PROVIDENCE, R.I.—The men in white polo shirts stand out like a Starfleet recon team as they grip-and-grab their way through the anarchist street fair. Rep. David Cicilline, who was the mayor of this city for eight years, strides quickly and carefully from booth to bar to booth. His much-taller aide, identically attired, keeps one eye on the congressman and one eye on his smartphone. The annual Foo Fest, an art-and-counterculture celebration that takes up a couple of downtown blocks, has attracted some people who really don’t want to meet a congressman.
Cicilline walks through the Anarchist Books tent in the center of the block. “Hi,” he tells two members of the Rhode Island Anti-Sexism League, which is selling a collection of Occupy and feminist literature. “David Cicilline.” He doesn’t ask for their votes or tell them what he’s running for. They know what he’s running for. Cicilline sees a mother with a baby nearby, and beelines over to meet them. The Anti-Sexism Leaguers are gobsmacked.
“Is he actually doing that?” asks a horrified Renae Chaves. “I thought that was a cliché, politicians kissing babies. Oh, come on. What a douche.” She’s offended that a politician would even show his face at Foo Fest. “I think everyone’s cynical about politics now. None of these guys do anything they promise. Rhode Island always votes for the Democrats, anyway.”
Not necessarily. For ages, Democrat David Cicilline was one of the most popular mayors in America. Half-Italian, half-Jewish, the son of a mob lawyer, and openly gay, he ran against Mayor Buddy Cianci in 2002, declaring his candidacy a few months before the incumbent was sentenced to five years in prison for corruption. Cicilline won that election with 84 percent of the vote; he was re-elected with 83 percent.
Then he ran for Congress. In 2010, Cicilline won the Democratic nomination in Rhode Island’s first district, which includes almost all of Providence as well as the towns in the northern and eastern parts of the state. Barack Obama had carried the district by 32 points. Cicilline won it by 7 points. The reason: Providence, like so many cities, was unable to close a budget gap. Cicilline got the blame. After he won the congressional election, voters stayed angry about how he’d told them not to worry about the city budget, then learned they were running a $57 million deficit, with hundreds of millions of dollars in unfunded pension and health care costs. The first poll on Cicilline’s 2012 re-election found him trailing a Republican opponent, Brendan Doherty, by 16 points. The incumbent was dragged down by a 65 percent negative approval rating.
So imagine all of Barack Obama’s problems, but worse. Cicilline has to convince 50-odd percent of voters that, yes, mistakes were made, but they should focus on what he could do—how much more fair and decent America will be if they give him another chance to work.
“We now have a [Republican] presidential candidate who has embraced the Republican House budget,” says Cicilline. “People get to decide whether they want to send a Republican who’ll strengthen the Tea Party-backed budget in the House, which’ll weaken Medicare, which will keep tax breaks for big oil, which gives another big tax break to millionaires and billionaires, which guts Pell grants, which guts education generally. It’s a very clear choice of what kind of America you want. It’s described as a courageous set of ideas? It’s not. It’s a very old set of ideas.” What about the Providence budget story? “It’s a good narrative for Republicans to talk about, because what they don’t want to talk about is what they would do if they got to Washington.”
Over the weekend, as he meets voters, the Ryan choice is Cicilline’s preferred ice-breaker. “You hear about Romney picking Ryan?” “What do you think of Ryan?” Often, they don’t know much about the telegenic new Republican veep nominee, so Cicilline gives a sort of negative elevator pitch about Paul’s scariest ideas. At a cookout for a Democratic state legislator in Providence, one voter worries to Cicilline that the Ryan pick was a “hail Mary pass, but the danger is, they complete it.”
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.)