By many measures, Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) is a Very Important Democrat. He’s the Democratic leader of the House’s antitrust subcommittee, one of the chamber’s prestigious perches. In 2021, he and a team of fellow House lawmakers led the first-ever second impeachment of a president. He enjoys regular invitations to share his thoughts on Sunday cable news shows, the coin of a realm that tunes its news cycle to those soundbites.
Which made it all the more surprising when Cicilline announced last month that he’d be leaving Congress, just a few months into his term, to serve as the president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation, one of the country’s longest-running philanthropic foundations.
Cicilline’s story is a common one among House Democrats, a body long viewed as hostile toward ambitious lawmakers eager to scale the ranks. Seniority reigns supreme within the caucus, where term-limitless committee assignments and leadership positions force rising stars to wait decades for their turn. Some of the gerontocratic bottleneck finally eased last November when former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and former Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the caucus’ first- and second-in-command, stepped down after two decades at the helm. But Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), the third octogenarian Democrat who led alongside Pelosi and Hoyer, did not, thwarting the 61-year-old Cicilline’s intentions to run for leadership.
Cicilline nevertheless announced a run against Clyburn during last year’s House leadership elections. He cited the need for LBGTQ representation within the Democrats’ top ranks — especially in the aftermath of a gay nightclub shooting in Colorado, which had happened just days earlier. “It cannot be that people look to the House Democratic leadership and not see representation in the LGBTQ community,” he says. “It would be, I think, really harmful.”
It was a short-lived challenge, and one Cicilline claims was never serious, but rather, “to put a marker down, understanding that, at some point, I expect he’s going to leave,” Cicilline tells me in his office on Friday afternoon. Then, the opportunity with the Rhode Island Foundation arrived — one that, in Cicilline’s estimation, has more impact on his constituents than “any elected office.” Instead of waiting for the possibility he could someday ascend the ladder, Cicilline, like lawmakers before him, departs the House for other chances to make his mark.
His close friends in Congress were bereft. “I called him up and I said, ‘David, please tell me this is fake news,’” Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) says. “I was dumbfounded and astounded.” So, too, were the antitrust advocates who’d worked closely with Cicilline. “There’s no question that Cicilline stepping away from Congress is a real loss,” says Sarah Miller, the executive director of American Economic Liberties Project. His critics, naturally, were less generous. “Somebody who doesn’t recognize the power wielded by the office probably doesn’t deserve to hold it,” chides a fellow Rhode Island Democrat.
That Cicilline’s 12 years in Congress would be ending in just 11 weeks hadn’t totally sunk in when I met him in his Capitol Hill office on Friday afternoon. “It’s starting to feel like it,” he says through his Rhode Island accent, like a character from Family Guy with slight vocal fry. Cicilline slouched, legs crossed, on an armchair in his office on Capitol Hill, in a white button-down with aquamarine buttons, purple tie, and regionally idiosyncratic black cowboy boots. He was keeping up with his congressional commitments: The House Democrats’ retreat in Philadelphia last week, the Congressional Progressive Caucus’ retreat this week. This weekend, he would make a quick trip to the district Saturday morning to march in Newport’s annual St. Patrick’s Day parade, then return to Washington that evening for the Gridiron Dinner, an annual “who’s who” gathering of federal lawmakers and the reporters who cover them.
Cicilline ran for Congress in 2010 after eight years as mayor of Providence and, before that, seven years as a legislator in the Rhode Island state house. He was the first openly gay mayor of a U.S. capitol and one of Congress’ only openly gay lawmakers when he entered the federal legislature in 2011. The sharp partisanship he witnessed during his first weeks in Congress startled him, but it made sense, given the policy differences that separated Republicans and Democrats. More than a decade later, the divide feels deeper-seated, less sensical, more tribal. “Those divisions have evolved into just divisions on party membership,” Cicilline says.
He took the helm of Judiciary’s antitrust subcommittee and transformed it from a legislative backwater into one of Congress’ most sought-after slots. He arrived in Congress a top ally of Michael Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns and leaves pleased that there’s been some progress on federal gun control legislation. He wrote the Equality Act, a law that prohibits explicit discrimination against LBGTQ Americans. That it’s passed the House, but not the Senate, doesn’t totally bother him: “That will become the law of the land — there’s no doubt in my mind — it’s just a question of how quickly you get it done,” he says.
It’s the track record of someone who wanted to make a mark. Cicilline had begun to have those opportunities: In addition to serving as an impeachment manager and leading a Judiciary subcommittee, Cicilline had crafted the message for Democrats’ 2018 midterm campaign — a campaign that had granted Democrats their first majority in eight years. He served as co-chair of the Equality Caucus, which now has many more LBGTQ members of Congress than ever before. But, “it’s a challenge,” Cicilline says about the lack of leadership opportunities. “I worry sometimes when you see people — they need to run for the Senate, they need to run for governor, because it’s a big body. It takes longer to come into leadership of committees.”
Would he go if Democrats were still in the majority? “It’s a tough call,” Cicilline says. “There’s no question that being in the minority made it an easier comparison.”
Ambition has seen other beloved House Democrats depart before: Reps. Joe Kennedy III (D-Mass.) and Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.) famously left the House for higher office — only to lose and find themselves without a job and congressional Democrats with a depleted roster of up-and-comers. “One of the things we often talk about is how leadership opportunities are often limited in Congress,” says Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.). “People have to make decisions about where they’re gonna go or how they keep learning. Both on the personal side and more broadly, David joins a number of legislators who leave the house because they don’t really feel like there’s a broad enough opportunity for leadership.”
Some of that has eased under the leadership of Hakeem Jeffries, another ambitious Democrat who waited in the wings for his change to finally take the helm of the caucus. He and Democratic Whip Katherine Clark (D-Mass.), both in their 50s, are “very sensitive” to the desire among their peers to lead, Cicilline says. “It’s not just for the individuals so that we can keep good people in the caucus, but it’s because we benefit from America seeing the incredible talent.”
For now, Cicilline’s talent will be devoted to the nonprofit space, but many doubt this is the end of his career in politics. “I hope that eventually, maybe he runs for the Senate or finds some other role that he wants to play,” Jayapal says. “He’s just really a great champion for the people.”