PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — In a bombshell announcement that will shake up Rhode Island politics, Congressman David Cicilline announced Tuesday morning he is becoming the next president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation, leaving the U.S. House after over a decade.
Cicilline, first elected in 2010, said he will step down effective June 1. His staff will continue to operate district offices for the 1st Congressional District until a new representative is chosen in a special election. The rare open seat is likely to draw a host of candidates in the heavily Democratic-leaning district.
Coming in the wake of then-Congressman Jim Langevin’s surprise retirement a year ago, Cicilline’s decision means Rhode Island soon will be represented by two of the most junior members of the House.
“Serving the people of Rhode Island’s 1st Congressional District has been the honor of my lifetime,” Cicilline, 61, said in a statement. “As president and CEO of one of the largest and oldest community foundations in the nation, I look forward to expanding on the work I have led for nearly thirty years in helping to improve the lives of all Rhode Islanders.”
The foundation’s longtime CEO, Neil Steinberg, announced his intention to retire last year, and a search committee has been vetting potential candidates since then. The job has become one of the most prominent in Rhode Island public life during Steinberg’s tenure, and it also paid over $1 million a year as of 2019, according to IRS filings.
“I am thrilled with the choice of Representative Cicilline as the next president and CEO of the Foundation, having seen first-hand — over many years — his commitment to a better Rhode Island,” Steinberg said in a statement. “He has the experience, the skills, the passion and the network to ably lead the Foundation.”
Watch: Secretary of State Gregg Amore on what a special election would look like (Story continues below.)
Cicilline, whose starting salary will total $650,000, has been one of the most successful Rhode Island politicians of his generation, moving from the General Assembly to become Providence’s first openly gay mayor, then representing the 1st District in the House for the last 12 years.
After a rocky first term as he faced criticism over his responsibility for Providence’s financial distress just after his departure, Cicilline steadily rebuilt his political standing and won re-election easily in recent campaigns.
But he returned to minority status last month when Republicans took control of the House, and his bid for one of the top Democratic leadership positions lasted only 24 hours.
“Cicilline joins a growing list of members who have bailed out of the House in the middle of their terms after not getting the promotion they wanted,” said David Wasserman, House editor for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “He didn’t have the most graceful entrance into Congress in 2010 and this isn’t the most graceful exit.”
Political observers quickly began floating a long list of names of potential candidates in the 1st District, which covers the eastern half of Rhode Island, stretching from Woonsocket down to Newport.
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They included Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos, Attorney General Peter Neronha, former gubernatorial candidate Helena Foulkes, former Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, Biden administration official Gabe Amo and state Rep. Katherine Kazarian. But a host of others are likely to take a look at the race.
A top aide to Matos, who was elected to lieutenant governor last year after initially getting hand-picked by Gov. Dan McKee, said she’s considering a run. Foulkes spokesperson Audrey Lucas said the former CVS Health executive is “seriously considering it.”
“Helena appreciates all the calls she’s received today from Rhode Islanders encouraging her to run for Congress,” Lucas said in a statement.
Neronha didn’t rule out the possibility of a run, although he acknowledged that he’s term limited at the end of 2026.
“I love this job and I have no interest in leaving it, but I am also aware I am going to leave it at some point,” he said. “I’m not in a position to answer that right now.”
Gorbea didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment; Amo and Kazarian declined to comment.
R.I. Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Dawn Euer said she was interested in exploring a run, as did Democratic Central Falls Mayor Maria Rivera. “Over the coming days, I will be speaking with my friends, family, and colleagues about my future and the need for Rhode Island to continue to have a strong, bold, Democratic voice in DC,” Rivera said in a statement.
State Sen. Meghan Kallman also said she was interested in exploring a run for Congress, announcing on Twitter “we cannot afford for that seat not to be held by a steadfast advocate for the people.”
State Sen. Sandra Cano, a Pawtucket Democrat, also expressed interest in running and former Sen. Cynthia Mendes, who unsuccessfully ran for lieutenant governor last year, announced she is also exploring a run.
“We need someone in Congress who will stand up to the billionaires who run things and fight for living wages, quality public education, universal health care and environmental justice,” she said in a statement.
East Providence Mayor Bob DaSilva said running for office would be a “big change” for his family, but didn’t take the idea off the table.
“I certainly would have to sit down with friends, family and supporters,” he said. “But you never say no.”
Former Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, who holds a political war chest of nearly $1 million, said he wasn’t considering a run. He left office in January due to term limits. (Former mayors Angel Taveras and Joe Paolino Jr. also ruled out possible runs.)
House Speaker Joseph Shekarchi said in a statement that “today was not the day for political speculation.”
“I want to thank Congressman Cicilline for his many years of outstanding public service to the people of Rhode Island,” Shekarchi said. “David is a tireless worker and advocate, and I am confident he will lead the Rhode Island Foundation in the same strong manner as Neil Steinberg has done for many years.”
“I expect a very crowded Democratic primary field,” said 12 News political analyst Joe Fleming. “It’s not very often in Rhode Island a congressional seat opens up, and I think a lot of Democrats are going to really taking a strong look at this and decide if it’s feasible for them to run.”
“It’s going to be a special election and special Democratic primary, so it’s going to be about name recognition and raising a lot of money to get the voters out,” he said.
The timing of the special election remains in flux. Secretary of State spokesperson Faith Chybowski said the R.I. Department of State and the R.I. Board of Elections would start the process once “requested by the governor.”
McKee said his office doesn’t have a schedule yet. He offered praise for the outgoing congressman.
“It’s a great match, it’ll be good for the state of Rhode Island, but I’ll tell you it’s going to leave a hole in that office because he’s moved up in leadership significantly and that will be a loss for Rhode Island,” Gov. Dan McKee said.
Ted Nesi (email@example.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Threads, Twitter and Facebook.