2012 Politico of the Year: David Cicilline

U.S. Representative David Cicilline

When 2012 began, U.S. Representative David Cicilline looked finished. Polls had shown his favorability ratings in the pits, and it seemed like all that Republicans needed to do to take the seat was nominate a somewhat moderate candidate. The threat of a Providence bankruptcy weighed heavily, and Mr. Cicilline’s fate seemed tied to the fate of the city which he had operated for eight years.

But of course, 11 months is an eternity in politics. Providence Mayor Angel Taveras eked out concessions from large nonprofit after large nonprofit, gaining more money from PILOTs (payments in lieu of taxes). Mr. Taveras also sought pension concessions from the city’s unions and retirees. Providence’s fear of bankruptcy largely receded, and the media shifted the focus from the potential collapse to what the new mayor would get next.

Mr. Cicilline also embarked on perhaps the greatest act of contrition Rhode Island has ever seen, publicly apologizing for his 2010 campaign trail statement that Providence was in “excellent fiscal condition.” In an era where apologizing has been seen as weakness, and often accompanies a resignation, one shouldn’t count out the courage of doing it; despite its arrival just before campaign season began, doing it helped put Providence in the past, and allowed Mr. Cicilline’s campaign to pivot to the future.

David Cicilline after his victory on Election Day 2012

And the polls? The polls were wrong. Mr. Cicilline trounced both of his opponents, in blowouts that outdid the margin of error on all polls. A late October WPRI poll by Fleming & Associates gave Mr. Cicilline a single percentage point lead over his Republican challenger Brendan Doherty, with 8% of votes undecided and a 5.6% margin of error. Mr. Cicilline won by about 12 points.

In fairness, Fleming & Associates accurately called the race for Mr. Doherty and independent David Vogel. What went missing were the 10% of voters who ultimately supported Mr. Cicilline. In an election where The New York Times’ Nate Silver accurately called the election based solely on economic and polling data (and a knowledge of how the electoral college works), data in Rhode Island seemed misleading, creating an illusion of closeness when the reality was that Mr. Cicilline was doing better than anyone gave him credit for, including his own campaign it seems.

What made Mr. Cicilline so dominant in Rhode Island politics this year wasn’t just what he was doing, it was what everyone was doing in reaction to what he was doing. No Democrats rose to challenge him, except for Anthony Gemma. The Party locked arms around him, including popular politicians like Mr. Taveras and General Treasurer Gina Raimondo; politicians who could’ve been forgiven for not wanting to be damaged by association with the seemingly unpopular congressman.

Opponents like Mr. Gemma and Mr. Doherty had to make a choice: either attack the congressman or define themselves. Often, after half-hearted attempts at the latter, they chose the former. But Mr. Cicilline’s campaign was miles away, focusing Rhode Islanders on Washington, D.C., where intransigent Republicans in the House and Senate had paralyzed the political process. He was also miles away in Rhode Island, cropping up at event after event. Though the congressman might be loathe to admit it, it was classic Buddy Cianci-style: attend the opening of an envelope. And it works.

David Cicilline at his victory in the September Democratic Primary

Mr. Gemma’s final assault to knock Mr. Cicilline out in the primary, attempting to link the mayor with allegations of voter fraud in elections he’d won overwhelming, was an act of desperation. His field operation was obviously devastated by the defection of its field director, who left to endorse Mr. Cicilline just before Mr. Gemma’s campaign should have been focusing on get-out-the-vote operations. Instead, Mr. Gemma wasted valuable campaign resources calling a press conference that seemed to only anger reporters at its lack of specificity and obviousness as a political ploy. It was quickly dubbed Gemmapalooza.

No one could really believe Mr. Cicilline, who had entered Providence City Hall after challenging the corruption of his predecessor Mr. Cianci, could have participated in voter fraud to win elections that he won with overwhelming margins. To me, the allegations of voter fraud seemed to mostly involve how a get-out-the-vote operation works, embellished to make it appear as though illegality had taken place.

Mr. Doherty was likewise ineffectual. Political observers have put it that Mr. Doherty was overly cautious on attacking Mr. Cicilline early on, and unable to define himself. It seems likely that Mr. Cicilline had done a good job linking Mr. Doherty with the Republican Party. And the Republican Party had not helped Mr. Doherty an ounce, with comments like “the 47%,” “legitimate rape,” attacking Sandra Fluke… the list goes on. Mr. Doherty’s attempts to define himself as a moderate in an increasingly radically right wing Republican Party made him look out of touch with both Republicans and Democrats. How was he supposed to operate in a Congress where moderate Republicans were not only a dying breed, but a powerless one as well?

Mr. Cicilline’s overwhelming victories should end the likelihood of serious challenges in the future. It will take an extraordinary candidate to unseat him. His only fear might be the elimination of Rhode Island’s congressional districts.

Mr. Cicilline’s ascension to the House Budget Committee seems to be the final icing on Mr. Cicilline’s political cake this year. It elicited howls from Rhode Island’s right wing, myopically focused on deficits now that their candidates are no longer in offices of power. Though it seems likely the next Congress will not accomplish much, determined as Republicans are to hamstring the President at every turn, Rhode Islanders know that David Cicilline made good on his promise. He will continue to fight for us, on the front lines of our nation’s political battles.

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A native-born Rhode Islander, educated in Providence Public Schools, went to college in North Carolina and a political junkie and pessimistic optimist.

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