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Rep. Cicilline ’83 and the Race for Rhode Island’s 1st

Image via The Hill

This March, many Brown University Political Science and IAPA concentrators found out about a new internship opportunity for the summer—campaigning for the 1st District House seat formerly held by Rep. Cicilline. Following the unexpected resignation of Rhode Island’s long-serving representative and former Mayor of Providence David Cicilline ’83 to take the position of CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation, shockwaves echoed across the landscape of Rhode Island state politics. Open seats in the Rhode Island congressional delegation are few and far between, and this upcoming election is sure to draw plenty of attention across the state; even more so now that two of the most highly anticipated candidates, RI House Speaker Joe Shekarchi and former RI gubernatorial candidate Helena Foulkes, have announced that they are not going to run for the seat. In examining the many potential candidates for the RI-1, in which Brown University is located, replacing Cicilline, a veteran politician with significant influence, is an obvious challenge that can only be overcome by casting a wide glance over the entire field for the upcoming election. 

To compare Cicilline’s career to this point to that of any of his potential successors is almost unfair. Prior to his tenure as mayor, Cicilline served in the Rhode Island House of Representatives for four terms, after which he ran for mayor of Providence. Upon his election, Cicilline became the first openly gay mayor of any state capital and inherited a complicated political mess in the aftermath of Operation Plunder Dome. Cicilline was largely successful in his role and oversaw a ‘Renaissance’ of several Providence neighborhoods, but he came under fire after a $110 million budget deficit in 2011 almost forced the city to declare bankruptcy less than three months after his departure. This caused a sharp dive in his polling numbers, but one that Cicilline ultimately survived, as he held his Congressional seat for six consecutive terms. 

In Congress, Cicilline was an advocate for policies that address economic inequality, co-sponsoring bills to raise the federal minimum wage and expand access to affordable housing. He was also an advocate for antitrust legislation and LGBTQ+ rights and co-sponsored the Equality Act. As a so-called “rising star” of the Democratic party, he served in several leadership roles at the time of his retirement. From Chair of the Democratic Policy Communications Committee to leading a subcommittee on big tech, Cicilline has also been involved in several high-profile investigations, including the impeachment of former President Donald Trump. His resignation comes on the heels of his short-lived run for assistant leader of the Democratic Party in the House of Representatives: Cicilline conceded the race to Rep. Jim Clyburn only 24 hours after announcing his candidacy. 

Cicilline himself confessed that the job offer came as a surprise to him, but he believed that it was not one that he could turn down. This itself is not a surprise; the Rhode Island Foundation is one of the largest and most important nonprofit organizations in the state and partners with many charities and businesses in almost every field—leading this foundation is an important and influential position (not to mention Rep. Cicilline’s starting salary of $650,000). Regardless of the offer, his resignation at this time is certainly surprising, as he had positioned himself to be a leader in the generational passing of the torch that is soon to come for House Democrats. In retiring, Cicilline leaves big shoes for any potential successor to fill, having stood out for his leadership, instrumental work on federal antitrust law, and the distinction of being the fourth openly gay member of the House of Representatives.

As open House seats in Rhode Island are rare, many candidates have announced their intention to take up Cicilline’s mantle in representing solidly Democratic RI-1. At time of writing, 13 different Democrats have announced their candidacy—while all of them should be considered on their own merits, there are a few with unique potential who should be given special attention. At present, the field is both crowded and diverse, ranging from former candidates for statewide office to sitting state legislators, from consultants to bus drivers, and even former Republicans. Many candidates hail from diverse backgrounds, which not only contributes to the electoral considerations of the more diverse congressional district, but would also make history in a number of ways: RI-1 has never been represented by a woman or a person of color—this field offers many ways to change that history. However, candidates will have to run on more than just their identity, as name recognition and fundraising are sure to be some of the largest factors  in this crowded field. As seen in the RI-2 race last year, name recognition of statewide officials played the largest part in differentiating candidates in an ideologically similar lane, and it is likely that this pattern will be repeated this summer. Using this name recognition as a starting framework, there are a few major candidates who deserve full consideration. 

First, to address possibly the most well-positioned candidate in the race: Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos. The current Lieutenant Governor, appointed to her position in 2021 by Governor Dan McKee, would be a strong candidate not the least due to the expected endorsement from McKee. Although she has never run in a statewide election, she is still expected to retain much of the name recognition that comes with such a position. Lt. Gov. Matos previously served as President of the Providence City Council before her appointment to the Lieutenant Governorship, which she defended in a statewide race last year. While in office, Matos has worked on statewide policy initiatives on various issues from small businesses to emergency management, though her individual policy prowess is relatively untested. Matos, the first Dominican American elected to statewide office in the United States, would be the first woman in Rhode Island’s congressional delegation since 1996 and would be the first Black woman ever elected from the state. She would bring a much-welcome voice of diversity to the Rhode Island congressional delegation and already has a head start on the race. 

Another candidate who is expected to begin with a large base of support is former candidate for Lt. Gov. Aaron Regensburg. He challenged then-Lieutenant Governor Dan McKee in an extremely close statewide primary that is sure to deliver him some recognition across the district. (Aside from the consideration that had Regensburg won just 2,000 more votes, Rhode Island might not have a governor known for his record-low approval rates). Regensburg is joined in the former statewide primary candidate camp by Stephanie Beauté, who ran a less successful primary challenge for Secretary of State this past year. While she does not quite have the same level of expectations, it is not unreasonable to expect that she could gather some much needed momentum at the beginning of the race. As the race currently stands, there are no primary polls of the field, nor have candidates begun releasing their Q2 fundraising fillings. As such, all speculation can be taken with a fair grain of salt. 

However, there are a few other candidates who I would like to briefly highlight for their potential to disrupt some of the larger names in the race. There is State Representative Marvin Abney, who would be able to draw on his experience serving as the Chair of the House Finance Committee, but would likely face questions about his age—at 74 years old, Abney is the oldest candidate in the field. Meanwhile, State Senator Sandra Cano, Chairperson of the Senate Education Committee, has potential to draw support from the significant Latin community as a Colombian immigrant to the United States, though the constituency could also be captured by Matos. Another potentially interesting candidate is Providence City Councilmember John Goncalves, who represents Ward One and Brown University in it—his consistently progressive messaging and work as a fourth-grade teacher could potentially differentiate him from other candidates, though his relative inexperience and lack of recognition could pose a challenge in the crowded primary, as it could for many other candidates. 

Clearly, the race for Rhode Island’s 1st District is very much up for grabs. While there is little doubt that the candidate who wins the Democratic primary will go on to win the seat, there is still much to be seen as to what the newly elected congressperson will do for the state. Exactly which policies the new representative will choose to focus on and how they will interpret their relationship with the state Democratic political landscape remains to be seen but is exciting nevertheless. There are almost endless possibilities.