PROVIDENCE, R.I. — One candidate rose to prominence as a cop, cutting his teeth in Rhode Island’s organized-crime unit. The other is the son of a famed mob lawyer who got his start as a criminal-defense attorney.
They first crossed paths in the bowels of Rhode Island’s criminal-justice system more than a decade ago. Now, they are running against each other for the same seat in Congress.
“We go back a long way,” said Brendan Doherty, the Republican challenger to Rep. David Cicilline, a first-term Democrat.
Doherty, the former superintendent of the Rhode Island State Police, is a hulking Irishman who stands more than 6 feet tall and is built like a linebacker. Cicilline, the former lawyer and former mayor of Providence, is slight and wouldn’t approach the 6-foot mark, even in his finest leather loafers.
Doherty, unpolished and unapologetic, is a first-time candidate who can stumble while searching for the right word. Cicilline—Jewish, Italian, and openly gay—has been a smooth presence on the political scene here for 20 years.
Character and integrity have taken center stage in their bout. But talk of mobsters, corruption investigations, and their interwoven pasts has been mostly the hidden subtext, rather than the subject of the campaign. Doherty’s hint-hint slogan is “Common Sense. Uncommon integrity.”
“There is a contrast,” Doherty said in a recent interview, “but I’m being careful with it because this isn’t personal.”
Instead, Doherty has focused mostly on Cicilline’s tenure as mayor. Doherty is airing blistering ads accusing Cicilline of cooking the books during his 2010 run for Congress to hide a major budget shortfall that emerged after he left Providence for Washington.
The city’s financial troubles have made Cicilline vulnerable; his approval rating dropped into the teens at one point, before rising to a still-meager 30 percent in a recent Brown University poll. Still, Cicilline’s district remains a Democratic stronghold that is expected to vote overwhelmingly for President Obama. His strategy has been simple: Link Doherty to the national GOP and himself to Obama. A recent ad features a clip of Doherty praising Mitt Romney as “fantastic for Rhode Island.”
Cicilline said he expects the race to get uglier in the closing weeks, as he has opened up a lead in recent polling. “What Mr. Doherty understands is that if voters learn what he’ll do if he gets to Congress they won’t vote for him,” he said. “I think he realizes his only hope is to attack me personally, and my work as a lawyer 20 years ago.”
The issue bubbled up this month when Cicilline’s campaign accused Doherty of a weak record on women’s issues. Doherty countered by listing the “batterers and rapists” that Cicilline had tried to keep out of jail. The National Republican Congressional Committee jumped into the fray, launching CicillineSecrets.com to document some unsavory past clients.
In the final weeks, Doherty has the financial flexibility to broadcast whatever message he chooses. He led Cicilline $510,000 to $240,000 in cash-on-hand at the end of September, federal filings show.
Cicilline’s campaign dismissed accusations about his lawyering days and family ties as old and stale. “Political opponents have, for years and years now, tried to say David was a lawyer—don’t vote for the lawyer—every October,” said campaign manager Eric Hyers.
But Doherty said that Rhode Islanders must decide whom they would trust more in Congress. “He was a criminal-defense attorney and he represented mobsters and major drug cartels,” Doherty said. “I ran the organized-crime unit.”
So did he have a Cicilline dossier? “We knew who he was. I cannot say he was a target of a case, but we knew who he was,” Doherty said.
It’s hard to imagine such a combustible issue remaining absent from the airwaves elsewhere. But in Rhode Island airing such charges would be a risky gambit, said Marc Genest, a longtime political strategist and academic in the state.
For starters, the state’s two dominant ethnic groups are Irish and Italian, and “when you start trying to tie Cicilline to the mob you start alienating Italian-Americans,” Genest said. Plus, he continued, Rhode Islanders are more inert than most to suggestions of shady pasts. After all, this is a state that has seen the mayor of its largest city, a governor, and the chief justice of the state Supreme Court all arrested over the years.
It’s the kind of a place where Cicilline’s brother, after serving a prison term for trying to extort money from drug dealers, opened up a sandwich joint and proudly called it Federal Wrap.
Longtime Providence Journal columnist M. Charles Bakst captured the state’s shrugging attitude during Cicilline’s 2002 campaign to succeed longtime Mayor Buddy Cianci, who was under a federal indictment at the time. “Sure, some will try to marginalize him as a lawyer who often represents low-life drug defendants,” Bakst wrote. “... But consider: unlike the incumbent mayor, Cicilline at least can say he doesn’t need a lawyer himself.”
Somewhat improbably, Cicilline, the son of Jack Cicilline, longtime legal counsel to accused organized-crime figures, carved out a reputation as a political reformer, first as a candidate then as mayor. “I’m not going to be lectured by Brendan Doherty about corruption,” he said in an interview.
Cianci ended up in federal prison. Since his release, he has emerged as a popular Providence radio host who frequently needles Cicilline and invites Doherty on as a guest. In a recent interview, Cianci cited the city’s budget woes and said Cicilline “can’t escape that the trust factor is important to people.”
“He’s the honest guy,” Cianci said of Doherty, without a hint of irony. “He’s got that market cornered.”
This article appears in the Oct. 17, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.