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A Rhode Island Democrat exits Congress, in search of an impact no longer found in D.C.


A Rhode Island Democrat exits Congress, in search of an impact no longer found in D.C.

Mar 24, 2023 | 5:00 am ET
By Ashley Murray
A Rhode Island Democrat exits Congress, in search of an impact no longer found in D.C.
U.S. Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-RI) speaks during a House Judiciary Committee meeting on June 2, 2022, in Washington, D.C. Members held the emergency hearing to mark up the "Protecting Our Kids Act" a legislative package of gun violence prevention measures, in response to a string of mass shootings in cities across the United States including in Buffalo, New York and Uvalde, Texas. With Cicilline leaving Congress, Rep. Madeleine Dean, a Pennsylvania Democrat, will take up his current legislation on regulating guns without serial numbers. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Rhode Island’s longtime U.S. Rep. David Cicilline, a leader on the second impeachment of former President Donald Trump, an advocate for breaking up big tech and a champion for LGBTQ+ rights, will step down from Congress in late May to lead his state’s largest community foundation.

The Democrat, elected in 2010 to represent Rhode Island’s 1st Congressional District, said in an interview with States Newsroom that his advocacy back home will be more effective than his spot as a minority member of the U.S. House, where Republicans gained control in the midterm elections.

I had to compare it to what I think is likely to happen over the next couple of years in the House. And I think with the Republicans in charge, it’s going to be very difficult to make progress on a lot of issues,” Cicilline said. “It became clear to me that in terms of impact on Rhode Island, I could get more done and have more of an opportunity to improve people’s lives.”

Cicilline, 61, announced on Feb. 21 that he would become president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation, which as of 2021 held nearly $1.5 billion in total assets and issued $76 million in grants across the state.

The foundation hailed Cicilline’s hire. The lawmaker’s “career-long fight for equity and equality at the local, national, and international level, and his deep relationships within Rhode Island’s communities of color are two of the many factors that led us to this decision,” Dr. G. Alan Kurose, chair of the foundation’s board of directors, said upon the announcement.

Ciclline’s departure will leave his tiny state with one House seat empty until a special election is held and the second held by freshman Democrat Seth Magaziner. 

The special election has not yet been scheduled, according to the Rhode Island secretary of state’s office. First, the governor must call for an election once the seat is vacated, and then mail ballots must be sent to overseas voters at least 45 days before a primary. 

Democratic party officials estimate a late summer time frame for the solidly blue seat.

Passing off priorities

Cicilline confirmed he’s passing off his priorities to fellow lawmakers with whom he’s shared committee assignments. For the majority of his tenure, Cicilline sat on committees with jurisdiction over judicial and antitrust issues, law enforcement, foreign assistance and national security.

Cicilline’s actions so far in the 118th Congress include the re-introduction of an assault weapons ban — last year a similar bill cleared the chamber while it was under Democratic control — and forming a new congressional antitrust caucus after key legislation to hold tech companies accountable failed to get a floor vote last year.

As chair of the House Judiciary Committee’s panel on antitrust issues when Democrats were in control, Cicilline led an 18-month investigation into the largest tech companies in the U.S., including Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google. 

One result of the investigation was the congressman’s American Innovation and Choice Online Act, which aimed to prohibit certain large tech companies from giving preference to their own products online and disadvantaging competing platforms.

“I would say that was probably the most frustrating moment — we were promised it would get a vote on the Senate floor. We had the votes, and it just never got brought to the floor. It was really, really disappointing,” Cicilline said.

Over his 12 years in Congress, 13 of Cicilline’s bills made it into law, either alone or as part of larger government funding or defense policy packages, according to GovTrack.us. The congressman’s office confirmed none of Cicilline’s major policies — including measures on competition in drug and biological products markets and adjusting the status of Liberian refugees — was excluded from the list, but that more could have been folded into larger bills.

The five enacted alone, according to Congress.gov, included mandating baby changing facilities in public restrooms, requiring the Department of Transportation to solicit nominations for scenic byways and the renaming of three Rhode Island post offices.

More than 100 bills co-sponsored by Cicilline made it to the president’s desk, including ending forced arbitration for sexual assault and harassment, requiring crisis intervention training for first responders who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, and classifying lynching as a federal hate crime.

When asked what his top priorities would be at the Rhode Island Foundation, Cicilline declined to elaborate but said he would first spend time “studying and learning.”

“I’ll spend a lot of time learning about the personnel there, the staff there, to understand what they’re currently doing before I make any big changes about what I want to do differently or in addition to (their work),” he said. “I’ve worked with the foundation in every job I’ve had, in the state legislature, as mayor, and as a member of Congress, but it’s different to be the leader of the organization.”

Breaking barriers for the LGBTQ+ community

From his time in the Rhode Island Legislature, Cicilline said his guiding principle has been “to always do everything I can to make life better for the people I serve.”

He said he would ask himself: “What can I do to create more economic opportunities? What can I do to make sure people have access to quality affordable health care? What can I do to make sure young people are getting a better education? How do we promote more equality and more fairness?”

Rhode Island state Rep. Joseph McNamara, a Democrat, recalls serving in the state legislature with Cicilline, beginning in the mid-1990s.

The two worked on prohibiting discrimination in housing and employment based on gender and sexual orientation, and they advocated for marriage equality, which did not become law in Rhode Island until 2013.

In 2002, Cicilline became the first openly gay mayor of Providence.

He broke a lot of barriers and was a role model for many of our younger people in the state,” said McNamara, who is currently chair of the Rhode Island Democratic Party.

When he took office in 2011, Cicilline became one of four openly gay members of Congress.

He has since served as a co-chair of the Congressional Equality Caucus.

Cicilline wrapped up the 117th Congress by co-sponsoring the landmark Respect for Marriage Act, a bill that codified the legality of same-sex and interracial marriage.

The bill was introduced and passed following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn federal protections for abortion — a ruling that set off a groundswell of fear about other privacy rights, including marriage.

When asked to reflect on the pace of change for the LGBTQ+ community over recent decades, Cicilline said, “Everyone’s like, ‘Oh, this happened so quickly.’ It wasn’t that quickly. It’s long past time that marriage equality be the law of the land.”

Cicilline’s Equality Act — a bill that would establish federal protections from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender expression and identity — cleared the House last Congress, mostly along party lines, except for three Republicans who voted in favor.

“Congress is not moving quickly enough on equality broadly. Overwhelmingly, the American people believe discrimination against LGBTQ people is wrong and they support anti-discrimination laws. And yet we can’t get our Republicans in the Senate to embrace the Equality Act,” he said.

A Rhode Island Democrat exits Congress, in search of an impact no longer found in D.C.
U.S. David Cicilline, shown here on Dec. 12, 2019, was involved in both House impeachment investigations of former President Donald Trump. (Photo by Jonathan Newton-Pool/Getty Images)

After the Capitol attack

Days after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, Cicilline published an op-ed in The New York Times explaining why he and fellow Democratic Reps. Ted Lieu of California and Jamie Raskin of Maryland planned to introduce an article of impeachment against then-President Donald Trump.

As lawmakers who have impeached this president once before, we do not take this responsibility lightly,” Cicilline wrote on Jan. 11, 2021. “In fact, it was not our first choice of action. In the midst of last Wednesday’s siege, we were among those that asked Vice President Mike Pence to convene the Cabinet to invoke the 25th Amendment to quickly remove Mr. Trump from office. We have called on the president to resign. Days have passed, and it is clear that neither of those possibilities will be realized. So it is Congress’s responsibility to act.”

Trump supporters violently breached the Capitol demanding that the presidential election of Democrat Joe Biden be overturned. The riot occurred after weeks of Trump falsely claiming the election was stolen. 

All House Democrats, and 10 Republicans, impeached Trump for inciting an insurrection. The impeachment managers, including Cicilline, triggered a formal impeachment hearing in the Senate that occurred just  over a two-week stretch from late January into February. 

“I just remember working so well, hand-in-glove, David would be preparing for his section, I’d be preparing for mine,” said fellow impeachment manager Rep. Madeleine Dean, a Pennsylvania Democrat.

“I just have an image of him in a little war room that’s right off the Senate lobby. I have a picture of him day after day in the moments before going out for his part, using a tall (copy machine) to lean his remarks on to prepare and rehearse,” she said.

The Senate ultimately acquitted Trump, by then a former president, after only seven GOP senators voted alongside Democrats — not enough to meet the threshold needed to approve the article of impeachment.

What’s next for Rhode Island? 

Cicilline’s departure means Rhode Island is poised to be represented in the U.S. House by two new lawmakers — Magaziner, who represents the state’s only other congressional district, and whoever replaces Cicilline in the upcoming special election.

Rhode Island Democrats were not expecting Cicilline’s exit from Congress.

We were very surprised,” McNamara said. “Cicilline is very respected in our state, but we understand the opportunity he has to continue his advocacy through a different role.”

Magaziner, who began his term in January, called Cicilline a “guide and a supporter.”

The freshman Democrat was still studying at Brown University in Providence when Cicilline became the city’s mayor. After Magaziner became the state treasurer, he said he found “a great partner” in Cicilline as a U.S. representative.

“And in my early months in Congress, he’s been a great mentor as well,” Magaziner said.

The congressman, who sits on the Natural Resources and Homeland Security committees, said he and Cicilline talk on a daily basis and are having conversations “about what bills he has introduced that I might pick up and sponsor going forward.”

Dean said she and Cicilline talked about her taking up his legislation on regulating guns without serial numbers, often called ghost guns. Dean will also take over Cicilline’s appropriations request for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, she said.

“We did a lot of work in different areas, but I would like to lift up our work around gun violence and trying to reduce the number of folks who are injured and traumatized or dead as a result of guns in this country,” she said.

“I’ll just add that the Rhode Island Foundation has chosen an extraordinary leader,” Dean added. “While I’m going to miss him, I have a feeling we’ll still get to work together on all of these issues that we seem to care about.” 

Asked what will change in his life once he is out of Congress, Cicilline said the continuity of staying in Rhode Island full time will open other avenues.

“Look, I expect it to be a very challenging and exciting job that’s going to keep me really busy. I will say that one thing that will change my life is I may finally be able to get a dog again,” the outgoing lawmaker said. “I grew up with dogs and ever since I got elected to Congress, I couldn’t really have one.”