On the Campaign Trail

By Zachary Block '99 / September / October 2002
June 29th, 2007
The sound of trumpets and congas blared from the speakers of the silver Buick Park Avenue cruising down I-95. A singer shouted in Spanish: "The man of swing has arrived! Do you know who he is?"

In the front passenger seat, David Cicilline '83, the gay Jewish-Italian four-term Democratic state representative jockeying to succeed Mayor Vincent "Buddy" Cianci Jr., lowered the volume to speak. "I'm the only candidate with his own merengue song," he boasted before turning back to several pages of talking points for an upcoming TV interview. All the while, Cicilline, dressed in a blue suit from the Men's Wearhouse and a floral tie, sipped on an extra-large Dunkin' Donuts iced coffee, trying to wake up after a late night of dancing at a fund-raiser in a Dominican nightclub.

Cianci's June conviction on federal racketeering charges drew a wave of contenders hoping to fill the vacuum left by his impending departure from the political scene. Cicilline - nearly twenty years removed from organizing the Brown chapter of the College Democrats with the late John F. Kennedy Jr. '83 and William Mondale '85 (son of former vice president Walter Mondale) - was first out of the gate, launching his bid for mayor in February, well before Cianci's trial.

Now Cicilline, a criminal-defense attorney who speaks conversational Spanish, was working hard to win over Providence's burgeoning Latino population; the merengue song was a sign that he may have been succeeding. In an implicit recognition of Providence politics, in which ethnic and neighborhood affiliations often trump the issues, he'd earlier decided to locate his headquarters in South Providence, a neighborhood that is the polar opposite in geography, race, and class from the wealthy East Side district Cicilline represents.

But in addition to strong support from minority voters Cicilline will need backing from all quarters of the city - and all his various constituencies - if he hopes to win the September 10 Democratic primary, which will essentially decide Cianci's successor. (Primary season was a busy one for Brown-spawned politicians. Former assistant attorney general Patrick Lynch '87 was running unopposed in the Democratic primary for state attorney general, while James Bennett '79, the president of an environmental lab, and Donald Carcieri '65, the retired chief executive of Cookson America, squared off in a nasty Republican race for Rhode Island governor.)

Cicilline's early entry into the mayoral race, as well as his early call for an end to corruption and "business as usual" in Providence City Hall, earned him accolades for his willingness to challenge Cianci. But with the primary only fifty-three days away, the election was shaping into a two-man race, pitting Cicilline against real-estate developer Joseph R. Paolino, a former U.S. ambassador to Malta who'd served six scandal-free years as mayor between Cianci's two extended terms in office.

"Have you set aside some time so [investigative reporter] Jim [Taricani] and you can explain to me why you had Paolino on [the air] first?" Cicilline asked Bill Rappleye, a political reporter for the local NBC affiliate, on their way into the television station.

"I heard a Paolino sound bite," Rappleye replied, deflecting Cicilline's half-joking comment, "and it sounded like he was reading one of your press releases."

"It's the sincerest form of flattery," Cicilline said. "Stealing."

Cicilline, whose father worked as a top aide to former Providence mayor Joseph Doorley, displayed a precocious interest in politics. After his family moved to southern Rhode Island when he was eleven, Cicilline got his parents to ferry him to school committee and town council meetings. In high school he took advantage of a state law to petition his school to offer Italian. Later, Cicilline's industriousness also extended to work. During summers he worked as a janitor, parking-lot attendant, kennel aide, waiter, and busboy. To pay his way through Georgetown Law School he moonlighted as a waiter, law clerk, and nurse's assistant. "I was a hustler," he says. "I used to pick people's flowers in their yards and sell them door to door."

Cicilline says his love of politics grew from his commitment to public service - two terms that are indistinguishable in his vocabulary. It was the same sense of responsibility that drew him to a career as a lawyer. "Whatever injustice in the world," he says, "there was a courtroom that could solve it."

After a year in the Washington, D.C., public defenders' office, he returned to Providence to set up his own law practice and launch his political career. He lost a bid for the state senate in 1992, then won his first term as a state representative two years later. During his tenure in the statehouse, Cicilline earned a reputation as an unabashed liberal. He is a strong supporter of abortion rights and gun control and was a chief sponsor of a bill that would have removed "Providence Plantations" from Rhode Island's official name because the phrase offends some African Americans.

Although Cicilline positioned himself as a reform candidate in his bid for mayor, his family is not untouched by scandal. His father, Jack, who now lives in Puerto Rico with Cicilline's mother, Sabra, is an attorney well known for defending local organized-crime figures. Narcotics cases dominate Cicilline's own practice, although he also handles a significant number of pro bono civil rights cases.

"We have a system of justice predicated on certain constitutional rights, which make this country different from every country in the world," he says, defending his and his father's work. "Defense lawyers play an important role in preserving those freedoms."

While Cicilline's altruism may be genuine, his career as a criminal-defense attorney has also been lucrative. He lives in an expensive neighborhood and owns a Porsche, a Jaguar, and a Rolls Royce. And although his wealth pales in comparison to Paolino's, Cicilline expects to fund at least a third of the estimated $600,000 cost of his mayoral campaign himself. As for his personal life, he says he believes voters are more focused on candidates' ideas and records than their sexual orientation.

Nearly two weeks after his TV interview, Cicilline displayed little fatigue despite campaigning eighteen hours a day, trying to fill every waking moment meeting voters, organizing supporters, and raising money. There were too many hands left to shake for him to devote a half hour solely to an interview for this article, so he talked while greeting shoppers at a local supermarket before heading to a campaign-sponsored lunch at a low-income apartment complex.

As a half-dozen elderly residents waited to eat, Cicilline launched into an abbreviated version of his stump speech. "It matters who's in the mayor's office," he said, "because if we have the right person things can change."

His talk completed, Cicilline served his audience lunch before quickly devouring a plate of pasta and meatballs. Then it was out the door and back to the campaign trail.

Zachary Block is the BAM's staff writer.
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September / October 2002