to be had in the Democratic Party. Even in some quarters of the party, I'm sure, Cicilline's victory was a surprise.

Yet, I say, let Cicilline's victory be a warning. Those who say that the Democratic Party is out of touch with voters are clearly wrong. Blaming the effectiveness of the Democratic Party does nothing to mobilize new voters or attract people to bring in new perspectives. At the same, activists must be leery to place faith in occasionally corrupted political allies. Without Obama at the top of the ticket, I'm not convinced, even with the ground game, that this win would have taken place. The people of this state are angry, upset, disappointed, and with the right candidates, the complexion of the legislature could change quite a bit.

The Green Party, Moderates, and a better organized pool of independents could, with the right connections and ground game, shake things up. As they truly should be - we need more good government reforms, more out of the box thinking to shake up the state, more ideas and engagement to build up our civic culture and our reputation.

Luckily for the state Democratic Party, the Rhode Island Republicans have been fairly disorganized over the last twenty years, since the disappearance of liberal Republicanism in the early 1990s. The Greens haven't had an electoral win since David Segal on the Providence City Council. The Moderates won a school committee seat in Burrillville, but lost their General Assembly race in East Providence, and parted ways with their Central Falls candidate, Nick Gelfuso.

For good or ill, Brendan Doherty represents a style of Republicanism that was demonstrably appealing to many Rhode Island voters. The suburban Moderate Republicanism of Scott Brown and Brendan Doherty, a blend of old school Democratic values (protecting Social Security), old school morality (opposition to marriage equality, strict immigration rules, tighter welfare rules), and business Republicanism (low taxes, openness to vouchers, or at least charter schools, to provide choice in education) represent the values of a decent chunk of Rhode Islanders. Not a majority by any means, but with the right game plan, this form of Republicanism would do well here locally. The fact that it hasn't is testament to GOP disorganization and to (very sensible) local suspicion of the national GOP's policy. Romney's "47%" comments didn't help by the way.

Consider a few years back the high popularity of Carcieri during his first term, before he began to more directly mimic the rhetoric and policies of the national Republicans.

Yet, Dohertyism aside, the local GOP was at its strongest in the 1980s when a series of intelligent, hard working women were elected to statewide and federal offices- Secretary of State, Attorney General, Congress and Treasurer. The GOP elected its first black female representative in the early 1990s - Mary Ross - who had been involved in creating the West End Community Center in South Providence. The GOP was successful in electing people to multiple offices when it was open to new ideas and to new parts of the electorate in Rhode Island. Scott Brown's successful 2010 campaign was based on connecting with disaffected Democrats resentful of machine politics. Brown's style of appealing to budget squeezed suburban and working class constituencies worked in 2010, and caused the Democrats to work hard and go all out this time around, resulting in Elizabeth Warren's victory.

Adopting an Arizona playbook for purity will ensure that local GOP candidates will never achieve elected office. Adopting a quest for purity will also undermine the local Greens. Change the message of the local GOP to better engage city dwellers and working class suburbanites, and we might have some surprising years ahead. At this point, I would suggest Cicilline's victory is more a vote against the national GOP (which funded those crazy attacks ads and has ties to the Bush years and the Tea Party), more than an endorsement of him as a person. How many of you have had a conversation which included some version of, "I don't like him, but I don't want to vote Republican." In short, if the local GOP wants to start winning, and bringing good government ideas to the forefront - let go of the bitterness, and go left. Be the party of accountable government, not no government.

Cicilline represented a curious mix of the best and worst of politics - he tried to promote innovation in city government during his early tenure, yet he also played to the crowd and overlooked reality for expediency, and had questionable ways to reward allies. The later is particularly disappointing as he pledged to clean things up after the fall of Buddy Cianci.

Cicilline's votes in the US Congress were an awesome reflection of progressive thinking - yet he almost didn't make them anymore because he gave up so much of his integrity to get to Congress in the first place.


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