Congressman David Cicilline announced he was stepping down from the United States House of Representatives to lead the Rhode Island Foundation. Options sat down with Cicilline to review his legacy, and what lies beyond the door he opened for Queer representation in Rhode Island Politics.
After almost 30 years in public office serving the State of Rhode Island, David Cicilline leaves behind a legacy of LGBTQIA+ representation at the local, state, and federal level. Cicilline became a household name in the Ocean State, and he is the highest-ranking LGBTQIA+ person from Rhode Island in politics. From 1995 to 2003, Cicilline served in Rhode Island’s House of Representatives, after that he was the first openly Gay mayor of Providence, and in 2010 he took the national stage when he was elected to serve in Congress from Rhode Island’s First Congressional District. “When I got elected, there were three of us who were members of the LGBTQ community, Tammy Baldwin, Jared Polis and me, actually Barney Frank, there are four and then Barney retired … it's different today, there are now ten LGBTQ people in the House and two in the Senate. So we've grown our ranks considerably, and I think it'll continue to grow.”
Since he has been in Congress, Cicilline has been a leader on LGBTQ issues: He chaired the Congressional Equality Caucus and as chair, led the first-ever meeting between the caucus and a sitting U.S. president. He sponsored the recently signed into law Respect for Marriage Act which federally recognizes same-sex and interracial marriages. He has been the sponsor of the Equality Act which if enacted would prevent discrimination in public areas based on sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity, and the Global Respect Act which would prevent visa-blocking based on someone’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or sex. Through his leadership, he also secured a total of $103.5 million for the Global Equality Fund and funds for the protection of LGBTQI+ persons through the Bureau for Development, Democracy, and Innovation through United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
“I think when a member of our community is elected to any office, we take with us the responsibility not only to represent our constituents in our district, or state or city, whatever your area of jurisdiction is, but also we take on an additional responsibility to be sure that we're also representing our community,” Cicilline stated as he discussed his feelings about stepping into Congress as an openly Gay person. He added, “I also have the responsibility to advance equality for our community and make sure that I was doing everything I could to be sure that we could all live in a country once and for all, where we were guaranteed full equality.”
Cicilline’s legacy runs deeper into Rhode Island than his work in Congress. If you have ever
been involved in a political campaign in this state, you have probably heard of a “Mother T Letter.” The Mother T Letter is a 30-year-old tradition for Rhode Island candidates; a multi-page autobiography about the candidate that is mailed out to their voters to introduce themselves.
In one of Cicilline’s first elections, his opponent, Rhoda Perry, who was the incumbent state senator at the time, wrote such a letter, starting it with “My mother Teresa” and thus began the decades-long tradition in Rhode Island politics of writing an introduction letter to voters. Cicilline may not have been victorious against Perry but went on to represent Providence’s East Side in the RI House of Representatives in 1995.
Cicilline has a deep connection with the Ocean State and talks openly about why he loves Rhode Island: “The most extraordinary thing I've ever worked on, is that it has within it, communities from almost every place in the world and people from all over the world.” He also told Options: “We have our own kind of creative thoughts about virtually every issue. And I think it makes for a really interesting place to live. It's really the people I guess, is the short answer.”
His largest challenge he sees for Rhode Islanders is housing: “The issue of housing feels like we have had a housing crisis since I was old enough to know what the word crisis meant … that's the center of everything – is this centerpiece of your ability to go to school, hold a job, be part of a family.”
In February, Cicilline announced he was retiring from Congress on June 1, to become the president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation, a philanthropic organization that funds various grants and scholarships throughout the state.
“Our state has one of the oldest and largest committee foundations in America,” Cicilline says as the future CEO of the organization. The reason he is stepping down from Congress at such a pivotal time Cicilline explains is, “the reason I ran for office in the first place and why I continued to stay in office, is to help the lives of Rhode Islanders … it was clear I’d have a better impact helping people working with them.” Cicilline added that “it’s the largest community foundation in the country, it has a strong reputation as an honest broker, it has the ability to convene people to tackle the biggest challenges we face in Rhode Island.”
The Rhode Island Foundation has been a pillar in the state since 1916 with the mission of “meeting the needs of the people of Rhode Island.” With a new CEO stepping in, we asked Cicilline what his vision and plans were for the organization. He told Options:
“There are three strategic pillars that the foundation has identified: ensuring all are allowed to have access to quality affordable health care, improving the quality of the public educational experience of young people, and creating economic opportunities for all Rhode Islanders … I want to study the work that's being done … All of this, of course, done through the lens of equity. Because if we don't address equity in each of these areas, we're never going to achieve the long-term objectives.”
The legacy that Cicilline is leaving behind goes beyond just his work. For the last 30 years, Rhode Island has had someone from the LGBTQIA+ community at the table making sure decision-makers heard about equity issues. Cicilline explained that “it's very important for us to continue to, you know, recruit and support and help elect members of our own community.” He added: “Having allies is really important, but it makes a big difference for us to be in the room. You know, that old saying, if you're not in the room, if you're not at the table, you're on the menu.”
Cicilline had a lot to say on Queer representation in politics, “we have to continue momentum by supporting organizations that are helping LGBTQ people in a variety of different ways, including those organizations that help us run for office.”
In 2022, well over twenty LGBTQIA+ candidates ran for local and state offices in Rhode Island with the support of organizations like the RI Queer PAC and the LGBTQ Victory Fund. Providence even elected its second Gay mayor, Brett Smiley, following the lead of David Cicilline. Currently, Rhode Island has two state representatives and four state senators who are openly LGBTQIA+, and plenty of Queer town and city councilors, including Providence’s City Council President Rachel Miller. Cicilline noted that “we're still severely underrepresented in terms of numbers, but we're making real progress.”
This lack of representation is really seen when we look at the T of LGBTQIA+. As of 2023, there are zero Transgender or Non-binary people in the Rhode Island General Assembly, and their representation in town and city councils is few and far between. To re-quote Cicilline: “If you're not in the room, if you're not at the table, you're on the menu,” and in the wake of over 469 anti-LGBTQ pieces of legislation filed in the last year throughout the country, most of which directly impact Transgender people, the Trans and non-binary communities need to be at the table.
Cicilline had a few words for future Transgender candidates, “just be authentic, be who you are, be proud of who you are, and be unapologetic by demanding full equality.” He went on to tell Options his frustration when the topic of equality is challenged: “Very often people on the other side of the aisle will try to say, oh, you know, I don't have any problem with you. It's not personal. And, you know, we remind them, actually, it is personal.”
Rhode Island is ramping up for the 2024 election cycle, there is time and opportunity for the Ocean State to follow Cicilline’s advice on representation and elect more Trans and non-binary people to our government. Cicilline is confident in the movement’s work going forward ending the discussion by saying, “I think we're going to have a Trans woman elected to Congress very soon.”