Democrat David Cicilline was Mayor of Providence, Rhode Island, for 8 years, replacing the colorful and convicted Mayor Buddy Cianci.
Cicilline was elected in November to Congress in Rhode Island’s 1st Congressional District (my home district), for the open seat vacated by Patrick Kennedy.
Cicilline is an openly gay Italian Jew, and Cicilline cultivated that public persona, often joking about the combination. Cicilline also was the darling of the Providence liberal establishment, particularly those on the wealthy East Side of Providence, in the communities surrounding Brown University.
Cicilline’s congressional campaign was old-time classic Democratic demagoguery. Cicilline mounted a tour of senior citizen centers in which he brazenly scared the elderly with false tales of how his opponent, Republican John Loughlin, wanted to take their social security money and invest it in the stock market.
The Providence Journal, the only statewide newspaper and a powerhouse in local politics, failed to call out Cicilline for this tactic when I challenged the ProJo to do so. Instead, the ProJo endorsed Cicilline in an October 25, 2010 editorial which praised Cicilline’s “fiscal discipline.”
While Providence was known to have fiscal problems prior to the November elections, those problems were viewed as manageable.
In June 2010, when Loughlin challenged Cicilline’s fiscal record in Providence, Cicilline’s campaign blamed state aid cuts for increased borrowing by the city, but stressed that Providence’s finances were sound:
“With Governor Carcieri trying to balance Rhode Island’s budget on the backs of our cities and towns, the City of Providence faced deep cuts in state aid,” the campaign said in a statement. “Fortunately, the strong fiscal health that Providence has maintained under Mayor Cicilline’s leadership made it possible to hold the line on taxes and still balance the City’s budget. That made a lot more sense than raising taxes in the middle of a painful recession.”
“In fact, the Mayor’s good fiscal management has earned the City A bond ratings and awards for excellence in financial reporting,” the campaign concluded.
In August 2010, when a scandal broke over previously undisclosed pay raises for senior Providence staffers, Cicilline vigorously defended the city’s fiscal position against criticisms from Democratic City Council members:
Both the city council and Cicilline also disagree on the magnitude of the deficit the city is facing in 2011. [Director of Administration, Richard] Kerbel says the city has a gap of $29 million, due to a loss in state funding, but [chairman of the finance committee for the city council, John] Igliozzi said the deficit was actually $41 million.
At the time Cicilline was elected to Congress, and left Providence as something of a hero, no one could anticipate the bombshell to be dropped by the new Democratic Mayor, Angel Taveras.
In late February 2011, Mayor Taveras announced that he was issuing termination notices to every teacher in the Providence School District because the city’s finances were much worse than he had anticipated when he was sworn in in January.
A devastating report issued by a municipal review board earlier this week revealed that contrary to Cicilline’s rosy assurances the prior summer and fall, Providence faced devastating budget deficits:
Exactly two months after taking the oath of office, Mayor Angel Taveras held a press conference releasing the findings of the Municipal Finances Review Panel he commissioned immediately upon taking office. Through Executive Order, Taveras tasked the Panel with conducting a comprehensive review of the City’s current fiscal condition.
The findings of the Municipal Finances Review Panel show the true extent of Providence’s financial emergency, revealing that this fiscal year’s structural deficit is $70 million and next fiscal year’s structural deficit is $110 million. Without immediate remediation efforts, the City is expected to end this year with a deficit of as much as $29 million.
Now the finger-pointing begins. The City Controller has been fired.
The ProJo, which was so solidly behind Cicilline in the November elections, has unleashed its formidable and talented pool of reporters on Cicilline, questioning whether he hid the extent of Providence’s problems:
Rep. David N. Cicilline denied Thursday that during his last months as mayor of Providence he masked a burgeoning financial crisis that has now emerged as a $29-million shortfall this year with much worse to come.
Democrat Cicilline, who served eight years as mayor, also denied that he lost his focus on the financial affairs of the city as he ran for Congress during the crucial first months of the current fiscal year.
“Of course not,” Cicilline replied when asked whether it was true, as charged by City Councilman John J. Igliozzi, that he had hidden the city’s financial problems through the use of “illusory revenues, borrowing and other tricks.” He spoke during an interview in the Capitol complex in Washington.
The ProJo published an exchange of e-mails between one of its reporters and Cicilline’s staff, including this e-mail from the reporter:
I would still like to talk to the Congressman today because we have multiple stories for tomorrow, one of which is how did it get so bad? What did the mayor know and when; what did he do to address the looming budget crisis?
Cicilline, as the mayor for 8 years, is key to that article. He still has responsibility to the taxpayers to explain. “No comment” until more detail is released is not an acceptable response. He continues to say he balanced budgets for all of his eight years as mayor. Clearly, that is not accurate.
Chances are very good that we will want to talk to him again tomorrow, or in the coming days, as this huge story for Rhode Island plays out.
There are many who believe he focused more on the campaign than on the city’s finances in his later months. He should respond to that criticism.
Does he believe his accountability as mayor stopped the day he entered Congress? What is his perspective and recommendation as a resident and taxpayer of Providence?
This is a conversation best handled in a give-and-take over the phone; not via e-mail. But, if it helps, some of the specific questions are below.
Alisha’s questions for Congressman Cicilline:
Providence had a $57-million deficit last year, according to the independent auditor.
It says this year’s structural deficit will be $70 million. Of that, Mayor Taveras has to find $29 million of cuts or revenues before June 30.
How did this happen?
Even with the loss of $30-plus million in state aid, the city under your administration clearly overspent. Were you aware of this and what specifically did you do to cut costs?
In one fiscal year, your administration also reduced the city’s reserve account from $17.36 million in July 2009 to $3.46 million by June 2010. You said at the time the money would be replenished with revenue. Why wasn’t it?
Cicilline has rushed back to Providence from Washington, D.C., to defend his record. In an interview published today in the ProJo, Cicilline denied any misconduct, blaming everyone from prior administrations, to the state, to the City Council for the problems:
The Democrat told The Journal that while he was mayor, he cut hundreds of jobs, negotiated to have city employees share in their health insurance costs, accomplished pension reforms, and formalized payments in lieu of taxes from private colleges and universities to the city.
“I took my responsibility as mayor of the city of Providence seriously every single day I did it,” Cicilline said at his new Main Street office in Pawtucket. “I took my responsibilities to manage the city’s finances seriously. I consider having the privilege of serving this job for the last eight years an extraordinary honor.”
Cicilline’s explanations simply are not good enough. Cicilline either knew of the fiscal problems and concealed them, willingly chose not to know the full extent of the problems, or negligently ignored the rising fiscal menace.
What did David Cicilline know and when did he know it?
That question will dominate Rhode Island politics for years to come
I wonder if the ProJo will endorse Cicilline again when he runs for re-election to Congress in November 2012, and whether another Scare Grandma tour will be enough to earn Cicilline a second term in Congress.
I suspect not, on both accounts.
Update: Video of ProJo interview, in which Cicilline explainst that he “balanced” the budget every year through a variety of devices, which amount to gimmicks such as increased borrowing, depleting reserves, etc.. The problem is that those were bandaids on a gaping fiscal wound, and now there are no bandaids left. None of this explains how Cicilline during the campaing insisted that Providence was in good fiscal shape when it was not.
In fairness to Cicilline, the underlying problems were not of his creation. The problem arose because of outrageous union contracts with unsustainable retirement benefits. So I don’t fault Cicilline for the underlying problem, but I do fault him for not dealing with it for 8 years and for minimizing it during the campaign.
Had Cicilline taken serious steps to deal with the looming crisis, rather than year-to-year budget gimmicks, it would have ruined his relationship with the unions and his liberal base.