Call it a case of art imitating life: in the critically acclaimed HBO drama The Wire, Tommy Carcetti, an ambitious, reform-minded politician, overcomes improbable odds to win a dramatic upset election as the mayor of Baltimore. Elation over the victory soon dissipates, though, with the realization that the mayor’s job — due to the thorny problems of American cities — can be a thankless task, not to mention a very tricky platform from which to launch a run for governor.
A few former US mayors have made the leap to the bigger stage, including Pennsylvania Governor Edward G. Rendell and Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley — who won the office in 2006 and who is considered one of the inspirations for Carcetti’s character.
Yet there are many more instances of mayors, in various places, whose statewide reach has exceeded their grasp. “It’s a long haul from City Hall to the governor’s office,” notes Marion Orr, a political science professor at Brown University. “It’s not an easy thing to do.”
And the rough stretch encountered by Providence Mayor David N. Cicilline since Rhode Island’s December 13 snow debacle has fostered a sense among some political observers that Cicilline — whose gubernatorial aspirations have long been clear — may take a pass on seeking higher office in 2010.
“My personal view is that he probably will not run for governor,” says City Councilman Luis Aponte of Ward 10. “My sense is that as we grow closer [to the election], and as that [mayoral] office becomes more defined, the reality of having to run the largest city in the smallest state will find its way into the polling results.”
In one such example, Aponte points to the recent clash in which Governor Donald L. Carcieri faulted Cicilline after an illegal immigrant from Guatemala, Marco Riz — who had previously been arrested and released in different communities, including Providence — was arrested and charged with kidnapping a woman in Warwick and raping her in Providence. Cicilline responded, less frequently and with less amplification, by blaming federal authorities for not having deported Riz.
Aponte calls Cicilline’s liberal stance on immigration “absolutely right for the city,” but, he adds, “[I] think it does not play out well in a broader discussion.”
This might be a safe assumption, considering how the mayor and Providence Police Chief Dean Esserman have faced considerable public criticism for bucking Carcieri’s executive order on immigration. (Then again, in a recent Rhode Island College poll, just four percent of respondents ranked illegal immigration among the state’s biggest problems.)
Regardless, similar types of tension between urban and state-based politics help to explain why Rhode Island voters rejected gubernatorial campaigns by the last two Providence may-ors to try it, Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci Jr., in 1980, and his successor, Joseph R. Paolino Jr., in 1990.
While Cicilline could indeed still run for governor, a string of other events — including the snow storm, his brother’s guilty plea in a federal corruption case, and a steady bar-rage of unanswered criticism from talk radio (mostly from Cianci), and even the dour economy — have complicated the terrain, offering a stark reminder of how quickly the worm can turn in politics.