by David Klepper, Associated Press
PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP)—U.S. Rep. David Cicilline insists that Rhode Island’s 1st Congressional District matchup comes down to the economy, Social Security and Medicare. But the Democrat’s re-election bid may hinge on something a whole lot more personal: his character and his honesty about Providence’s financial health during his time as mayor.
Republican candidate Brendan Doherty, the former leader of the state police, has focused his remarks and his campaign ads largely on Cicilline’s trustworthiness and integrity, putting Cicilline on the defensive and forcing him to stray from his preferred talking points about protecting seniors, boosting manufacturing and fighting the national GOP agenda.
Facing the toughest race of his career, Cicilline has attempted to turn the attacks back on Doherty, arguing that he’s dredging up tired accusations to distract voters. The result is a contest that’s become increasingly bitter and personal, with Doherty accusing Cicilline, a former criminal defense attorney, of representing “rapists, pedophiles and murderers” in one campaign ad.
“I’ve spent my whole life building a reputation,” Cicilline said. “I’m not going to allow anyone to lecture me about integrity.”
The son of an attorney well known for representing mob figures, Cicilline attended Brown University and Georgetown Law School before winning a seat in the Rhode Island General Assembly. He won the mayor’s office in 2003, becoming one of the nation’s first openly gay big-city mayors. He became the fourth openly gay member of Congress after he won in 2010.
At the core of Doherty’s attacks on Cicilline is a comment the Democrat made in 2010 when he was campaigning for his first term. Cicilline said during a debate that after eight years in City Hall he was leaving Providence in “excellent” financial condition. Just a few months later, his successor would announce the city faced a $110 million deficit and could even be forced into bankruptcy.
“David failed the people of the city of Providence,” Doherty told The Associated Press during a recent interview. “He engaged in a practice of deception. The voters need to take a real good look at David Cicilline.”
Cicilline apologized for the remark last spring—a mea culpa he’s reiterated in virtually every debate and candidate forum. He said he was too focused on how far Providence had come during his tenure—and not focused enough on the fiscal storms on the horizon, which he said were brought on by the recession and by deep cuts in state aid to cities.
“I have regrets about the way I talked about it,” he said during one debate with Doherty. “There were representations made in the course of that (2010) campaign that turned out not to be accurate.”
Cicilline’s primary challenger, businessman Anthony Gemma, made the Providence finances remark a hallmark of his campaign too and also offered unsubstantiated allegations that Cicilline’s past campaigns had engaged in voter fraud. It didn’t work: Cicilline won 60 percent of the vote.
Brown University political science professor Wendy Schiller said Gemma may have inadvertently helped Cicilline by proving Democrats aren’t swayed by the attacks on his character. Even if all the Gemma supporters vote for Doherty, it still might not be enough to put him over the top in Rhode Island, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 3:1.
“I wouldn’t say that inoculated him (Cicilline), but I would say it boosted his immune system,” Schiller said. “More than 60 percent of Democrats in the primary voted for Cicilline even though they knew about his past.”
Cicilline got another boost from his successor, Mayor Angel Taveras, who has endorsed him in the race and said he believes Cicilline did everything he could to help Providence’s finances.
In the closing weeks of the campaign Doherty has broadened his attack on Cicilline, noting that as mayor he took campaign contributions from strip club owners, and that as a defense attorney he represented people charged with domestic violence and sexual offenses.
“He was a criminal defense attorney … representing the very worst of Rhode Island,” Doherty said.
Cicilline has responded that he was just doing his job as a defense attorney.
Doherty’s attacks strike a chord with voter Donna DiGregorio of North Providence. She said the state—with 10.5 percent unemployment—cannot afford to have leaders voters can’t trust.
“It’s time for someone honest,” she said. “People deserve the truth. They can trust him (Doherty).”
Voter Joseph Riel, a retired mechanical engineer from Cumberland, said his most important election concerns are protecting Medicare and Social Security. He’s seen both candidates speak at his senior housing complex and said Doherty has “a lot of integrity.”
Riel said he’s thought about Cicilline’s comment about Providence’s fiscal health. But he’s leaning towards voting for him anyway.
“I like David,” he said. “I think he’s sincere about the elderly.”