February 18, 2010 | by Chris Johnson
Providence mayor makes bid for Congress

The mayor of Providence, R.I., last weekend announced he is running for Congress, making him one of several openly gay candidates slated to be on ballots this fall.

David Cicilline, who’s served as mayor since 2003 and was the first openly gay mayor of a state capital, formally declared Feb. 13 that he wouldn’t pursue another term as mayor and would instead seek the congressional seat that will be vacated at the end of the year when pro-LGBT lawmaker Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) retires.

In an interview with DC Agenda, Cicilline said he wanted to pursue a run to represent Rhode Island’s 1st congressional district because of the economic hardships his state is facing and Washington’s slow response in addressing the issue.

“Over the past 18 months, it has become very clear to me that Washington has really lost sight of what is happening to the hard-working middle-class in cities and towns across this country,” he said.

Rhode Island has been hit particularly hard by the recession. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for the state in December 2009 was 12.9 percent, putting it just behind Michigan and Nevada among states with the highest unemployment.

“People are sick of reading about hundreds of billions of dollars being spent on bank bailouts and hundreds of billions of dollars being spent on bailing out the Big Three car companies, and they do not feel like Washington is doing anything to improve their lives,” he said.

Cicilline said he’s heard “every single day” about families in his home state who are concerned about whether they can “keep the job that they have, whether they can be able to find work, or whether they can afford their rent.”

“I think what we need in Washington, what I really bring to this work, is [a] very practical problem solving approach,” he said. “That’s what mayors do. We sit around, we sit down and try to bring people together who have divergent views and deal with the hard issues and fashion solutions to come up with answers to address problems every day.”

But Cicilline isn’t the only Democratic candidate seeking to represent his district in Congress. William Lynch, who recently stepped down as Rhode Island’s state Democratic Party chair after 12 years, also announced on Saturday his candidacy for the seat.

In a Sept. 14 primary, voters in Rhode Island’s first congressional district will decide who will be the Democratic nominee for the general election. The winner of the primary will most likely take on John Loughlin, the Republican candidate whom the GOP seems poised to nominate.

Loughlin is an Army veteran and Rhode Island State House member who has had notable success raising money. According to the Federal Election Commission web site, Loughlin has raised more than $246,000 for his campaign.

As a gay man, Cicilline said he’s “very, very committed” to supporting legislation and issues that would “affect my community and provide for equality at every level of state, local and federal government.”

“I think when you get elected to any office, you bring to that office your — who you are,” he said. “All of your life experiences and who you are as a person contribute to the way you look at issues, the issues that you care about.”

Cicilline said he would vote in favor of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and the Uniting American Families Act, as well as back repeals of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the Defense of Marriage Act.

While saying he would as a member of Congress step up to support the LGBT community, Cicilline said he didn’t think his sexual orientation would provide any additional challenge for him in his campaign. He noted that his sexual orientation wasn’t an issue in his runs for mayor.

The Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund hasn’t yet determined whether to endorse Cicilline in his run for Congress, although the organization had endorsed him in previous mayoral bids and his campaign this year for a third term as mayor.

Denis Dison, a Victory Fund spokesperson, said the process by which the organization determines its endorsements is the same for candidates in all races, but that evaluating whether or not to endorse Cicilline will be “a little bit of an easier load” because the organization is already familiar with him.

“We have endorsed this candidate multiple times; it’s not like we have to get to know him,” Dison said. “It’s a matter of doing the work on the ground and talking to local politicos and party leaders and things like that — just to make sure that we have crossed our T’s and dotted our I’s before we endorse.”

Dison declined to comment on whether the Victory Fund and the Cicilline campaign have held any conversations about an endorsement.

Cicilline said he’s looking for both the Victory Fund and the Human Rights Campaign to endorse him in his bid for Congress.

“They’ve endorsed me for both of my previous races — the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund — so I don’t want to be presumptuous, but I hope to be endorsed by both organizations in this campaign,” he said.

Cicilline’s candidacy means he’s joining other gay candidates who are pursuing a run for Congress. Steve Pougnet, who’s gay and mayor of Palm Springs, is seeking to oust incumbent Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.) to represent California’s 45th congressional district.

Should Pougnet succeed, he would be the first openly gay person who’s legally married with children to serve in Congress.

The Victory Fund has endorsed Pougnet, making him the only non-incumbent, openly LGBT person the organization has endorsed in a run for Congress.

Dison said the Democratic Party is looking at this seat as a possible pickup, but it’s too early to determine whether Pougnet will be in a good position to beat Bono Mack in November.

“Nobody’s really in the thick of it yet, and that’ll become clear later on, but he’s been a fantastic fundraiser so far for a non-incumbent, so there’s definitely hope there.”

According to the Federal Election Commission, Pougnet has raised more than $563,000 for his campaign and Bono Mack has raised more than $992,000. While Pougnet is behind in fundraising, challengers typically raise less than incumbents.

Andy Stone, spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said Pougnet is doing what’s needed to mount a serious challenge to Bono Mack this fall.

“Mayor Pougnet is aggressively raising the necessary funds and it’s clear that Congresswoman Bono Mack is already feeling the heat from this formidable challenger,” he said.

Pougnet has been heralded as a supporter for LGBT causes and as a strong fundraiser for the campaign against Proposition 8 in California. When same-sex marriage was available in the Golden State in 2008, Pougnet married 118 couples in his capacity as mayor of Palm Springs, more than any other mayor in the state.

Still, some perceive Pougnet as running against a pro-gay Republican. Bono Mack voted twice against the Federal Marriage Amendment and has supported hate crimes legislation as well as ENDA.

Another openly gay candidate seeking a seat in Congress is Ed Potosnak, a former staffer for Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) and public school teacher who’s running to represent New Jersey’s 7th congressional district.

Potosnak, currently the only Democratic candidate running for the nomination in that district, said he’s pursuing a seat in Congress because of the economic hardship that many people in New Jersey face.

“For me, what really prompted me to run for Congress is the fact that I’m not a career politician,” he said. “I’m someone who has really lived through struggles of the middle class, and I think that real world experience positions me well to address the problems that our families are facing.”

If elected, Potosnak said he’d support ENDA and UAFA, as well as repeals of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and DOMA.

Still, Potosnak is running in a district that Republicans have won consistently since 1980. And the one-term GOP incumbent he’s challenging, Rep. Leonard Lance (R-N.J.) voted in favor of hate crimes legislation last year and is a co-sponsor of ENDA.

But Potosnak said the LGBT community shouldn’t support Lance because the lawmaker has been unhelpful in the struggle to win relationship recognition in New Jersey.

“As a state legislator, before he came to Congress, he didn’t support civil unions and he also is undecided on whether it should be repealed in the state,” he said. “He’s also undecided on whether there should be a constitutional ban or a definition of marriage between in a man and a woman.”

The Lance campaign couldn’t immediately be reached for comment on the lawmaker’s position on relationship recognition.

Steven Goldstein, chair of Garden State Equality, said his organization wishes Potosnak good luck “in a very challenging district.”

“Garden State Equality has made endorsements in federal races,” Goldstein said. “We target districts, based on not just issues, but also electability.”

Since Potosnak has only recently declared his candidacy, his fundraising numbers aren’t yet available on the Federal Election Commission web site. Lance has already raised nearly $584,000 for his campaign.

The incumbent gay lawmakers in Congress — Reps. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and Jared Polis (D-Colo.) — are expected to seek re-election. Dison said he didn’t know whether the three House members would have any difficulty in retaining their seats.

“I just have not studied the races and seen what the position is,” he said. “We’re preparing for that eventuality, of course.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

2 Comments
  • Even if the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund doesn’t endorse Cicilline, I hope people in RI will send HIM any money they would have normally sent to the Democratic (or Republican) Party. Sounds like a good guy!

  • It seems clear to me that the LGBT Community should take the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force’s approach and only contribute and volunteer (1)for gay and lesbian candidates and (2) for straight LGBT supportive candidates who actively work for gay rights with a proven record of introducing and supporting LGBT bills. We shouldn’t bother to give the DNC any money because they frequently give it to anti-gay Dems (Usually Blue Dogs) who not only don’t support us, they often actively work against us. And of course the Republicans are not an option, as they are always against us.
    By the sound of it, we will have at least six openly gay candidates for Congress this year that we can support, and in a few months we will know which of the straight Democratic office holders are worthy of our support and which ones need to be cut off.

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