A gay politician seeking to represent Rhode Island in Congress is enduring what could be thinly veiled attacks on his sexual orientation as Election Day approaches.
David Cicilline, the gay mayor of Providence, R.I., is vying to represent the state’s 1st congressional district in the U.S. House. The seat is being vacated by retiring Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.).
Cicilline, a Democrat, is running against Republican John Loughlin, a member of the Rhode Island State House and an Army veteran.
With Rhode Island’s unemployment rate currently at 11.5 percent — fifth highest in the nation — both candidates have been emphasizing job creation during the campaign.
But in the final weeks of the campaign, Loughlin has made several statements that could be considered digs at Cicilline based on his sexual orientation.
In a “Voice of the Candidate” clip that aired on a local NBC affiliate in Rhode Island, Loughlin repeatedly mentions that he is a father and a husband — possibly a reference to the fact that Cicilline is gay and single.
“I’ve been married for 23 years to my wife, Susan, and we have two daughters,” Loughlin says. “I know about the struggles of working families in Rhode Island because I’m part of one. I’ve had to worry about how to pay for dance lessons, summer camp and all the extras that come from raising children.’
Similar language about Loughlin’s family is included in one of the campaign’s recent radio ads promoting the candidate.
“John Loughlin is a husband, a father, a small businessman,” says a voiceover in the ad as somber trumpets play in the background.
Additionally, in a debate last week with Cicilline, Loughlin notably emphasized his support for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” The Republican candidate said the law “has served the military well” and he would “like to see it continue.”
Loughlin continued that the U.S. armed forces shouldn’t be a place to “celebrate” anyone’s sexual orientation and that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” simply means “you cannot celebrate your sexuality while you are on active duty.”
“Mayor, I was there, I know, I served and I have seen it — you have not,” Loughlin said. “We are not interested in celebrating anyone’s sexuality; we are about doing the job.”
Eric Hyers, campaign manager for the Cicilline campaign, declined to comment on whether Loughlin’s statements amounted to anti-gay attacks and emphasized the Cicilline campaign is focused on bread-and-butter issues.
“David and his campaign are 100 percent focused on how to get Rhode Islanders back to work, how to make sure that we don’t privatize Social Security,” Hyers said. “We’re making sure that we fight to end tax breaks for companies that ship our jobs overseas.”
Loughlin’s campaign didn’t respond to the Blade’s request for comment on whether the Republican candidate’s statements were intended as anti-gay attacks against Cicilline.
One political observer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said “grasping at something” like a candidate’s sexual orientation is not uncommon in races where an opponent is behind.
“They think that if they grasp at David’s sexual orientation, that they might catch fire,” the observer said. “Could you try to interpret what Loughlin is doing as baiting? Probably. But I don’t think anybody’s really sensing that given how out David is.”
Last week, Politico included the race to represent Rhode Island’s 1st congressional district in the U.S. House as among its “99 Seats in Play” for the election. Cook Political Report last month changed the status of the race from “likely Democrat” to “leans Democrat.”
David Wasserman, House editor of the Cook Political Report, said Cicilline is waging “as good a race as he can” against Loughlin, but said socially conservative Democrats outside of Providence could side with the GOP candidates in the wake of the campaign attacks launched against the Providence mayor.
“Loughlin is gaining traction by pointing to Cicilline’s mayoral record,” Wasserman said. “Big city mayors often have a hard time turning an election into a referendum on their opponents when they have such a lengthy record to defend themselves.”
Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, identified the Providence mayor as the “favorite” in the Rhode Island race and said the outcome of the contest would be “likely” Democratic. Even so, Sabato acknowledged that, “Republicans claim that the race has closed fast.”
But Hyers dismissed talk that Cicilline is in danger of losing the election, even as he acknowledged that the 2010 elections are “a tough environment for Democrats.”
“Fortunately for us, we’ve been running this campaign like we’re tied ever since it began,” Hyers said. “We’re taking nothing for granted we’ve seen what happens when Democrats take their foot off the gas. We’re not going to let that happen; we’re going that voters know everything there is to know about these two candidates.”
Cicilline is running in a Democratic stronghold and is credited for being a powerhouse fundraiser. He has raised nearly $1.7 million so far in his campaign while, in comparison, Loughlin has raised $618,000.
A poll made public earlier this month by NBC 10-Quest Research in Rhode Island also indicates that Cicilline is heading to victory. The poll found that Cicilline is leading Loughlin by 47 percent to 36 percent among likely voters.
Hyers said he thinks Cicilline’s prospects for winning are solid and said credible polls have the Providence mayor with a “solid lead — often times in double digits.”
“We have a phenomenal grassroots operation, a great ground game that’s started to turn out the voters … and the response at the doors is overwhelming,” Hyers said.
Compared to other non-incumbent openly gay congressional candidates, Cicilline is widely seen as having the best chance of winning on Election Day.
Steve Pougnet, the mayor of Palm Springs, Calif., is running in California’s 45th congressional district to unseat Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.).
At the other end of the country, Ed Potosnak, a former staffer for Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) and a public school teacher, is running in New Jersey’s 7th congressional against Rep. Leonard Lance (R-N.J.).
Both gay candidates are running under the Democratic banner in traditionally “red” districts against GOP incumbents at a time when major Republican gains are expected in Congress.
Sabato said Bono Mack is the “clear favorite” in the race against Pougnet, although he acknowledged California’s 45th congressional district is “in one of the weaker districts for a Republican this year.”
“Steve Pougnet would need a strong top-of-the-ticket coattail from [Democratic gubernatorial candidate] Jerry Brown and [U.S. Sen.] Barbara Boxer to win, and that is unlikely in this district,” Sabato added.
Despite these challenges, the political observer speaking on condition of anonymity said Pougnet has run an “equally good race” as Cicilline and has likewise been a fundraising powerhouse.
According to Federal Election Reports, Pougnet has been keeping up with Bono Mack, which is unusual because she’s an incumbent. Pougnet has raised nearly $1.7 million in the campaign while Bono Mack has raised $2.2 million.
“If you look at the last financial filings, you’ll be shocked at how similar they are in how much money they’ve raised,” the observer said.
Still, Pougnet has a tougher race than Cicilline because the Palm Springs mayor is challenging an incumbent.
“As time has shown, over and over again, running against an incumbent is that much more challenging, especially someone who’s been there as long as she has,” the observer said.
Potosnak’s race is seen as the toughest for an out gay candidate this year. Sabato said he has “no indication” he could put the Republican incumbent in “any electoral trouble.”
“We list that one as safe [Republican],” Sabato said. “This is not the year to upset secure Republican incumbents.”