PROVIDENCE — US Representative David Cicilline plans to resign from Congress later this year to become president and chief executive of the Rhode Island Foundation, his office announced.
The announcement Tuesday is sure to send shockwaves through Rhode Island’s political establishment, setting up an off-year special election for the First Congressional District seat that most political observers believed the 61-year-old Democrat could have held for the rest of his life.
Over the course of 28 years, Cicilline has held elected office as a Rhode Island state representative, mayor of Providence, and member of Congress.
During a special meeting on Tuesday morning, the foundation’s board of directors voted to hire Cicilline following a months-long national search to replace outgoing president and chief executive Neil Steinberg. The foundation is Rhode Island’s largest philanthropic organization, with an endowment of more than $1.3 billion.
“For more than a decade, the people of Rhode Island entrusted me with a sacred duty to represent them in Congress, and it is a responsibility I put my heart and soul into every day to make life better for the residents and families of our state,” Cicilline said. “The chance to lead the Rhode Island Foundation was unexpected, but it is an extraordinary opportunity to have an even more direct and meaningful impact on the lives of residents of our state. The same energy and commitment I brought to elected office I will now bring as CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation, advancing their mission to ensure all Rhode Islanders can achieve economic security, access quality, affordable healthcare, and attain the education and training that will set them on a path to prosperity.”
Cicilline is expected to remain in Congress until May 31. A special election cannot be scheduled until he officially resigns from office.
Cicilline’s departure marks the second disruption within Rhode Island’s traditionally stable four-member congressional delegation in less than a year. James Langevin announced last year that he would retire after 11 terms representing the Second Congressional District, and Democrat Seth Magaziner was sworn in as his successor in January. Democratic US Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse have been in their positions since 1997 and 2007, respectively.
Cicilline drew attention as a high school student attending Narragansett School Committee meetings before going on to Brown University, where he graduated in 1983. He earned a law degree from Georgetown University and followed in his father’s footsteps to become one of the most prominent defense attorneys in Rhode Island. He ran for the state Senate in 1992, and lost. But he won a seat in the state House of Representatives two years later. He was elected mayor of Providence in 2002.
After serving two terms in City Hall, Cicilline was elected in 2010 to replace Patrick Kennedy, keeping the First Congressional District in Democratic hands during a midterm election that saw the party take what former president Barack Obama called a “shellacking” nationally, following the passage of the Affordable Care Act.
Cicilline remained in the minority party for four terms, but his influence started to grow when Democrats took control of the House after the 2018 election. He chaired the House Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial, and Administrative Law, holding a series of high-profile hearings with tech giants like Google, Amazon, and Facebook. He served as an impeachment manager during the second impeachment trial of former president Donald Trump and was a lead sponsor for the Respect for Marriage Act, which enshrined same-sex marriage rights into federal law.
Cicilline has been a fixture on cable TV in recent years, and his offices in Washington, D.C., and Pawtucket were inundated with calls from supporters of Trump during the impeachment trial. On the first day of the trial, his staff reported 251 calls, almost all of which were critical of his role and from outside of Rhode Island. One woman said he looked “like Joe Pesci in ‘Goodfellas.’”
Last year, Cicilline penned “House on Fire,” a partial memoir that offered his view on the state of politics in America, his role as a Trump impeachment manager, and his rise up the legal and political ladder in Rhode Island. He was especially critical of the man he replaced as Providence mayor, Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci Jr., whom he described as a “kleptocrat dictator” and a “dangerous creature.”
Although his new job won’t be as high profile nationally, it does come with a significant pay increase. Cicilline will earn $650,000 a year at the foundation, according to a spokesperson for the foundation. He earned $174,000 a year in Congress.
Aside from doling out more than $70 million a year to nonprofits across Rhode Island, the foundation plays a crucial role in shaping state policy by convening key stakeholders on pressing issues like health care and education. Most recently, the foundation commissioned a study about ways to jumpstart Rhode Island’s life sciences and biotech sectors, prompting Governor Daniel J. McKee to propose $45 million in new investments for those industries.
Steinberg, a former banker, announced last year that he would retire after nearly 15 years leading the foundation.
“I am thrilled with the choice of Representative Cicilline as the next president and CEO of the foundation, having seen first-hand — over many years — his commitment to a better Rhode Island,” Steinberg said. “He has the experience, the skills, the passion, and the network to ably lead the foundation. I’m confident that he will very successfully engage with our donors, nonprofit grantees, and community stakeholders. I applaud, and thank, our board of directors for making this excellent selection and know that he will build on our success and take the foundation to the next level, on behalf of all Rhode Islanders.”