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It is, on some level, hard to pick any winners in the li'l Rhody's latest battle royale.

For anyone in a coma these last two weeks, the basics: the Providence firefighters, embroiled in a years-long contract dispute with Mayor David N. Cicilline, managed to scare Vice President Joe Biden and other members of the Obama administration away from the US Conference of Mayors this weekend with a days-long protest.

And the losers were legion. A down-on-its-luck city lost a chance for its moment in the national spotlight. The state's all-too-accurate reputation for labor strife, nasty politics, and self-sabotage proved, well, all-too-accurate.

The firefighters, intent on stirring public sympathy for their contract conundrum, appeared out of touch amid a sea of unemployment and foreclosure. And even Cicilline, who scored early with declarations that he would not be bullied into a bad contract, faced a backlash.

Critics, including a few former allies, blasted the mayor for failing to hammer out a deal in the years leading up to the conference. Labor grumbled that he was exploiting the situation for political gain. And the Providence Journal ran a lengthy piece on Sunday suggesting the fracas has raised doubts about the mayor's leadership style.

That critique could hurt Cicilline if he ever tries to run for statewide office: labor is still a powerful force in gubernatorial and Congressional politics. But it is hard to escape the conclusion that the mayor has buttressed his bid for re-election next year.

It was not long ago, after all, that Cicilline was answering questions about his brother's shady real estate dealings with the city and his own deflated gubernatorial ambitions.

"I think it's a positive in that it pushes the bad publicity that he's had in the last few months off the front pages," said Darrell West, a former political science professor at Brown University who is now with the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington, DC.

And he has not simply changed the subject. The mayor has also been able to stake out an enviable position as protector of the municipal purse, insisting that the union has an "unaffordable, unsustainable" contract and is unwilling to bend.

"He's been able to frame the issue," said Maureen Moakley, political science professor at the University of Rhode Island. "It's about the taxpayers."

The firefighters, of course, tell a different story. They say they are willing to negotiate. They say the mayor has remained obstinate and disengaged. And Paul Doughty, president of the union, says the firefighters will launch a YouTube-style campaign in the coming months meant to expose some of the "myths" the mayor has built up around the contract fight.

But even Doughty acknowledges that Cicilline's message has struck a chord with a public distraught about the economy and saturated with news stories about the state's creaking pension system.

"It becomes a populist, torches-and-pitchforks moment," he said.

Cicilline, for his part, insists there is nothing new — and nothing terribly political — about the position he staked out in recent days. "I have been talking about the cost of the contract for a long time," he said, in an interview this week.

But it strains credulity to suggest the mayor did not see electoral advantage in the tussle: he has bombarded radio with ads about the spat and sent out a fundraising appeal meant to capitalize on the controversy.

A well-funded opponent in the mayor's race next year could try to make an issue out of his opportunism and ask why the incumbent has been unable to work out a deal with the firefighters over the years.

But there is no sign, yet, of a credible challenge to Cicilline. And if the campaign turns into a battle over the firefighters' contract, well, that's probably a good battle for the mayor.

Even if the neverending battle over the firefighters' contract is, ultimately, bad for the city.

  Topics: This Just In , Barack Obama, Politics, Science and Technology,  More more >
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 See all articles by: DAVID SCHARFENBERG

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