With all due respect to Gina Raimondo, the most consequential politician in Rhode Island over the past two decades is US Representative David Cicilline – and it’s not really that close.
Nobody has dominated more news cycles than Cicilline, a fast-on-his-feet former defense attorney and ex-mayor of Providence who is as natural appearing on CNN as he is stumping in South Providence.
Buddy Cianci. Mark Zuckerberg. Jeff Bezos. Donald Trump. He’s fought with all of them, and survived to talk about it.
So why in the world would he throw in the towel now? Isn’t age 61 supposed to be the new 35 in D.C.?
Cicilline announced Tuesday that he plans to resign from Congress at the end of May to become president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation. It will be the first time he hasn’t held elected office since “The Lion King” was in theaters.
First, he has some very practical political reasons for stepping away.
The Democrats are now the minority party, and although he was an early supporter of Leader Hakeem Jeffries, the path to other leadership positions - like whip or caucus chair - is blocked. Here at home, it doesn’t appear that US Senators Jack Reed or Sheldon Whitehouse will call it quits anytime soon. He privately flirted with running for governor last year, but chose to run for reelection instead.
Now for the more important reason to leave Congress: Being the head of the Rhode Island Foundation is simply a better job.
Running the state’s largest philanthropic organization guarantees that Cicilline will be at the center of every major policy decision in Rhode Island, and gives him the resources to actually make a difference.
You want get the state takeover of Providence schools back on the right track? You want figure out once and for all how to fix the hospital system in Rhode Island? How about ending chronic homelessness? The Rhode Island Foundation can tackle those issues.
“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 said.
Translation: It’s all the best parts of being a politician without the political gridlock of Congress or the day-to-day chaos that comes with being mayor of the capital city.
Back in 2011, during Cicilline’s first term in Congress, some of his former aides in City Hall worried about their old boss. Part of that was the politics. He was facing a low point in his career because the city was staring down a financial crisis, and there was a legitimate chance that voters would blame him and he’d lose his congressional seat.
But they were also concerned that Cicilline might not like Washington, D.C. very much. He was used to being a big fish in a small pond, the mayor who lifted the cloud of corruption that hovered over City Hall when Cianci was in charge. He liked the attention, and as small is it might sound, he loved the ability he had to make a direct impact by doing things like ordering pothole and sidewalk repairs on the spot.
In Congress, every big idea had to be run up the ladder to the House Democratic leadership, and as a first-year member of Congress, any credit in Rhode Island first went to Reed, Whitehouse, and then-Representative James Langevin.
Eventually, he found his way. It started when he defied expectations by winning reelection relatively comfortably in 2012, and he picked smart spots to gain national notoriety. He led the effort to provide federal recognition to same-sex married couples, and was years ahead of his party on returning manufacturing jobs to American soil.
He also knew how to thrust himself into the news cycle, becoming one of the few Democrats willing to appear on Fox News. He later chaired the Antitrust Subcommittee that held hearings with the heads of every major tech company in the country. When insurrectionists attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, he helped draw up the article of impeachment for Trump, and then was one of the managers during the trial in the Senate.
Still, he has always missed the hands-on part of being the mayor. Now he’s going to report every day to an office in the heart of downtown, located right between the State House and City Hall.
Quite literally, David Cicilline is going to be at the center of everything happening in Rhode Island. And that’s a great job to have.
Dan McGowan can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @danmcgowan.