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Sexual Orientation an Open Issue for Cicilline

Rhode Island Candidate Says Gay Status Isn't Discussed

Even among the minefields of Rhode Island politics, David Cicilline has no fear that his sexual orientation will hurt him.

He is a survivor of six campaigns in the last 16 years, a prodigious fundraiser, an accomplished mayor of Providence and the early frontrunner in the crowded contest to replace retiring political scion Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D).

Cicilline, 49 and single, is also openly gay.

“I think it is completely irrelevant to voters. I think it’s completely irrelevant to this campaign. I don’t think voters care about sexual orientation of candidates, at least in Rhode Island,” Cicilline said in an interview with Roll Call this week.

In contrast to Scott Galvin, a Congressional candidate whose campaign signs were recently marked with anti-gay slurs in southern Florida, there has been no evidence of overt homophobia in the Rhode Island contest. But political observers from both parties think Cicilline’s sexual orientation will become an issue, if it hasn’t already.

While among the most heavily Democratic states in the nation, Rhode Island is also the most Catholic and relatively moderate on many social issues. It’s one of the only New England states that has yet to allow same-sex marriage.

Sexual orientation “is definitely an issue — good and bad. He is raising a boatload of money nationally around the issue. He’s got folks coming in to work the ground,” said one veteran Rhode Island Democratic strategist. “But if you go into any VFW or American Legion hall, it’s a negative. When people know it, yes, there is a bias, particularly around seniors.”

Cicilline’s candidacy has drawn the attention of at least two national interest groups, the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund and the Human Rights Campaign. Both have helped bundle campaign contributions for the mayor in recent weeks and are considering funneling more resources into the district before the primary on Sept. 14.

The HRC helped coordinate a July fundraiser for Cicilline in Philadelphia, while the Victory Fund recently helped arrange donor meetings in California.

“It’s exciting to see an openly gay candidate as the frontrunner,” HRC Political Action Committee Director Mike Mings said, noting that his organization would likely send “at least one staffer” to Rhode Island in the coming weeks to help coordinate field operations. “It’s uncommon to have someone in such a good position.”

Victory Fund President Chuck Wolfe, who has already visited Cicilline in Rhode Island multiple times this cycle, acknowledged that gay candidates regularly face bias across the country.

“It’s definitely going on, but it’s obviously less in New England,” he said. “But there is the church question: How strong is the Catholic church and how strong will any church influence be?”

The organizations have endorsed Cicilline and two other openly gay Congressional candidates this cycle. But Cicilline has the best chance of becoming the fourth openly gay Member in the next Congress, following Democratic Reps. Tammy Baldwin (Wis.), Jared Polis (Colo.) and Barney Frank (Mass.).

Galvin, who is struggling to stay competitive in Florida’s 17th district, finished the last quarter with just $15,000 in the bank and faces several better-funded primary candidates.

But in California’s 45th district, Steve Pougnet, the openly gay mayor of Palm Springs, has been selected to participate in the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s “Red to Blue” program. In his bid to unseat Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R), he finished the last quarter with more than $878,000 on hand compared with Bono Mack’s $1.2 million.

Back in Rhode Island, Cicilline is the best-funded of four Democrats running for Kennedy’s seat; he finished the last quarter with more than $900,000 in the bank and is widely considered the frontrunner to face Republican state Rep. John Loughlin in November.

Loughlin’s campaign declined to comment when asked to discuss Cicilline’s sexual orientation for this story. The issue has largely become something that is known but not often talked about publicly by the other candidates.

While Cicilline doesn’t hide his sexual orientation, it’s not something he usually confronts on the campaign trail. He said he’s running as a well-qualified mayor “who just happens to be gay.”

“It’s been reported pretty widely for eight years. It’s hard to imagine they don’t know,” Cicilline said of voters. “I think most voters do know, and they’ve concluded that it’s irrelevant. I think they care about what you’re going to do to bring new jobs to the state.”

But insiders think Cicilline could have problems in the state’s northern region, known as the Blackstone Valley, where the district’s population is largely centered in working-class neighborhoods.

“Come November, that race will be won and lost in the Blackstone Valley,” the veteran strategist said. “That’s where the people are. That’s where the votes are.”

Cicilline’s sexuality, however, may not be his greatest challenge.

The strategist noted that no Providence mayor has been elected to higher office in more than a half-century.

Cicilline has also been plagued by questions about his brother, a former attorney recently released from prison after serving time for extorting money from drug dealers. There was also a high-profile dispute with the city’s public-sector unions, not to mention the corruption scandal recently unearthed in the Providence Police Department.

And while Cicilline doesn’t believe his sexual orientation is a political liability, he said it is important to have a more representative government.

“To the extent that qualified good candidates who happen to be gay or lesbian are elected to positions of responsibility in government, and do a good job, I think that is good not only for them and the LGBT community, but good for society because good, qualified people are in office,” he said. “And I think anytime that happens, it is one more step toward equality.”

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