What’s next for Cicilline?

After a couple of tough years — and some jabs from Buddy — how bright is his political future?
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  January 21, 2010

LOOKING AHEAD Seven years in, Cicilline has lost some of his shine. Can he win reelection? A seat in Congress?

Providence Mayor David N. Cicilline rode into office seven years ago as the fresh-faced anti-Buddy. Bleach for a soiled City Hall.

And a first term spent cleaning up the city¹s reputation for corruption, building a more diverse administration, and turning around a beleaguered police department only bolstered his standing.

By the dawn of Cicilline's second term, the openly gay Democrat had higher approval ratings than any other politician in the state. Two-thirds of voters in a Brown University poll said he was doing a "good" or "excellent" job. Talk of higher office was inevitable.

But in the last couple of years, Providence's progressive champion has run into a bit of trouble.

Some of it, to be sure, has been beyond his control. The messy business of running a city inevitably creates disaffection in some quarters. And there is, of course, the Great Recession — scourge of all incumbents.

But other controversies have taken on a more personal cast: a December 2007 snowstorm that paralyzed the city and stranded schoolchildren; a brother who tried to pass a $75,000 bad check with the city; a years-long labor dispute with the firefighters that came to a head during the US Conference of Mayors, marring an event that was to be the apotheosis of Cicilline's second term.

And observers sympathetic to the mayor point to another, more frustrating problem: they say the administration has failed to convert its considerable accomplishments into the sort of enduring political operation that can cushion the bad press and position the candidate for higher office.

By last May, Cicilline's approval number in the Brown poll had sunk to 45 percent. And now, as he gears up for what he says is his last mayoral run, his star has fallen far enough that there is talk — however far-fetched — of the city's most famous felon, Buddy Cianci, mounting a comeback.

"I never say never," the former mayor said, in a recent interview.

Cianci's lucrative job as a talk-radio host, and the legal hurdles for a would-be candidate not so far removed from prison, will almost certainly keep him out of the race.

But even the two candidates who have spoken most seriously of challenging Cicilline — former Mayor Joseph R. Paolino, Jr. and long-serving City Councilman John J. Lombardi, who briefly served as interim mayor in 2002 after Cianci's resignation — are counting on a certain measure of nostalgia for a Providence past.

It is, in some ways, an unsteady foundation for a campaign. The older Providence may have been more prosperous than the recession-wracked version, but it was darker too. And Cicilline is still a force: he piled up big victories in 2002 and 2006, had $715,000 in his campaign account to Lombardi's $51,000 at last count, and has steered clear of any major mistakes.

"I think he's in terrific shape," said veteran political strategist Bill Fischer.

But as Republican Scott Brown's stunning victory in the race for Ted Kennedy's old Senate seat in Massachusetts demonstrates, it is a volatile political season. Cicilline would be a lock for re-election any other year. But could he be vulnerable this fall?

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