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Leading Providence: David Cicilline becomes the first openly gay mayor of a U.S. state capital. (Politics).

David Cicilline remembers being at the headquarters for his Providence, R.I., mayoral campaign this fall when a prospective volunteer and voter walked in. "I was thinking of supporting your campaign," the man--a senior citizen and devout Catholic--told Cicilline. "But first, I want to know what your gay agenda is."

"That's easy," Cicilline responded. "My gay agenda is for government reform, improving neighborhoods, and strengthening schools."

On November 5, 84% of the city's voters endorsed Cicilline's "gay agenda," making Providence the largest American city and first state capital with an openly gay mayor.

For Cicilline, the encounter with the volunteer that afternoon "was a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate that gay people have the same dreams and desires as other citizens," he says. "That's why I always ran as a candidate who happens to be gay rather than a gay candidate. During my campaign the gay issue was irrelevant."

Though a few supporters of his Republican opponent made what Cicilline calls "vague hints" at his sexual orientation "by trumpeting the `family values' phrase," his competitors left the issue alone.

"It really hasn't been much of a topic of conversation or controversy, except for out-of-town reporters," says Darrell West, a professor of political science at Brown University in Providence and director of the Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions there.

But West believes the lack of controversy was "probably a historical fluke. I think it would have been a much bigger issue if not for the unique circumstances surrounding this election. Providence is generally a very traditional city with traditional voters," he says. This year, though, "the backdrop for the election liberated voters to think of radical alternatives to theft typical choices."

The unique situation West is referring to is the April 2001 indictment of then-mayor Vincent Cianci Jr. on charges of racketeering, conspiracy, extortion, bribery, mail fraud, and witness tampering. A Republican-turned-independent who had been in office off and on for four decades, Cianci was the epitome of old-boy-network politics. His sentencing in June to five years in prison on corruption charges seemed to doom the Republican Party.

Indeed, September's four-way Democratic primary was considered the election that would determine Providence's next mayor. But even in that race Cicilline beat his closest competitor, former Providence mayor Joseph Paolino, by 20 percentage points.

Sexual orientation was more of an issue during the primary than it was during the general election because some gay residents worried that Cicilline was avoiding taking a public stand on gay issues. This led a gay group called Voices 4 Equality to back Paolino in the primary. The regional gay paper, In Newsweekly, also endorsed Paolino.

"We were aggravated and frustrated because we didn't hear [Cicilline] talking about our issues," explains Garith Fulham, one of the organizers of Voices 4 Equality. "It was a very hard choice for us." The group now supports Cicilline's adminisration, he says.

Cicilline dismisses the charge that he was not "gay enough" and points to his record of eight years as a state representative. During that time--most of which was before he came out of the closet in April 1999--he sponsored legislation that now requires a "diversity officer" in public schools. He also cosponsored the state's gay rights bill as well as a bill that grants gay and lesbian state employees domestic-partner benefits. "Being openly gay has had no negative effect on my political career," he says. "If anything, it's enhanced it, because people respect my honesty about it."

A handsome, single, wealthy attorney from a well-known Rhode Island family, Cicilline, 41, says his sexual orientation is just one piece of his diverse identity, which includes having a Jewish mother and Italian Roman Catholic father. "I think all of these factors affect my perspectives," he says. "They will help me be a better mayor because they help me identify with all different races, heritages, and ethnic backgrounds in the community."

This multicultural background "makes it easier for him to appeal to a broad constituency and avoid being painted as `the gay politician,'" says Jason Young, a spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, which financially supports openly gay and lesbian candidates. Cicilline was one of those it supported this year.

One of the biggest challenges for Cicilline, Young says, comes with the differences between being an openly gay state representative and being an openly gay mayor. "He's no longer just one person in a large crowd," Young says. "He's the chief executive, and that means a lot more people, both in Rhode Island and nationally, will be watching him as an openly gay political figure.

"If he does a great job," Young adds, "people will not only trust him, they'll trust other gay and lesbian candidates." And if Cicilline does a great job in the eyes of the voters, he could be what Young calls "a gateway candidate, becoming the next openly gay congressman or maybe even the first openly gay U.S. senator."

Despite his insistence that he "was elected by all of Providence, gay and straight, and will be the mayor of all of Providence, gay and straight," Cicilline recognizes that he is in a powerful position to advance gay causes. His priorities include making the downtown safer for gay men and lesbians and requiring the City to offer domestic-partner benefits to its gay and lesbian employees. Eventually, he says, he'd like to require all contractors doing business with the city to offer domestic-partner benefits as well.

And he is acutely aware of the potential impact in being the gay mayor of the largest American city that has one. "You just can't underestimate the importance of being an openly gay elected official," he says, "because that still doesn't happen enough."

Dahir also writes for Serf, Business Traveler, and Good Housekeeping.
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Author:Dahir, Mubarak
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Date:Dec 24, 2002
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