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The parade to run against Rep. Cicilline is forming

September 30, 2011

As the parade forms for Rhode Island’s 2012 election cycle, all eyes are on the First District Congressional seat held by Democrat David Cicilline. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay takes a look at how this election is shaping up.

A year is a lifetime in politics these days, but there is little doubt that Cicilline’s reelection has drawn the most interest so far. A flock of credible candidates are lining up to challenge the freshman Democrat and he is out meeting and greeting as if the vote was taking place next month rather than next year.

Two Republicans are busy readying campaigns to challenge Cicilline – former state Representative John Loughlin, and former state police superintendent Brendan Doherty. And two Democrats are mulling a primary challenge to Cicilline – businessman Anthony Gemma and banker Merrill Sherman.

Cicilline has had a rocky start. The former Providence mayor has been sharply criticized for being a poor manager of the city in his final years as mayor. Barely two months after he left office, the new mayor, Angel Taveras and the Providence City Council, had to clean up a huge deficit leftover from Cicilline’s tenure as mayor.

Cicilline has drawn criticism for assuring voters that city finances were in good shape as he was campaigning for Congress. But it looked  to many like Cicilline was too eager to put Providence in his rear view mirror as he pleaded for votes to send him in to Washington.

Cicilline has had problems keeping staff: his first choices for Rhode Island district director and press secretary are already history. But his biggest challenge is being a freshman Democrat in a Republican-controlled House. There is no one in Congress with less clout than a minority party House member. He serves in stark relief to them man he replaced, Congressman Patrick Kennedy, who had a spot on the powerful Appropriations  Committee as well as arguably the most revered surname in the nation’s Democratic Party.

While Republicans salivate over the chance to defeat Cicilline, no one should write his obituary.  Rhode Island’s 1st district is one of the most Democratic-leaning in the country. It regularly sends Democrats to Congress and gives its votes to Democratic presidential candidates. The non-partisan Cook Political Reports rates the district as one that votes roughly 13 percentage points above the national average for Democrats.

The District runs from the wealthy neighborhoods near Brown University in Providence,  through Bristol County and south along the east spine of Narragansett Bay to the Gilded Age mansions of Newport. And the district includes the struggling old factory cities of Central Falls, Woonsocket and Pawtucket. It has large French-Canadian, Italian-American and Portuguese-American communities and big blocs of elderly and Roman Catholic voters.

There will be some minor changes in the district due to the reapportionment required by the 2010 U.S. Census. The First Congressional District must pick up about 7,200 in population from  the 2nd Congressional District, represented by Democrat Jim Langevin.

The usual solution to these population shifts is where to draw the district boundaries in Providence. The current borders give Cicilline the East Side and slices of Elmhurst, Mount Pleasant and the North End. Langevin’s Providence constituency is anchored by the South side. While sources say there have been no deals cut yet, don’t be surprised if Cicilline looks to shift some of the Elmhurst and North End population, a bastion of  elderly white Roman Catholics who vote at the Schneider Arena polling place at Providence College, to Langevin. In return, Langevin would have to give up some of the heavily minority population in the capital city’s southern neighborhoods.

Cicilline’s most serious challenge would come in a primary, probably from Sherman, the president of Bank RI and both the only women and the only candidate with serious financial experience.

Doherty has done an impressive job raising money and getting around the district. Yet, he is a first time candidate and one never knows how well he will play on the campaign circuit. So far, Doherty’s biggest roadblock appears to be a Republican primary. These are generally low-turnout affairs (the last seriously contested one in 2002 drew just 12,000 voters) and Doherty must attract some independents to defeat the more conservative Loughlin.

Doherty may be the better general election GOP candidate; he is raising much more money than Loughlin who is serving in the U.S. Army in Iraq and won’t be home until December. And Loughlin lost to Cicilline last time out in a big Republican year. The Loughlin campaign was slow to get moving and in the end didn’t have enough money. That said,  Loughlin proved to be a good candidate on television debates and in media appearances and he worked very hard.

Despite all the bad publicity about his tenure as mayor, Cicilline has strengths in a general election. Presidential elections historically bring out more Democrats. Those voters may have some misgivings about Cicilline, but in the end they would probably support him rather than give the Tea Party crowd in Washington another congressional Republican .

Cicilline is also a formidable debater, quick on his feet, and will likely make the race as much about national issues as he can.  He can probably bet that votetrs in this district aren’t at all happy with the direction Congress has taken since the Republicans assumed control of the House. It is likely he will be well-financed.

There are no statewide elections next year, although Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse is running for reelection. So far, Whitehouse has drawn just one GOP challenger, little-known Barry Hinckley of Newport. So the 1st District House election will be Rhode Island’s high-profile contest next year. At this point, all we can invoke is the biblical axiom: The race is not always to the swift or strong. Time and chance make this election unpredictable.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:35 and 8:35. You can also follow his political analysis and reporting at our `On Politics’ blog at

4 Comments leave one →
  1. September 30, 2011 9:25 pm

    Timely, good analysis Scott.

    Let the games begin !

    Merrill Sherman has obvious two strengths ; she is a woman at a time when voters may trust women more at a time when the present Congress is held in such low esteem, and compared to Cicilline’s record she is a financial wizard,

    Reapportionment may give liberal Cicilline more voters on the southside, especially Latinos, who supported him in the past. And he will have mucho dinero but I hear so will Sherman.

    A very……….interesting Democratic primary might shape up next year.

    Doherety can only win if he runs as a Reagan type (RINO)..;….he’ll probably start a “Democrats for Doherty” (DfD). Democrats like Joanne Giannini have already supported him in public at the Da Vinci Center annual dinner where she was honored and chose him as moderator for the speaking platform.

  2. Mike permalink
    October 1, 2011 5:08 am

    “rather than give the tea party crowd another Republican.” Are you kidding me?
    RI, wake up… there is going to be another Republican onslaught in the House and they will take the Senate. If Romney is the nominee, he will draw votes, even in RI where REAGAN WON. There are NO JOBS IN RI… and no federal money left. David can no longer suck on the teat of the federal government and parade around like he matters… he’s toxic in D.C. I heard from a friend that the Dems will not be photographed with him… they run the other direction. By the way, he’s been very busy at his Lady Gaga Fundraiser. Let’s tell the truth: Gemma will primary David. He may win but the progressives will continue to vote for David… even if he lies, cheats and steals, he is one of them. So what if Providence is a third-world country and RI is a national joke? Doherty can win the general; some people actually do believe in truth, justice and the American way. Loughlin is actually doing something meaningful serving his country in Iraq so don’t count him out. Col, I suggest you get busy and actually make acquaintance with some of the grassroots Republicans… I don’t know if Dante can turn the tide for you in a primary… no matter how much dough you have.


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