Ask Me About Paul Ryan
In a surprisingly close Rhode Island race, David Cicilline gets a lifeline.
But everyone there agrees that the Ryan pick will, generally, help someone like Cicilline. He deserves to have the subject changed, they say. Mayor Angel Taveras, Cicilline’s successor, speaks in Spanish to a couple of kids, then tells me that the rap on Cicilline is overwrought and unfair.*
“There’s enough blame to go around,” he says. There’s irritation at “what he said during the campaign,” about the city being in better shape than it was, but there’s not as much anger about the budget itself. “When you look at his record, and what he did, he deserves a lot of credit—being the first to fund the pension system, negotiating an agreement with tax-exempt colleges.” And that might be resonant. On the way out of the city, I drove past a sign—right across from the state capitol—demanding that Brown University give more to the city, insisting that “Rhode Island needs a tax revolt.”
But Rhode Island Republicans are betting big on the anti-Cicilline, budget-revenge storyline. If Cicilline survives a primary challenge from businessman Anthony Gemma, he’ll face the Republican recruit, Brendan Doherty, who leads him by 16 points. Doherty was born across the border in Massachusetts, rising to become superintendent of the Rhode Island state police, ready with a story about how he stopped bureaucrats from trying to build a new $40 million building for $70 million—and how, after he intervened, he got it built for $27 million. Cicilline jokes with voters and zips from handshake to handshake. Doherty stands nearly a full foot taller than the Democrat and carries himself like a nail-chewing member of the Expendables.
“He misled the voters of the city of Providence,” says Doherty as he’s getting ready to shoot a TV ad in the northern Rhode Island town of Woonsocket. “As I travel through the 1st District, a lot of people just come back, and say, ‘It’s terrible, the current congressman left the city in a mess.’ I’m all about fiscal responsibility and taking responsibility for a mess. That’s a clear contrast with him.”
There’s an even clearer contrast this week, though—the Ryan plan. Doherty wants to blur that difference. “He has some great ideas in there,” he says of Ryan. “I don't espouse the same ideas that he has with Medicare, as far as privatizing or vouchers. But he has some great ideas, and I support them.”
Doherty is acutely aware of the problems he could face if voters panic about Ryan. Before he wraps up talking, he reminds me that he comes from law enforcement. “I don’t know if you were aware,” he says, “of the fact that he [Cicilline] was a mob lawyer.” That’s not true, though—John Cicilline was a “mob lawyer,” but his son went from D.C. firms into Rhode Island politics. It was an important biographical note when Cicilline challenged Cianci, back when he was the Hope and Change candidate.
Cianci definitely remembers. He’s 71 now, hosting a radio show, and going without the leonine hairpiece that he wore when he was mayor. “Cicilline’s a great subject for talk radio,” says Cianci. “People like to talk about dishonesty. Whether it’s right or wrong, they blame Cicilline for the budget, and he’s polling lower than whale shit.”
But Cianci won’t count the guy out. Maybe Cicilline can run against the Ryan budget, and maybe he can benefit as Barack Obama clobbers the Romney-Ryan campaign over Medicare and taxes. “Cicilline does not have the virtue of honesty or integrity or shame,” says Cianci. “He’s got the virtue of being a Democrat in a Democratic district.”
Correction, Aug. 15, 2012: This article originally misspelled the last name of Providence Mayor Angel Taveras. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet at him @daveweigel.