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David cicilline wove his way through a skybox, mixing with prominent politicos at the Democratic National Convention in Denver last August. As president of the National Conference of Democratic Mayors, he played host to notables like San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom, congressman Barney Frank, and Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Everyone greeted him as a longtime friend, laughed at whispered jokes, and lounged as if paying a family visit to his living room.
Cicilline's star has risen rapidly since he became mayor of Providence, R.I., six years ago. When the 47-year-old Rhode Island native, son of a Jewish mother and Italian-American father, assumed the post in 2003 after winning a landslide 84% of the vote, he became the first openly gay mayor of a state capital. Providence in turn became the largest U.S. city with an out mayor -- until Sam Adams took office in Portland, Ore., this January. Cicilline then proceeded to draw over $3 billion worth of investments to the city, erasing a $59 million debt and reducing the crime rate to its lowest level in 30 years. He launched cultural programs, invested in education, and employed incentives to help revamp the once-downtrodden downtown.
Cicilline's audacity has made him a very popular mayor and raised the city's national profile. In 2007, The Wall Street Journal named Providence one of the world's top 10 up-and-coming travel destinations; it was the only U.S. city to make the list. He succeeded a notoriously corrupt mayor, Vincent "Buddy" Cianci Jr., who ran the city like a godfather of sorts for more than 20 years before going to prison in 2001 on racketeering and corruption convictions.
"We have to demonstrate that Rhode Island is an honest place to do business, that it has a state government that works and is transparent, with competitive tax policies," Cicilline says, "you know, good, old-fashioned salesmanship."
Cicilline's salesmanship could soon be put to a new test. Widely considered one of the state's most viable gubernatorial candidates for 2010, he's hinted that he'll throw his hat into the ring early this year. "It's something I've been looking at in a serious way," Cicilline says.
It's a victory that would be historic. No other governor has ever run as openly gay (New Jersey governor Jim McGreevey came out while in office). But it's not a done deal.
"Mayors don't translate to governors easily," says Donald Sweitzer, Democratic National Committee finance director. "Big-city mayors face an enormous amount of problems in their day-to-day duties, and they rack up a lot of detractors." But Cicilline, who has largely maintained a 60%-plus approval rating, could buck the trend. His only major adversary is the Providence firefighters labor union, with which he's been engaged in a hard-fought contract dispute.
"But David is a unique character," Sweitzer adds. "He will hold statewide office soon."
Rhode Island's geographic intimacy has likely helped boost Cicilline's popularity beyond the reach of his detractors. "It's a small media market, and people see him every day on TV," Sweitzer says. "Since we are a one-newspaper state, people know him and they see what he's done."
And Cicilline's accessibility has helped render his sexual orientation politically insignificant. Despite his vocal support for marriage equality and his regular appearances at gay bars around Providence, the historical implications of being the nation's first serious out gubernatorial candidate don't seem much of a hurdle.
"His sexual orientation hasn't been an issue," says Darrell West, director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution. "In a small state like Rhode Island, people know their officials. They judge the person on who he is versus what he is."
West gives Cicilline the edge in any potential Democratic shoot-out as well as in a general election. "Half of Rhode Island's electorate is independent, and David has been doing well with independents," West says.
If Cicilline's track record is anything to go by, his campaign may provide a template for future gay candidates in which political philosophy and delivering on promises are central and sexual orientation is a nonissue.
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