Cicilline uses taxpayer dollars to chat with potential voters
Congressman David Cicilline has spent about $30,000 in taxpayer money since winning office to conduct “telephone town halls” with First Congressional District residents — a chance to sway skeptical voters as he faces a tough re-election fight.
Cicilline calls these conversations an important part of his job; critics say they’re one of the advantages exploited by incumbents to help them remain in office. Telephone town halls have become popular with members of Congress, according to various news reports.
Cicilline’s telephone town halls usually take place around 7 pm on a weekday. The Caller ID flashes “United States Government,” before the congressman says in a recording that he’s available to speak with constituents and take their questions. People who want to ask questions are placed in a queue before being selected.
“You get these incredibly honest questions,” says Cicilline, who held his most recent telephone town hall with CD1 voters last week. He calls the forums “a really effective way to listen to a big group of people,” and to communicate with constituents. Cicilline says the calls are not screened for political viewpoint and typically feature a mix of positive and critical feedback.
Cicilline says the telephone town halls are paid through his members representational allowance, an allotment given to representatives and senators to run their offices. He puts the cost of the town halls run by vendor iConstituent at about $3000, and says he’s done 10 of the chat sessions since taking office in January 2010.
Ian Prior, campaign manager for CD1 Republican candidate Brendan Doherty has some problems with the telephone town halls:
I have little doubt that members of both parties are advantageously using taxpayer funded calls to convey strictly partisan messages. If incumbents from either party want to use telephone conferences to campaign, they should use their own campaign funds to do so.
Second, while [the] $30K [spent by Cicilline] may pale in comparison to our annual deficit, national debt, or the net worth of some of our representatives, many hard working Rhode Islanders struggle to make that as an annual salary. Moreover, if every Member of the House and Senate spent that amount, it adds up to over $16 million per year.
Prior calls the mid-June election year cutoff for telephone town halls cited by Cicilline “meaningless.” “To refer to that token moratorium as something substantive is disingenuous at best,” he says. Prior says Doherty, if elected, “will absolutely not take part in the practice of using taxpayer money to conduct telephone town halls.”
Cicilline’s Democratic primary opponent, Anthony Gemma, offered this comment:
If I were representing Rhode Islanders in Congress, I’d be consumed with responding to constituents’ directly and spending time on reducing the deficit and getting jobs for Rhode Islanders. Letters and phone calls to constituents in an election year using tax payer dollars are in fact questionable. I will let the voters decide.
Although Cicilline’s poll ratings have been in the basement, the freshman Democrat is a tireless campaigner and skilled communicator. By the time he stops holding telephone town halls in June, he’ll have used the forums to communicate with thousands of CD1 voters — and perhaps win fresh support from some of them.