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10 years ago, David Cicilline launched a new era in Providence politics

February 10, 2012

 [Victorious in September 2002]

Almost 10 years ago — on February 11, 2002 — David Cicilline had a very different political profile when he became the first Democrat to announce a challenge to Mayor Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci Jr., the reigning 800-pound gorilla of Providence politics.

Cicilline was a liberal four-term state rep from the East Side. He was, as we would learn, the openly gay, Jewish, Italian-American son of a defense lawyer for organized crime figures. By jumping out when Cianci had an enviable 63 percent approval rating, Cicilline won credit from voters for having the courage of his convictions.

Cicilline ran as a reformer — the anti-Cianci. And after Buddy was convicted that summer of a single count of racketeering conspiracy, Cicilline rolled over former mayor Joseph R. Paolino and state Senator David Igliozzi in the decisive September 2002 primary.

That outcome was far from certain when Cicilline announced his first mayoral campaign at the Webster Avenue School in the city’s Silver Lake section.

“I thought the time had come  when it was important to give voters an opportunity to make a different choice,” Cicilline said this week during a telephone interview from Washington. “I announced my candidacy despite the fact that lots of people told me I was crazy and I couldn’t beat the incumbent mayor.” 

Despite the seemingly long odds, Cicilline says he thought he could win the race for City Hall — and he was right.

Cicilline was initially credited with bringing a cleaner style of government to City Hall, and the late Washington Post columnist David S. Broder wrote a very favorable column, “A Reformer in Rhode Island,” that wound up on display in the entrance to the mayor’s office. Cicilline would go on to have his share of successes and failures over two terms at City Hall.

He sums up his tenure this way:

In those eight years, we brought the lowest crime rate the city in 40 years; we created this nationally recognized after-school program that’s now being replicated in 17 cities; we became the first city in America to have an accredited emergency-management agency .. we increased the diversity of the workforce . . . . more than $3 billion of new investment came to the city. And I brought people into city government with incredible integrity and leadership to run city departnents, so we got a lot done. It was a great team. I’m very proud of the work that we did.

These days, of course, Cicilline draws mixed reviews. Democratic supporters like his stances on the issues. Critics pillory Cicilline for saying Providence was in strong shape before he left office. They blame him, too, for the fiscal crisis inherited by Mayor Angel Taveras.

Asked about these views, Cicilline says,

I’ve always said I bear responsibility for every single decision I’ve made. I think the challenge we faced in the last year is the same challenge that some of these cities and towns in Rhode Island face, massive cuts from the state … coupled with a very serious recession and coupled with cuts to some federal funds as well.

Cicilline notes the compounded COLAs being fought by Taveras were put in place before he came into office. 

Cicilline’s relatively level of responsibility for Providence’s current woes figures to be a central issue in his re-election campaign this year. There may be some unintended irony in how the candidate vowed to change “politics as usual” back in the winter of 2002. Regardless, 10 years ago, David Cicilline changed the course of Providence politics and set the stage for his next move.

[Photo: Providence Phoenix]

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