September 9, 2010 at 5:53 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
A fourth openly gay member of Congress?

David Cicilline, the gay mayor of Providence, R.I., is seeking a U.S. House seat in this year’s election. (Photo courtesy of Cicilline Committee)

A gay Rhode Island politician running for Congress faces a major hurdle next week in his bid to represent the Ocean State in the U.S. House.

David Cicilline, the mayor of Providence, R.I., is facing a primary on Tuesday that will determine who will carry the Democratic banner in the general election to represent Rhode Island’s 1st congressional district and potentially succeed retiring Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) in Congress.

Should Cicilline win the primary and later the general election, he would become the fourth sitting openly gay member of Congress.

In a statement provided to the Blade, Cicilline said he’s “working hard every single day” to reach out to voters in the district he wants to represent.

“We are running a strong grassroots campaign with many volunteers knocking on doors, making phone calls and reaching out to voters more and more each day,” he said. “We are going to continue doing this from now until the election on Sept. 14.”

Cicilline is enjoying considerable support from the LGBT community in his bid for a U.S. House seat not only because he’s gay but also because he’s been supportive of the LGBT community in the past.

Kathy Kushnir, executive director of Marriage Equality Rhode Island, said Cicilline has been a steadfast supporter of same-sex marriage and other LGBT causes in his position as mayor and earlier as a state lawmaker.

“As mayor of the city of the Providence, he has always supported equal rights and he’s supported marriage equality and done everything that he can to make sure that all couples, all families are treated equally in the city of Providence,” she said. “We would love to see him do his good work wherever he goes.”

Among the national LGBT groups that have endorsed Cicilline are the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund and Human Rights Campaign.

Robin Brand, deputy executive director of the Victory Fund, said Cicilline is “doing very well” as he approaches his primary.

“He’s working very hard; he’s raised a very competitive amount of money,” she said. “We are feeling that he’s in a very strong position going into Sept. 14.”

Cicilline’s main opponent in the primary is William Lynch, former head of the Rhode Island State Democratic Party. Other candidates in the running are Anthony Gemma, a businessman, and David Segal, a Rhode Island State House member.

Brand said primary results are sometimes hard to predict because turnout is often unpredictable, so Cicilline’s chances next week will depend on the ground game of getting out supporters.

“You’re also trying to message to a relatively small number of voters,” she said. “A lot of times, primary campaigns are really driven by endorsements and by personal connections to the community.”

But Cicilline has a number of factors in his favor as he enters the Democratic primary. A poll published last month by Brown University found the Providence mayor leading in the pack of Democratic candidates.

According to the poll, 32 percent said they would vote for Cicilline while 15 percent would support Lynch, 11 percent would support Gemma and 5 percent would support Segal.

Still, a number of votes could be up for grabs. In the poll, 35 percent of respondents identified as undecided.

Cicilline has also been a powerhouse fundraiser whose war chest dwarfs other Democratic opponents in the race.

According to the most recent Federal Election Commission reports, Cicilline has raised $1.16 million for his campaign and has more than $900,000 in cash on hand.

Comparatively, Lynch has raised $286,000, Gemma has raised $240,000 and Segal has raised $144,000.

Brand said both the poll and the fundraising numbers “absolutely” bode well for Cicilline as the primary approaches.

“You’d rather be ahead than behind, especially if we’re talking significant spread margins, which have been demonstrated not only in the fundraising, but also in the polling,” she said.

But Brand said the Cicilline campaign is “taking nothing for granted” despite these numbers and has “been building a strong field organization for months” in anticipation of the primary.

Still, Cicilline’s opponents are hammering on the problems facing Providence during his stewardship of the city as mayor, such as underperforming schools and high unemployment.

In a radio debate on Aug. 18, Gemma said Providence was in “shambles” and said Cicilline is not fit to serve in Congress, while Lynch said city schools are a “disaster,” according to the Associated Press.

Cicilline didn’t attend Wednesday’s debate reportedly because it was held during the “Buddy Cianci Show.” The show’s host, Cicilline’s predecessor as mayor, served time in federal prison for corruption.

In response to these criticisms, Brand said the situation in Rhode Island isn’t different from many other places that are facing economic problems.

“The frustration that voters are feeling about the state of the economy is happening across the country,” she said. “I think what voters are looking for is strong leaders, and David Cicilline is a strong leader.”

Brand said the Victory Fund hasn’t seen Cicilline’s Democratic challengers employ anti-gay campaign tactics in an attempt to derail the candidate in the primary.

Whoever wins the Democratic primary is likely to face in the general election GOP candidate John Loughlin, a Rhode Island Assembly member and Army veteran.

Even though the winner of the Sept. 14 primary would be running in a Democratic safe seat, Brand said Cicilline is “keeping a very close eye” on the general election.

“It is Patrick Kennedy’s seat and they kind of have hired the Scott Brown team to try and challenge him in the general, but I believe Mayor Cicilline performs strongly, which I expect he will, that’s going to position him well for holding that seat in November,” Brand said.

Besides the primary in Rhode Island, other openly LGBT candidates are facing elections on Tuesday and could achieve milestones with their wins.

In New York, two non-incumbent candidates are running for Democratic nominations to pursue seats in the State Assembly: Harry Bronson and Philip LaTessa, who are both small business owners.

Brand said the election of those candidates could have a bearing on the fight to win same-sex marriage in the Empire State.

“We’ve all been watching the marriage battle there very closely,” Brand said. “To increase the number of LGBT legislators able to work on that issue would be a huge advantage for us.”

In Massachusetts, lesbian Karen Payne, a former president of a local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People chapter, is running for a state House seat.

If she were to win in November, she would be among a handful of black lesbians who serve in state legislatures throughout the country. And in Maryland, a record 10 openly LGBT candidates are running for office. (See full story on page 4.)

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

  • Just because a candidate shares some attribute with me does not mean that they’re more likely to be better in office for my needs or interests. I voted for Cicilline twice, but you must remember that he first ran in the wake of Operation Plunderdome, a federal corruption investigation that made national headlines. We all wanted a new start. And last time around, the pickings were very slim.

    Being gay doesn’t make Cicilline a better candidate for Congress, for the gay community or anyone else. I have voted against gay candidates before, and I will again, when and where it makes sense.

    A big part of Rhode Island’s problems come from the habit of Rhode Islanders voting for people they feel are like them in some way — Irish, Italian, Hispanic, gay, Catholic, whatever. None of these attributes in themselves recommend any candidate over any other. Yes, Cicilline would likely be stronger on gay issues than other candidates. But that doesn’t mean he’d be a better congressman overall. I don’t believe he would be, and I intend to vote against him in the primary.

    Should he win the primary, I would likely vote for him in the general election, as a better alternative to the other candidates we’ve seen, but that is unrelated to his being gay. I don’t vote for someone just because they’re gay, but only if I truly believe they’re the best candidate compared to all others.

    • We are going to loose the country to rightist if you continue your stance. Being gay is important in the US Congress and from what I read he’s the best choice for RI. Please don’t waste your vote and let a lesser named/quality candidate run against a strong Republican

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