A Rhode Island Democrat exits Congress, in search of an impact no longer found in D.C.

By: - March 26, 2023 10:00 am

U.S. Rep. David Cicilline, D-Rhode Island, a leader on the second impeachment of former President Donald Trump, will step down from Congress in late May. He is shown here holding up a copy of the Trump-Ukraine Impeachment inquiry report in December 2019. (Photo by Jonathan Newton-Pool/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Rhode Island’s longtime U.S. Rep. David Cicilline, a leader on the second impeachment of former President Donald Trump, an advocate for breaking up big tech and a champion for LGBTQ+ rights, will step down from Congress in late May to lead his state’s largest community foundation.

The Democrat, elected in 2010 to represent Rhode Island’s 1st Congressional District, said in an interview with States Newsroom that his advocacy back home will be more effective than his spot as a minority member of the U.S. House, where Republicans gained control in the midterm elections.

“I had to compare it to what I think is likely to happen over the next couple of years in the House. And I think with the Republicans in charge  it’s going to be very difficult to make progress on a lot of issues,” Cicilline said. “It became clear to me that in terms of impact on Rhode Island, I could get more done and have more of an opportunity to improve people’s lives.”

Cicilline, 61, announced on Feb. 21 that he would become president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation, which as of 2021 held nearly $1.5 billion in total assets and issued $76 million in grants across the state.

The foundation hailed Cicilline’s hire. The lawmaker’s “career-long fight for equity and equality at the local, national, and international level, and his deep relationships within Rhode Island’s communities of color are two of the many factors that led us to this decision,” Dr. G. Alan Kurose, chair of the foundation’s board of directors, said upon the announcement.

Ciclline’s departure will leave his tiny state with one House seat empty until a special election is held and the second held by freshman Democrat Seth Magaziner.

The special election has not yet been scheduled, according to the Rhode Island secretary of state’s office. First, the governor must call for an election once the seat is vacated, and then mail ballots must be sent to overseas voters at least 45 days before a primary.

Democratic party officials estimate a late summer time frame for the solidly blue seat.

Passing off priorities

Cicilline confirmed he’s passing off his priorities to fellow lawmakers with whom he’s shared committee assignments. For the majority of his tenure, Cicilline sat on committees with jurisdiction over judicial and antitrust issues, law enforcement, foreign assistance and national security.

Cicilline’s actions so far in the 118th Congress include the reintroduction of an assault weapons ban — last year a similar bill cleared the chamber while it was under Democratic control — and forming a new congressional antitrust caucus after key legislation to hold tech companies accountable failed to get a floor vote last year.

As chair of the House Judiciary Committee’s panel on antitrust issues when Democrats were in control, Cicilline led an 18-month investigation into the largest tech companies in the U.S., including Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google.

One result of the investigation was the congressman’s American Innovation and Choice Online Act, which aimed to prohibit certain large tech companies from giving preference to their own products online and disadvantaging competing platforms.

“I would say that was probably the most frustrating moment — we were promised it would get a vote on the Senate floor. We had the votes, and it just never got brought to the floor. It was really, really disappointing,” Cicilline said.

Breaking barriers for the LGBTQ+ community

When he took office in 2011, Cicilline became one of four openly gay members of Congress.

He has since served as a co-chair of the Congressional Equality Caucus.

Cicilline wrapped up the 117th Congress by co-sponsoring the landmark Respect for Marriage Act, a bill that codified the legality of same-sex and interracial marriage.

The bill was introduced and passed following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn federal protections for abortion — a ruling that set off a groundswell of fear about other privacy rights, including marriage.

When asked to reflect on the pace of change for the LGBTQ+ community over recent decades, Cicilline said, “Everyone’s like, ‘Oh, this happened so quickly.’ It wasn’t that quickly. It’s long past time that marriage equality be the law of the land.”

Cicilline’s Equality Act — a bill that would establish federal protections from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender expression and identity — cleared the House last Congress, mostly along party lines, except for three Republicans who voted in favor.

“Congress is not moving quickly enough on equality broadly. Overwhelmingly, the American people believe discrimination against LGBTQ people is wrong and they support anti-discrimination laws. And yet we can’t get our Republicans in the Senate to embrace the Equality Act,” he said.

After the Capitol attack

Days after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, Cicilline published an op-ed in the New York Times explaining why he and fellow Democratic Reps. Ted Lieu of California and Jamie Raskin of Maryland planned to introduce an article of impeachment against then-President Donald Trump.

“As lawmakers who have impeached this president once before, we do not take this responsibility lightly,” Cicilline wrote on Jan. 11, 2021. “In fact, it was not our first choice of action. In the midst of last Wednesday’s siege, we were among those that asked Vice President Mike Pence to convene the Cabinet to invoke the 25th Amendment to quickly remove Mr. Trump from office. We have called on the president to resign. Days have passed, and it is clear that neither of those possibilities will be realized. So it is Congress’s responsibility to act.”

Trump supporters violently breached the Capitol demanding that the presidential election of Democrat Joe Biden be overturned. The riot occurred after weeks of Trump falsely claiming the election was stolen.

All House Democrats, and 10 Republicans, impeached Trump for inciting an insurrection. The impeachment managers, including Cicilline, triggered a formal impeachment hearing in the Senate that occurred just  over a two-week stretch from late January into February.

“I just remember working so well, hand-in-glove, David would be preparing for his section, I’d be preparing for mine,” said fellow impeachment manager Rep. Madeleine Dean, a Pennsylvania Democrat.

“I just have an image of him in a little war room that’s right off the Senate lobby. I have a picture of him day after day in the moments before going out for his part, using a tall (copy machine) to lean his remarks on to prepare and rehearse,” she said.

The Senate ultimately acquitted Trump, by then a former president, after only seven GOP senators voted alongside Democrats — not enough to meet the threshold needed to approve the article of impeachment.

What’s next for Rhode Island? 

Cicilline’s departure means Rhode Island is poised to be represented in the U.S. House by two new lawmakers — Magaziner, who represents the state’s only other congressional district, and whoever replaces Cicilline in the upcoming special election.

Magaziner, who began his term in January, called Cicilline a “guide and a supporter.”

Asked what will change in his life once he is out of Congress, Cicilline said the continuity of staying in Rhode Island full time will open other avenues.

“Look, I expect it to be a very challenging and exciting job that’s going to keep me really busy. I will say that one thing that will change my life is I may finally be able to get a dog again,” the outgoing lawmaker said. “I grew up with dogs and ever since I got elected to Congress, I couldn’t really have one.”

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Ashley Murray
Ashley Murray

Ashley Murray covers the nation’s capital as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. Her coverage areas include domestic policy and appropriations.