Cicilline taps the power of incumbency in congressional run

Providence, R.I. – David Cicilline is pursuing a time-honored Rhode Island political tradition. He's courting voters during a candidates' night at the Parkway Towers elderly high-rise in East Providence.

"If you provide me with your vote and support, and elect me to be your member of Congress," Cicilline says. "I promise to go there every single day and work on your behalf to deliver real results back to our state."

About 20 seniors sitting in a big community room listen as Cicilline calls for a national infrastructure bank to rebuild roads, bridges, and water systems. He talks up a block grant to promote manufacturing. And Cicilline tells his audience he was so close to his grandparents, they joked that he lived in a senior high-rise for the elderly.

"I think, you know, we owe a very special debt to our seniors," he says. "I absolutely will be the strongest advocate you've seen in the United States for our seniors." One audience member responds with a cry of, "Good!" Another says, "Yes!" and the seniors break into applause.

Cicilline wasn't the only candidate asking for votes. But he was the only one who struck around to serve cake and coffee. "Would you like decaf or regular?" he asks one senior.

Cicilline's campaign is more guarded with the media. When WRNI asked about the mayor's campaign schedule, it took about two weeks to get details about a specific event. That could reflect Cicilline's place as the perceived frontrunner in the four-way Democratic race to succeed Patrick Kennedy.

Sixty years have passed since a Providence mayor won the governor's office. But as former Providence Journal reporter Mark Arsenault notes, Cicilline has tapped the benefits of his incumbency at City Hall. "The mayor of Providence is automatically a statewide figure in Rhode Island," Arsenault says. "Ciciline has taken that advantage and run with it."

"Cicilline pulled a fast one, as we know," says Brown University political science professor Wendy Schiller, referring to how Cicilline refunded some, but not all, of the $750,000 he received for his mayoral election campaign. As a result, he has more campaign money that his three Democratic rivals combined.

A big part of that has paid for the broadcast of polished TV commercials.

These spots allow Cicilline to tell his own story - in contrast to the brickbats he's sometimes faced as mayor of Providence. Critics have faulted him, for example, for the handling of a December 2007 snow storm that briefly paralyzed the city. Cicilline has also faced the embarrassment of the problems of his brother, John, who served prison time in an extortion case, and who wrote the city a bad $75,000 check to pay a client's back taxes.

House Minority Leader Robert Watson served with Cicilline when he was a state rep, prior to his election as mayor. "I look at David Cicilline as a gentleman who believes that government can solve any and all problems, regardless of the cost," says Watson, a support of GOP candidate John Loughlin. "And I'm not sure if the public is actually looking at politicians in that same light - how much money can you get me, what can you do for me?"

Polls have nonetheless shown Cicilline with a solid lead over his primary opponents. If things go according to his plan, Cicilline will square off against a Republican rival in November.