PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Fresh off a frustrating election cycle, U.S. House Democrats are poised to decide whether they should give Rhode Island Congressman David Cicilline a big promotion on Capitol Hill as part of their efforts to right the ship.
The Democratic caucus will meet behind closed doors on Wednesday and Thursday to elect their leaders for the 117th Congress. They are expected to retain their octogenarian top trio — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Majority Whip Jim Clyburn — putting the spotlight on the battle Cicilline is waging for assistant House speaker, the party’s No. 4 job.
Cicilline faces another up-and-comer elected in the last decade, Massachusetts Congresswoman Katherine Clark. She represents the 5th District in the Boston suburbs, a constellation of communities stretching northeast from Holliston out to Winthrop. (Ed Markey represented the 5th before his 2013 election to the U.S. Senate.)
The assistant speaker’s race could preview the future of the House Democratic caucus; Pelosi, Hoyer and Clyburn are all expected to retire together at some point, allowing a new generation of leaders to emerge. The winner of the assistant speakership race will be well positioned whenever that transition takes place.
Cicilline, 59, is entering his second decade in the House after winning re-election earlier this month with 71% of the vote against two little-known independents; no Republican challenged him. He has been a member of House leadership for the last two years, since the caucus made him chair of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee in November 2018, and he was one of its more visible spokespersons during the tumultuous final two years of the Trump administration.
In a statement to 12 News on Tuesday, Cicilline argued he will be able to do more for Rhode Island if he becomes assistant speaker.
“Every single day that I’ve served in leadership, I’ve asked myself what can I do to make sure we’re addressing the concerns of working folks in Rhode Island,” he said. “That’s why our For The People agenda focuses on creating good-paying jobs rebuilding our infrastructure, lowering health care costs, and cracking down on corruption.”
“We will have a chance to start delivering on those promises once Joe Biden takes office,” he continued. “It’s really important that we do so, and if I’m fortunate enough to be elected assistant speaker this week, I will make sure the voices of Rhode Island families continue to be heard at the highest levels of our government.”
The new title could also strengthen Cicilline politically if Rhode Island loses one of its two U.S. House seats in the 2022 election due to post-Census redistricting, should he seek to win the lone at-large seat that would remain. Neither he nor Democratic Congressman Jim Langevin has been willing to spell out what they would do in that scenario.
While Cicilline has generally been seen as the underdog against Clark in the assistant speaker contest, his advisers have expressed optimism about his chances. The vote could take place on either Wednesday or Thursday, depending on how quickly decisions are made about other offices.
The balloting is taking place as House Democrats lick their wounds following a deeply disappointing election night. Forecasters — and Pelosi herself — had predicted the party would pick up addition seats to increase its majority, but Republicans are on pace to make significant gains, strengthening the GOP’s chances of retaking the chamber in the 2022 midterm election.
Cicilline pointed to those defeats last week in a video message to his colleagues making his case.
“We can’t gloss over the fact we lost a lot of great colleagues in the House,” he said in the video, first reported by Politico. “We have our work cut out for us. We need to come together as a caucus and work together to support President-elect Biden and to deliver for the American people.”
Cicilline would be the highest-ranking gay member of House leadership if he becomes assistant speaker, a fact that has also given him a boost. The co-chairs of the LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus have endorsed him, as has Human Rights Campaign, an influential gay rights organization.
“Rep. Cicilline has been the only LGBTQ voice at the leadership table and led the House’s effort to pass the Equality Act last year,” Alphonso David, Human Rights Campaign’s president, said in a statement. “He has advocated for the rights and dignity of LGBTQ people – both within Congress and without. For all the fights we have ahead, we are proud to support him.”
Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is WPRI 12’s politics and business editor and a Target 12 investigative reporter. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook