PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Seven years ago, David Cicilline was at a low point in his political career. Dogged by criticism over his tenure as mayor of Providence, the Democratic congressman was in jeopardy of losing his first re-election race, with a job approval rating that sank to 22%.
Cicilline fought back, holding onto his seat in 2012 by a 12-point margin as he rode Barack Obama’s coattails to victory. And since then, he has worked methodically to strengthen his political standing at home while raising his profile in Washington.
Those efforts paid off Thursday, when Cicilline’s fellow House Democrats voted at a closed-door meeting to give him a leadership post as chair of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee (DPCC). The new role could take on more significance in January when his party enters the majority – the first time House Democrats have been in charge since Cicilline took office in 2011.
Cicilline, who was nominated by fellow Rhode Islander Jim Langevin and seconded by Wisconsin’s Mark Pocan, faced no opposition for the job. Joe Kennedy III, whose Massachusetts district borders Cicilline’s, stood at the front of the room to support him.
“This is a critical moment in our history,” Cicilline said in a statement. “The stakes are high, and I look forward to working with each and every member of our caucus to ensure we rise to this challenge. I am honored that my colleagues have put their trust in me to help lead our caucus ahead.”
Leading the DPCC was not Cicilline’s first choice: he initially announced plans to run for assistant Democratic leader, the party’s No. 4 job. Cicilline exited that race after he was challenged by Congressman Ben Ray Luján, who just finished a highly successful stint as head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi apparently created the new post of DPCC chair to give Cicilline a graceful exit from the contest against Luján. And in doing so, she ensured that the Rhode Islander’s prominence on Capitol Hill will continue to grow.
National outlets are taking notice. Last month, an article in the Beltway publication National Journal hinted Cicilline could one day be a candidate for House speaker, a job no Rhode Islander has ever held. And on Thursday, The Wall Street Journal listed him as one of five people to watch in the new Democratic majority.
“It puts David Cicilline in a nice position,” said Eyewitness News political analyst Joe Fleming. “A lot of the current leadership on the Democratic side is in their mid-70s or high 70s. He’s younger. It gives David Cicilline an opportunity to move up the ranks.”
Cicilline, 57, is currently one of the DPCC’s three co-chairs; he defied Pelosi when he ran for the job in 2016, and managed to defeat one of her preferred candidates. (The other two DPCC co-chairs both sought bigger promotions this fall: New York’s Hakeem Jeffries was elected chair of the House Democratic caucus on Wednesday, while Illinois’ Cheri Bustos is running to succeed Lujan at the campaign committee.)
Somewhat confusingly, Pelosi has indicated she plans to keep the positions of the three DPCC co-chairs, too; as “chair,” Cicilline would outrank his three “co-chairs.” The power of the position will be determined in part by what kind of budget Pelosi provides to carry out the committee’s work; she promised “greater resources and staffing” when she announced Cicilline’s new position earlier this month.
“This enhancement to the DPCC will position House Democrats to best take advantage of the new size and diversity of our caucus,” she said.
Cicilline, a loquacious lawmaker, has had no trouble leading a panel focused on communications. Particularly since President Trump’s inauguration, the congressman has become a ubiquitous presence on cable news, not only on CNN and MSNBC but even Fox News, where he has repeatedly sparred with Tucker Carlson.
.@davidcicilline: “I support Nancy Pelosi. If we retake the House, Democrats will caucus and they’ll make that decision. She’s been a great leader of our party. My expectation is if she runs, she wins again and she’ll do a terrific job.” #OutnumberedOT pic.twitter.com/CCAqaNi1H0— Fox News (@FoxNews) October 31, 2018
Cicilline also got national attention for a recent statement in which he excoriated Facebook and called for it to be regulated after a New York Times expose revealed the lengths executives there went to in a bid to undermine their critics. Vox’s Matthew Yglesias suggested Wednesday that Cicilline is one of the lawmakers Pelosi should consider anointing as an “unofficial national party spokesperson.”
On policy, Cicilline has carved out a reputation as a leader on the left as well as a relentless and caustic critic of President Trump. His other leadership positions in the new Congress will include vice-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, co-chair of the LGBT Equality Caucus, and vice-chair of the House Gun Violence Task Force.
A stepped-up travel itinerary has also been part of Cicilline’s effort to ingratiate himself with his colleagues. He traveled to seven states in the final weeks of this year’s election to campaign and fundraise for Democratic House candidates, including in Iowa and Texas.
Not everyone is impressed by Cicilline’s rise, however. Rhode Island Republican Party Chairman Brandon Bell argued his new position in Washington should not be viewed as a true member of House leadership.
“He was given a title as a consolation prize after he couldn’t win the votes to get on the leadership team,” Bell said. “All this does is give him a talking point against an opponent when Rhode Island loses a congressional seat in four years.”
Yet Cicilline has improved his political position at home in Rhode Island, too, partly due to an unrelenting schedule of appearances across the 1st Congressional District that even exhausts his own staff.
After winning his seat in 2010 with 51% of the vote and holding it in 2012 with 53%, Cicilline saw his share of the vote rise to 60% in 2014, 65% in 2016 and 67% this year. His percentage topped delegation colleagues U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Congressman Jim Langevin this year, partly because Cicilline’s eastern district is more Democratic-leaning than the western side of the state.
Yet that district may not exist much longer. Experts say Rhode Island is likely to lose one of its two U.S. House seats following the 2020 Census, when seats are reapportioned nationwide based on which states are growing fastest. If they are both re-elected in 2020, Cicilline and Langevin would have to decide whether to run against each other in a primary for a new statewide House seat.
Fleming said he is skeptical that will happen.
“I’ll be very surprised if David Cicilline and Jim Langevin go into a primary – I think they’ll work it out on who should run,” he said. Noting that four of the five statewide offices will be open in 2022, he added, “There are a lot of openings if one of them decides they want to go somewhere else and avoid a nasty Democratic primary.”
Over the years, Rhode Island has sent a number of prominent members to Congress.
In the House, they included Patrick Kennedy, who chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in the late 1990s; John Fogarty, who championed huge funding increases for the National Institutes of Health; and Aime Forand, who chaired the party’s caucus after World War II. (Just across the border, North Attleboro Republican Joe Martin served two terms as House speaker during Forand’s time.)
In the Senate, incumbents Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse have both carved out national profiles; Claiborne Pell created a student loan program in the 1970s that still bears his name; and Nelson Aldrich was influential in setting up the Federal Reserve in the early part of the 20th century.
“For being a small state and only having two congressmen or two senators, they’ve had a good deal of leadership over the years,” Fleming said.