On the rebound

Months after his political career seemed doomed, Congressman David Cicilline has made a slow, steady comeback. Will it hold?
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  November 2, 2011

AN IRONIC ASSIST Much of the credit for Cicilline’s comeback goes to Providence Mayor Angel Taveras.
Nine months ago, first-term Congressman David Cicilline's Washington career seemed over before it had begun.

Fresh off a two-term stint as Providence mayor, he was reeling from news that the city — which he'd declared in "excellent fiscal condition" during the campaign — had a $180 million structural deficit.

Critics accused him of lying on the stump. Cicilline appeared evasive. And before long, a Brown University poll found the Congressman with a rock-bottom approval rating of 17 percent.

"I don't know the basis of people's conclusions," he told the Providence Journal. "I've only been at the job for about 11 weeks."

The quote was a little cute; Cicilline, no doubt, knew it was the Providence hangover — and not his Washington breakfast — that ailed him.

But it spoke quite plainly to his nascent comeback strategy: pivot away from City Hall and wrap himself in Congressional politics.

The play — really his only one — was hardly ideal. Congress is enormously unpopular. And Cicilline, a freshman Democrat in the Republican-controlled House, could deliver nothing of consequence for his constituents.

But the Congressman, however weak his hand, seems in the midst of a notable — if little-noted — resurgence.

There is no public polling, yet, on how he might fare against some of the Democrats considering a primary challenge: businessman Anthony Gemma, former state Representative David Segal, and Merrill Sherman, the CEO of the soon-to-be sold Bank Rhode Island.

But if Democratic voters will be focused, in part, on the incumbent's electability in a mano-a-mano contest with the Republican nominee come November 2012, Cicilline can suddenly make a case.

In May, a high-profile WPRI-TV poll gave his two potential Republican rivals double-digit leads. But a September survey from news site GoLocalProv, which got little play in the broader media, actually put him ahead of both GOPers.

And it's not just Cicilline's short-term prospects that are looking bright. Washington insiders say the Congressman is laying the foundations for a long and successful career on Capitol Hill.

David Cicilline, in short, is building a neat little Comeback Kid narrative. But it is a fragile one.


The Congressman, truth be told, only gets partial credit for his climb back from oblivion.

Much of it — no small irony, here — goes to Providence Mayor Angel Taveras, whose February declaration of a "Category 5 hurricane" on the city's books sent Cicilline into freefall.

It's easy to forget, but there was a real sense of foreboding in Providence back then. Taveras made national headlines when he sent termination notices to every teacher in the city. Major tax hikes seemed inevitable. A Fitch Ratings analyst asked, at one point, whether the city would be able to pay its bills through the end of the fiscal year.

But Taveras wrangled millions in savings from the city's major public-sector unions. Most of the teachers kept their jobs. The City Council scaled back the mayor's proposed property tax hike.

And Taveras — an old Cicilline ally who had no interest in alienating a member of Rhode Island's small Congressional delegation — never said a word in public about his predecessor.

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Related: The next Scott Brown?, Looking for a new kind of mayor, Providence's mayoral candidates, on bended knee, More more >
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