Talking Politics

Donnis: With Cicilline stepping down, many show interest in stepping up

By Ian Donnis
Posted 2/28/23

STORY OF THE WEEK: U.S. Rep. David Cicilline’s decision to step down to take the top job at the Rhode Island Foundation emerged as a surprise, although, with a bit of reflection, it also makes …

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Talking Politics

Donnis: With Cicilline stepping down, many show interest in stepping up


STORY OF THE WEEK: U.S. Rep. David Cicilline’s decision to step down to take the top job at the Rhode Island Foundation emerged as a surprise, although, with a bit of reflection, it also makes perfect sense. Democrats have been in the minority in the House for much of Cicilline’s 12-year tenure, as they are now. Making progress on signature issues – taking the fight to big tech companies, for example – is a steep uphill battle. It was probably frustrating to see U.S. Rep. Katherine Clark of Massachusetts, now the third-ranking House Democrat, move higher, more quickly, than Cicilline.

Then there’s how bidding farewell to the hyper-partisanship of Congress comes with a hefty pay increase at the RI Foundation, where Cicilline will initially earn $650,000, more than three times his congressional salary. During an interview at his Pawtucket office after the news broke, Cicilline said his decision was motivated by one thing – a belief that he can do more as president/CEO of the RI Foundation than by remaining in Congress.

“This is not a job that I applied for, looked for,” he said. “I was contacted by this search firm, and asked whether I would consider this. My initial response was no, but – asked if I would meet with them – then it became clear to me that in this role, I could have an even greater impact than the work that I could get done in the House in the next few years.”

As a two-term former mayor of Providence, Cicilline is quite familiar with some of Rhode Island’s most intractable problems, including under-performing schools and the city’s under-funded pension.

At the foundation, Cicilline will be at the epicenter of civic life in Rhode Island, wielding the prominence of a high-profile elected official without some of the headaches (including sparring with the City Council or members of Congress) that come with public office.

THE FIELD: A large number of current and former Rhode Island election officials are dipping a toe in the water, considering a possible run for the CD1 seat being vacated by Cicilline. This kind of opportunity is rare, even if the turnover in both of Rhode Island’s congressional districts within the last year suggests otherwise.

Under options presented by Secretary of State Gregg Amore, the primary/special election is likely to be either Aug. 8./Oct. 3 or Sept. 5/Nov. 7. While the ultimate shape of the field will take time to emerge, here are a few observations: The opening of a congressional seat could be a boon for Helena Buonanno Foulkes, who nearly edged Gov. Dan McKee in a Democratic primary last September. Suffice it to say, CD1 offers a far bigger potential platform for Foulkes than serving on the Johnston School Building Committee.

At the same time, the non-election year timing of the special election makes this a risk-free proposition for incumbents since, if they lose, they will retain their current posts. The question for House Speaker Joe Shekarchi, who is contemplating a run, and who lives in Warwick, outside CD1, is whether he’d rather be one of 435 members of Congress or remain in his singularly powerful office.

Other incumbents to watch include Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos (she’s considering a run) and Attorney General Peter Neronha (no comment). As the son of immigrants from Ghana and Liberia, Pawtucket native Gabe Amo, who works in the Biden White House, has a distinctive profile. And the size of the field will be more important since a mayoral candidate (possibly Pawtucket’s Don Grebien, EP’s Bob DaSilva, or Woonsocket’s Lisa Baldelli-Hunt), could forge a coalition of municipal support.

On the GOP side, former LG candidate Aaron Guckian and Dana Traversie, who ran against Shekarchi last year, say they are looking at a possible run.


THE HOUSING CRISIS, PART I: Stefan Pryor started on the job earlier this month as Rhode Island’s housing secretary. During an interview on Political Roundtable, Pryor said he has three top goals: 1) sparking more housing production, particularly affordable housing; 2) aiding the unhoused, ultimately through more housing; and 3) better organizing the government agencies that work on housing. Pryor had no details for now on what the latter might look like, and he said the state has yet to award an RFP for a consultant to come up with a plan to confront the housing crisis (although the evaluation process for the responses has started). Pryor said he’s met with dozens of stakeholders and is prioritizing population growth for the state as part of his portfolio.


THE HOUSING CRISIS, PART II: House Speaker Joe Shekarchi plans to unveil a package of housing-related bills on Thursday, March 2. Pryor said he has not yet seen the elements, but expressed hope that they “may help to really make more regularized and more professionalized the process of approving housing at the local level that would be welcomed.”

On the matter of how some towns oppose state mandates on housing, he said in part,” I think the department of housing needs to engage very closely with town leaders, understand their concerns and their priorities and help to realize their goals. And I also think that it's extremely important that a package like Speaker Shekarchi's does advance to give even more regularization and professionalization to the process at the local level.”


FOLLIES VERSION: In days of yore, when dinosaurs walked the Earth, Rhode Islanders gathered en masse on the last Friday in February at the Venus de Milo in Swansea, Massachusetts, for the Providence Newspaper Guild Follies. We dined on alcohol, chit-chat, a cholesterol-laden buffet, and a satiric send-up, complete with song of the year in Rhode Island news. Sadly, the event is no more, although it lives on in memory.

With that in mind, here is the Follies’ version of this week’s big story: U.S. Rep. George Bailey Cicilline of Rhode Island is downcast about a few things – intransigent Republicans, the challenge of moving legislation, being blocked in climbing higher in the Democratic hierarchy. He stops at Clementine Cocktail Bar, but finds a surly cast of characters. Dejected, GBC plunges into the Woonasquatucket River on a snowy February night. Clarence the Angel/the RI Foundation search committee comes to the rescue, trumpeting word of GBC’s new job, leading him to proclaim, ‘It’s a Wonderful Life!’ ”


GINAWORLD: U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, our former governor, continues to have a lead role on one of the Biden administration’s most ambitious technological undertakings, the plan to create by 2030 two American clusters for manufacturing semiconductors. “Throughout our history, there have been moments — like the one we are in today — of tremendous global competition where we, as a nation, have come together to drive technological progress on an unprecedented scale and ensure America’s global leadership,” she said in a speech this week.


RIPTA: You would think that it might be easier to create a robust public-transit system in a small state like Rhode Island. For now, though, attention is focused on the competing arguments from Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, who wants to fold RIPTA into RI DOT (he also wants RIPTA CEO Scott Avedisian to step down, something that Avedisian says he will not do), and transit advocates who want more investment.

Sen. Meghan Kallman (D-Pawtucket) has introduced bills to make RIPTA free and to impose a levy on ride-sharing companies to fund the state’s transit master plan. “Now is the time to go big,” Kallman said in a statement. “With bold vision, strong leadership and support from the legislature, we can build a world-class public transportation system to bring jobs and quality of life to our state.”

Meanwhile, in a 2020 letter to then-Gov. Gina Raimondo, Grow Smart RI recommended against combining RIPTA with RIDOT. Excerpt: “Despite claims to the contrary by some, we believe that RIPTA has the requisite transit expertise, transparency and proven data-driven management capabilities to lead the implementation of the Transit Master Plan. Although tremendously under-resourced, we believe that RIPTA provides the most effective transit service achievable within its very modest means.”


TRANSPARENCY: The first major revision in years to the state’s open records law, the Access to Public Records Act (APRA), was unveiled this week by Sen. Lou DiPalma (D-Middletown), chair of the Senate Finance Committee, and state Rep. Joe Solomon (D-Warwick), chairman of the House Corporation Committee. The most notable elements of the proposal would allow for the release of 911 calls “under certain circumstances,” and make public the email of elected officials “to the extent they are connected to the official’s formal duties.” Whether this legislation moves forward – and in what form – remains unclear for now. Yet as DiPalma noted in a statement, APRA is an important and powerful tool for transparency and accountability.

“For instance, technology, such as body cameras on law enforcement, has changed a lot,” he said, “and the law must change in order to preserve transparency for the public. In particular, police accountability for wrongdoing has really come to the forefront of our public debate, and this legislation would further strengthen the APRA laws in favor of transparency and accountability when relating to unlawful acts and conduct.”


TAKES OF THE WEEK: A mix of views from various Rhode Islanders.


Former state Rep. LIANA CASSAR of Barrington: “The General Assembly's February break is coming to a close and Tuesday, Feb. 28, is the deadline for bills to be introduced in the RI House of Representatives. As of that date, one-third of the six-month legislative session is behind us, and the current tally of bills introduced in the House stands at about 735. This represents the work that will need to get done over the next four months and a few of those bills, like the budget, are a heavy lift.

“To date, only six bills introduced have come to the House floor for a vote, one of which was the bill outlining House Rules for the 2023-2024 term, four of which pertained to special legislative commissions, and one of which was a solemnization of the marriage act.

“Bill introductions take time, certainly, but our part-time legislature has now spent a third of its allocated time in session getting bills drafted, not heard and passed. While everyone would agree that not all 735+ bills merit the same attention, weekly hearings for the next 18 weeks can't possibly be enough time to adequately vet the legislation introduced and heard through a transparent process. This reality is a reminder that we need to rethink the structure of the General Assembly and start a real discussion about how R.I. transitions to a full-time legislature with robust policy support.

“Part of the reason why so many high-quality and vital pieces of legislation are stuck by session’s end in the 'held for further study' purgatory, and revisited year after year, is the lack of bandwidth for a part-time legislature with limited support. I know our General Assembly will work hard and do its best to have an efficient four months, but now is a good time to start imagining how much more could get done on behalf of the state when we have a full-time legislature and truly tap into the expertise in the chamber.”


Strategist and lobbyist TONY SIMON: “While Congressman Cicilline will be sorely missed, it was refreshing to see so many qualified, diverse Democratic candidates expressing interest in the CD1 seat this week. It’s a reminder of how vibrant our Democratic party in Rhode Island is across multiple generations. If you anticipate a turnout during a special election primary of anywhere between 30,000-35,000 voters, and assuming there’s a large field of candidates, it may only take 10,000-15,000 votes to win. With those types of numbers, it’s really anybody’s game, and while the ability to raise money and put together an aggressive campaign on the airwaves always matters, field and organization could truly be the decider in this election.

“The multiple senators, representatives, mayors, council members, community members and previous statewide candidates who have expressed interest all could arguably have a base of support to tap into that could move them quickly toward a win. The big question will be whose ground game can best mobilize and turn their people out in those numbers.”


State Sen. ALANA DIMARIO (D-Narragansett), a licensed mental health counselor and co-chair of the Permanent Joint Legislative Committee on Child Care: “Our history of undervaluing work traditionally done by women has led to the current critical workforce shortages in child care and early childhood education, mental health and social work, and nursing and other allied health fields. Professionals in these fields have not only been tragically underpaid, but the onerous requirements for entry and the increasing demands of their work have made these jobs unappealing and unsustainable for many.

“Every day, Rhode Islanders feel the effects of this as they struggle to find high quality child care, so they can work, try to access mental health care for themselves or their children, and through their own experiences when they receive care in a hospital or nursing home. The path toward developing our workforce in these key areas includes increasing wages, creating innovative and accessible educational and professional pathways, and removing unnecessary barriers both to entry and to remaining in their fields. Those are things we can and must address with legislative and budgetary actions, but there is also a necessary component to fixing this crisis that is up to all of us: recognizing and respecting the crucial role that these professionals play in creating a healthy, functioning society and a thriving economy for all.”

RICH LUCHETTE of Precision Strategies in DC and a former Cicilline comms director: “I first met David Cicilline 13 years ago. Back then, I was a rookie communications strategist, coming off a loss in the Illinois governor's race, just looking to find my next paycheck. I had just flown from Chicago to Rhode Island – a state I had only ever visited for a few hours, years before – for a job interview that took place in the backyard of David’s home on Elmgrove Avenue. I left thinking I wouldn't get the job.

“I certainly could not have imagined that I was about to spend most of the next decade working for, and learning from, the man who sat across from me. I am extraordinarily grateful that I did get that opportunity. From cleaning up a corrupt City Hall to leading the impeachment of Donald Trump for inciting an insurrection on the U.S. Capitol, David Cicilline has embodied the type of public service that we should expect from our elected officials. His voice will be deeply missed in the halls of Congress.”


KICKER: During a recent interview with Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena Jr., “In the Arena” host Joseph R. Paolino Jr. talked about how virtually every GOP general office candidate scored a victory in Johnston last November. Johnston is well known as a town populated by conservative Democrats, and as a municipality that favored Donald Trump in 2016. And Paolino was right. Here are the winning percentages for various races: Fung – 57.9%; Kalus – 51.5%; Guckian – 55.4%; Cortellessa – 52.3%; Lathrop 54.9%. AG Peter Neronha, a Democrat, edged GOP challenger Chas Calenda by slightly more than 2 points. Perhaps the R.I. GOP needs to tap into whatever is happening in Johnston.


Ian Donnis can be reached at

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A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.