Openly-gay mayor of Rhode Island sees progress in GLBT political arena

by Mark Segal
Gay History Project

David Cicilline, mayor of Providence, R.I., is the first openly gay mayor of a U.S. state capital. He was elected to the position in 2002 and is currently also serving as the president of the National Conference of Democratic Mayors.

Mark Segal: How political are you? One of your earlier schoolmates was JFK Jr. If your classmates voted on which one of you would be more likely to go into politics, which one would have won?

David Cicilline: I think with the incredible family tradition of the Kennedys and the enormous respect that everyone in my class had for the Kennedy family, John probably would have been voted most likely to have gone into politics. I was involved with school politics and student government when I was at Brown, but I think certainly John Kennedy would have been voted most likely.

MS: Of all openly gay elected officials, none of you had ever been elected to head a major non-gay organization of elected officials. You’re now president of the National Conference of Democratic Mayors. Did you realize at the time that this was of historic significance?

DC: I didn’t know that there were no other openly gay or lesbian people who had led other organizations, so that was a surprise to me. It’s a great honor to be the president of an organization that represents Democratic mayors from all over the country, and making history makes it even more wonderful.

MS: Have you had the opportunity to create any LGBT policies at the NCDM?

DC: Well, I just took office and most of the work we’ve been doing has been to reestablish the organization by developing a communications plan so we can regularly communicate with our Democratic mayor members. We’re building our Mayors Alliance Trust and really focusing on the election and convention. We haven’t done a lot of policy development beyond those areas. After the election, we’ll have the opportunity to put together a work plan on a variety of different issues. The organization’s role is to bring Democratic mayors and to advocate for a Democratic set of priorities and to support Democratic mayors and bring their agenda to the realm of the government, particularly the president and federal legislators. We haven’t gotten to policy work beyond that.

MS: When our Democratic Congress debates the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” or the passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, could we expect a resolution from the NCDM supporting those issues?

DC: Absolutely. One of the things that we’ve done is, on a variety of occasions, we’ve been invited by members of Congress to talk about issues affecting our community. Sen. Clinton hosted some [of us] as part of the U.S. Senate Steering and Coordination Committee. I got to talk about legislation that focused on immigration laws that affected gays and lesbians, and others were on ENDA. I will continue as an individual and as president of the organization to raise those issues.

MS: Have other mayors come to you with particular LGBT issues in their cities looking to you for advice?

DC: Mayors have talked to me about issues in their communities that relate to ordinances or state statutes that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. Mayors have talked to me about programs in their communities that relate to HIV/AIDS advocacy and treatment. We’ve had lots of conversations about marriage and civil unions and what different states are doing on those issues. We’ve done resolutions at the U.S. Conference of Mayors on many of those issues.

MS: Do you see a glass ceiling for LGBT people in politics?

DC: I think there’s no question that we’re making progress every day as more and more openly gay and lesbian people are running for office and winning, holding office and performing the functions of their offices with honor and skill and dedication. I think each day that a gay or lesbian office-holder gets up and goes to work makes it easier for the next person who runs for public office. I think we’re making tremendous progress. There are still some states that are very challenging, but due to great organization, I think we’re making progress to full equality and full participation for gay and lesbian people in politics.

MS: You’re very well known in your state. Do you think that you could run successfully for Senate or governor in your state?

DC: Yes. I think the thing I’m most proud of in Rhode Island is that I was elected to this office of mayor of the capital city. During the campaign, people really focused on the quality and ideas of the candidates, the content of their plans for the city, the integrity of the individuals and the skills they bring to the job. Sexual orientation was really irrelevant. Rhode Island has really distinguished itself as being founded over this incredible belief and respect for human dignity. Providence is a city I’m very proud of because it made judgments not on sexual orientation but on ability and dedication to the city. I think that will continue to be the case if I were to run for a statewide office.

MS: Rather than the LGBT community looking toward California or Massachusetts, we really might be looking toward Rhode Island as the next step for an openly gay senator or governor?

DC: I think there is no question that people in Rhode Island are incredibly fair-minded and hopeful and will make judgments on who is the best person for either of those two positions and that sexual orientation will be irrelevant.

MS: Do you feel any special pride for entering the Democratic Convention this year as the president of NCDM?

DC: I feel an enormous pride. The work of being a mayor is something that I really value and there’s no question that within government, the place where you can have the most direct impact on people’s lives is in local government. To be afforded the privilege of being the president of an organization that represents Democratic mayors across the country is a source of great pride to me, and [I have a] responsibility to do the job and do it well.

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