Rhode Island 1 Special: Cicilline Steps Out

by Jacob Rubashkin February 23, 2023 · 9:12 AM EST

Rep. David Cicilline’s surprise decision to resign from the House of Representatives at the end of spring opens up his eastern Rhode Island seat, and a dizzying array of potential candidates are already eying the solidly Democratic district. 

This is the first time since 1967 that Rhode Island has played host to a federal special election, and it comes as the once-swingy state has cemented itself firmly within the Democratic column.

That means the real contest will play out in the Democratic primary, and the winner could be in Washington, D.C. for some time; just five people have represented this seat over the last 80 years. Cicilline has been in office for a decade, and is leaving to run the Rhode Island Foundation.

The Lay of the Land
The 1st District runs along the state’s eastern border with Massachusetts, stretching from North Smithfield south to Jamestown.

The population core of the district is the eastern half of the city of Providence, and the surrounding municipalities of Pawtucket, North Providence, and East Providence. But the seat also includes the islands in the Narragansett Bay to the south of Providence.

Politically, it is the more Democratic of the state’s two seats. Joe Biden would have carried it by 29 points, 64-35 percent, in 2020, and Cicilline won easily, 64-36 percent, in his 2022 re-election campaign.

The only time the congressman won by single digits was his first election in 2010, when he squeezed out a 6-point win over state Rep. John Loughlin during the GOP wave year.

The 1st is also the more demographically diverse of the Ocean State’s seats, and growing moreso. Just 64 percent of the population is non-Hispanic White, while 19 percent is Hispanic and 12 percent is Black. That’s a marked shift from a decade ago, when 72 percent of the district was non-Hispanic White compared to just 14 percent Hispanic and 9 percent Black. 

The Hispanic population is concentrated in Providence, which is now plurality Hispanic, and neighboring Pawtucket and Cumberland Falls.

The Democrats
With a flurry of names already being floated to replace Cicilline, one Democratic source in the state says the question to ask is who isn’t running for the seat.

That list includes former Providence mayors Jorge Elorza, Angel Taveras, and Joe Paolino, Jr., and current Mayor Brett Smiley (Cicilline was also mayor of Providence).

Beyond those few, the rest of the state’s political class seems to be keeping their options open. But a few names have risen to the top of the conversation, including three women who would each be just the second woman ever elected to Congress from the Ocean State.

Helena Buonanno Foulkes, the former CVS executive who nearly toppled Gov. Dan McKee in last year’s gubernatorial primary, is seriously considering a run. The well-connected Foulkes had backing from then-Mayor Elorza and the Boston Globe in her run against the governor, which ended with McKee winning 33-30 percent. Foulkes is also personally wealthy — she spent $4.1 million on her gubernatorial run — and could self-fund a bid.

Sabina Matos, the incumbent lieutenant governor, would be a compelling candidate, and would likely secure the support of McKee, who elevated her to her current position after he assumed the governorship in 2021.

Nellie Gorbea, the former Rhode Island secretary of state, could also run but doesn’t sound as likely as Foulkes and Matos. She began the 2022 gubernatorial race as the frontrunner in polling but ultimately was overtaken by both Foulkes and McKee.

And state Attorney General Peter Neronha would be a top-tier candidate as well if he ran. The former U.S. attorney made headlines for convicting several high-profile Rhode Island politicians a decade ago, and was the top vote-getter statewide in the 2022 elections.

A number of more progressive candidates could also throw their hats in the ring (Cicilline is a vice-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus). State Sen. Cynthia Mendes ran for lieutenant governor last year with the backing of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, placing third with 19 percent. Former state Rep. Aaron Regunberg, who nearly beat now-Gov. McKee in the 2018 lieutenant governor primary on a platform that included the Green New Deal, could run. State Sen. Megan Kallman would be another progressive option, as would state Sen. Sandra Cano, who immigrated to Rhode Island from Colombia as a teenager. Former state Sen. Gayle Goldin is now the deputy director of the Women's Bureau at the U.S. Labor Department, but made a name for herself as a paid family leave advocate in the statehouse.

Several mayors may also look at running, including some from the more moderate or conservative wings of the party. Those include Bob DaSilva, the mayor of East Providence and a former police officer; Lisa Baldelli-Hunt, the mayor of Woonsocket; and Central Falls Mayor Maria Rivera, who has been tagged a rising star in the party and could find purchase among the district’s growing Hispanic population. Newport Mayor Xay Khamsyvoravong took himself out of the running.

Still others might join the fray, including some that could pull on national relationships to boost their bids. Liz Beretta-Perick is a Democratic National Committee member and, along with her husband, a prodigious campaign donor to national and local Democrats. She is the former treasurer for the state Democratic Party and was one of the finalists for the lieutenant governor position in 2021. She also has the capacity to self-fund a bid. Gabe Amo is a special assistant to Biden and a former senior adviser to then-Gov. Gina Raimondo; a former Marshall Scholar, Amo could also secure valuable support from the influential Congressional Black Caucus. Rhode Island has never elected a Black member of Congress.

The Republicans
Given the seat’s decidedly Democratic bent, Republicans aren’t expected to seriously contest this seat, and the local GOP does not have a robust bench to pull from.

State Rep. Brian Newberry quickly ruled himself out, and 2022 gubernatorial nominee Ashley Kalus doesn’t appear likely to run either, after spending $5 million of her own money to lose to McKee by 19 points last year.

State Senate Minority Leader Jessica de la Cruz is the closest thing to a rising star the party has, and could run. And state Rep. Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung will have her name mentioned after she toppled the Democratic state House speaker in 2020. So will her husband, former Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, who just narrowly lost a bid for the 2nd District and previously ran twice for governor. Cranston (where Fenton-Fung might run for mayor) sits on the border between the two districts, and Fenton-Fung also grew up in the 1st District, where she still owns property.

How It Plays Out
Beyond the question of who will run for the seat, local politicos are still trying to figure out when the election will be held. Cicilline’s resignation will not be effective until May 31, and the general expectation is that McKee will call a special election for November, with the all-important primary taking place in September, or a slightly earlier August primary and October general.

But state law, which has not been updated in decades regarding special elections, is not incredibly specific, leaving McKee with the ability to schedule an earlier race if he so chooses. And the Rhode Island state legislature may have to intervene in order to bring the state into compliance with the federal Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, according to an analysis by Widener law professor Quinn Yeargain currently being shared in Rhode Island political circles.

With more than two months before Cicilline even leaves office, there’s plenty of time for potential candidates to jockey around before officially announcing.

Given the sheer number of potential candidates, there’s the possibility that a winner could emerge from the Democratic primary with just a small fraction of the vote — including, perhaps, a winner from the more moderate or conservative wings of the party, which still has strength in Rhode Island. That is an outcome the state’s ascendant progressives will likely try to avoid, so there could be significant attempts to consolidate support if no clear frontrunners emerge initially.