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Cicilline signing off after years of fighting for progressive causes

Rhode Island Democrat’s last vote will be on debt limit deal

Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., is resigning to run a foundation in his state.
Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., is resigning to run a foundation in his state. (Photo by Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Rep. David Cicilline couldn’t have known in February that there would be so much turmoil in Congress on his final day in the House of Representatives.

The seven-term Democrat from Rhode Island’s 1st District announced a little more than three months ago that he’d be leaving Congress effective June 1 to become president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation.

At that time, a breach of the debt ceiling loomed well off in the distance and negotiations were still months away. But as Cicilline’s resignation date approached, so did the drama. It took until the weekend before his departure for negotiators to strike a deal, setting up a vote on his last night in Congress.

“I am going right now to meet with my staff,” Cicilline said, exiting the House Visitor Center meeting room where Democrats huddled Wednesday morning. “My staff is divided on this… I’m likely to vote for it. I’m leaning yes. I know there’s lots of things I don’t like, but the consequences of default are just too great.”

The vote will likely be the last cast by Cicilline, capping a roughly 12-year career in Congress that saw the ambitious and amiable former mayor of Providence rise through the Democratic ranks and score a series of legislative victories.

Cicilline, 61, co-chaired the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee in the 116th Congress and ran for assistant House speaker in 2020, ultimately falling short to Rep. Katherine M. Clark of Massachusetts. He also briefly sought the Democratic assistant leader position in November, but dropped out of the race. Rep. James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, the former majority whip, won the post. 

Cicilline, who studied law at Georgetown University, also served as a manager of President Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial and is a Congressional Progressive Caucus vice chair.

One of Congress’ first openly gay politicians, Cicilline helped shepherd progressive legislation in recent years.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., whom Cicilline called a mentor and friend, described Cicilline as a “trailblazer” for LGTBQ rights and a leading voice in Congress on human rights, civil rights, marriage equality, gun safety and antitrust issues.

“His passion, his commitment to these causes made him one of the most effective legislators in the house,” DeLauro said last week from the House floor.

He used his chairmanship of the Judiciary’s Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law to push for stricter antitrust laws to rein in corporations, especially Big Tech. 

The subcommittee launched a 16-month investigation into the state of competition in the digital marketplace, which resulted in legislation that would have provided greater resources to federal antitrust agencies and increased transparency of foreign interests in acquisitions, among other restrictions. It passed the House in September 2022 but did not advance in the Senate.

“I think we’ve awakened congressional conscience to the importance of good competition policy and antitrust,” Cicilline said.

He was a lead cosponsor of the Respect for Marriage Act, which requires the federal government and all U.S. states and territories to recognize the validity of same sex and interracial marriages. It was signed by President Joe Biden in December. 

He introduced the Equality Act, which would have prohibited discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity, and sponsored a ban on assault weapons. Both passed the House but were not taken up in the Senate. Still, he listed them among the accomplishments of which he’s most proud.

“I think we made progress in all the areas I worked on,” Cicilline said. “There’s more work to be done and I know with the leadership of, [soon-to-be] Speaker Jeffries, we will get all those things done.”

Cicilline’s absence sets up a crowded primary to fill his seat. At least a dozen candidates have entered the race, but Cicilline said he won’t be throwing his support behind any of them. Rhode Island Gov. Dan McKee, a Democrat, has set a special primary election for Sept. 5. The general election will be Nov. 7.

“Particularly for someone coming from politics, it’s especially important to make it very clear from the very beginning that I understand I have left behind that role,” Cicilline said. “And so I will watch and I will vote in the election and that’ll be the extent of my participation.”

Transitioning to his role with the nonpartisan Rhode Island Foundation means closing the book on nearly five decades in politics.

As a child, Cicilline’s parents drove him to school board and town council meetings in Narragansett, where he successfully lobbied to get Italian added to his school’s curriculum and blocked the sale of public waterfront to condo developers.  

After stints working as a public defender in Washington, and as a criminal defense and civil rights attorney in Rhode Island, Cicilline served four terms in the Rhode Island state House before becoming mayor of Providence. He was elected to Congress in 2010.

“It has been the greatest honor of my life … But I leave here fully confident of the great work ahead, particularly with the new arriving class, this young dynamic group of legislators. America is in very good hands,” Cicilline said.

What will he miss most about Congress?

“My colleagues, my friends,” Cicilline said. “It was only when I announced that I was leaving that I kind of began to reflect on these deep, wonderful friendships that I’ve developed over the last 12 years. I will miss them enormously.

Jim Saksa and Daniela Altimari contributed to this report.