Q-and-A: Cicilline talks about pension, health care and creating jobs
Cicilline was born in Providence in 1961 and got his undergraduate degree from Brown University. Following graduation, he attended Georgetown Law School were he was awarded a Juris Doctor.
Cicilline worked as a lawyer in Providence. He entered politics by running for the R.I. Senate in 1992, but he was defeated in the Democratic primary. Two years later, he was elected to the state House of Representatives representing the 4th District on the East Side of Providence. He served four terms in the state legislature. It was during this time that he came out as a gay man.
Cicilline ran for mayor of Providence in 2002 and was elected in a landslide. He was reelected in 2005 with another large majority of the vote.
In 2010, he ran for the congressional seat being vacated by Patrick Kennedy. After defeating three Democratic challengers in the primary, he bested Republican John Loughlin in the general election to win the seat.
Congressman Cicilline met with the Jamestown Press at the East Ferry Deli prior to his fundraising event, which was held at Riven Rock.
Q: You were the mayor of Providence and now you’re living in another city. Politics aside, what is living in Washington, D.C. like for you?
A: I lived in D.C. when I went to law school. It’s a great city. I come home every weekend. I love being back in Rhode Island. I miss it for the workweek when I’m pretty much at my office and on the floor. I wish I got to enjoy a little bit more of the city but I haven’t so far. It’s strange living in two places.
There are some difficult issues facing Rhode Island right now. One is the pension crisis. What are your thoughts on that?
I really admire the work that is being done by the treasurer, the speaker and the senate president convening both of their chambers to look at this issue in a serious way. I think that everyone recognizes that this is a great challenge not only for Rhode Island, but for cities and towns.
It’s going to be a difficult issue to resolve because there are many, many Rhode Islanders who are retired and made decisions about their retirement and sold their home, or stopped working based on the expectation that they would have certain retirement security.
These are going to be very hard issues but I have admired the seriousness with which everyone has approached it. There is a process in place to try to find the right answer.
It underscores the urgency of getting this economy back on track because for many of the challenges we face in Rhode Island and throughout the United States, the core of it is the incredibly serious jobs’ crisis. There are so many Rhode Islanders and so many Americans who are not working and not contributing to the tax base. The sooner we can get the economy right, the better we’ll be able to manage all of these challenges.
During your time as mayor of Providence you had some issues with unions. Do you believe in the right of labor unions to engage in collective bargaining?
We need to be certain that workers have the right to collectively bargain. If you look at what has been accomplished over the last several generations as a result of collective bargaining, workplace safety and worker’s rights are really important.
I don’t think collective bargaining has been a problem. It’s been a process through which elected officials have given pensions that were unsustainable. In my city there were awards of 4, 5 and 6 percent compounded [cost-of-living adjustments], which is totally unsustainable. So that didn’t come from collective bargaining. That was someone on the other side of the bargaining table who agreed to those terms.
Funding for collective bargaining is important, protecting the ability of workers to collectively bargain, but we should be sure that we have people on the other side of the table who are not only looking out for the workers but looking out for the taxpayers as well. I think that’s where so much of the challenge is.
One of the things we’re grappling with here in Jamestown is the wind turbine issue. Thoughts?
We had before the Congress of the United States on the House side what most environmental groups have described as the single most serious attack on the environment in a generation. It was a terrible, terrible bill which really undermined our ability to protect our clean air, our clean water, and provided things as extreme as strip mining right at the base of the Grand Canyon.
The leadership in our House has been undermining what were really bipartisan environmental protections. Those have evolved over the last several decades including not only clean air and clean water, but also environmental restoration and the preservation of species.
I think one of the areas we have a real opportunity…to be serious about is the development and production of clean energy, wind, solar and geothermal. We have an incredible opportunity here in Rhode Island with wind.
In Rhode Island, because of what’s already happening here, we have a real opportunity to lead our country in the development of renewable energy and new clean energy technologies. That’s going to require an aligning of what we do at the federal level, what we do at the state level, and even at the local level to support that development. I hope that Rhode Island will carve out a real leadership role in the development of renewable energy in the decade.
The president has introduced a new jobs’ bill. Do you have any confidence that all or some part of that bill can be passed by Congress, or that any bill can be passed in this legislative session?
I do have guarded optimism. Unfortunately the leadership in the House has in many instances demonstrated their willingness and ability to stop many of the initiatives of the president.
In this area, the consequences of not doing something about jobs would be so dangerous for them politically that I think they’re going to feel compelled to take action. The president outlined what I think is a very serious jobs bill that focuses on small business providing tax cuts, tax credits, payroll tax cuts, investment in infrastructure, investment in job training to ensure that we pay attention to our young people who are unemployed, our returning vets, and the long-term unemployed.
I think it’s a very smart approach and I think the president very wisely identified issues that have previously received Republican support. Every single proposal in that bill is bipartisan and has enjoyed Republican support at some time. The president crafted this in a way that said that this has already had bipartisan support, and made the case that some people are waiting for the next election and that the American people cannot wait 14 months. from previous page
We have to be able to do two things at the same time. On the one hand, we have to pass the jobs’ bill and get Rhode Islanders and the American people back to work, and address the jobs’ crisis in our country. At the same time we need to have a long-term strategy for dealing with the deficit. We have to do both things. Get people to work today and have in place long-term deficit reduction. I think that’s what the president’s plan does.
Now the economists have done their analysis of it. They’re all saying that it will create anywhere between 1.5 [million] and 2.3 million jobs. We have to close loopholes that big corporations are using so that millionaires and billionaires are paying their fair share. End the subsidies for big oil companies. End the tax breaks for companies that are shipping jobs overseas.
While there are not a lot of things that give me optimism after watching several months of bitter partisanship in Washington, I hope members of Congress understand that the American people expect us to get something done. They’re tired of all the talk. They need to see action. They need to see things that are going to result in their getting a job, or their next-door neighbor getting a job.
I think if members of Congress hear from their constituents all across the country that they’re demanding action on jobs that the Republican leadership in the House will be forced to do something. This is a really important piece of legislation that will help to get people back to work and will give a jolt to our economy.
Although the health care bill was passed before you were in the House, what is your take on what happened with that bill?
The idea is that affordable quality health care is a basic necessity of life. The Health Care Reform Act ensures that 30 million Americans who currently don’t have insurance will have it. It makes sure that people who are suffering from a preexisting condition will no longer be denied the right to get health insurance because of that preexisting condition. It eliminates caps on coverage of chronic disease so that no longer can someone who is suffering from a very serious disease reach the point where they say, “Sorry, your chemotherapy has to stop because you’ve reached your cap, we’re done.”
Also, young people who are either in school or haven’t found work yet can remain on their parents’ plan. Children who were previously not covered will now be covered.
One thing we didn’t do well was explain to the American people what this health care reform does, the benefits of it, and the consequences of not having the reforms that have been put into place. And we have to consider the work to make our health care system more efficient and reduce the costs. There are lots of ways to do that, but we should be very proud of the fact that you can no longer be denied access to coverage because of a preexisting condition. That the doughnut hole is now being closed for our seniors that’s going to reduce the cost of their prescription drugs and that there is no longer a cap. Those are important improvements in our health care system.
We have to work very hard to allow the government to negotiate discounted prices for the purchase of prescription drugs, which will save billions of dollars. That is allowed for the Veteran’s Administration but not for the rest of the health care system and that has to be fixed.
One of the first votes I took as a member of Congress was against the repeal of it. I don’t think it’s a perfect piece of legislation. As it’s implemented we’re going to have to constantly be reviewing it and make sure it’s working for American families, but it has made substantial progress in insuring that more Americans can access quality affordable health care.
Would you have supported a public option had you been there?
Yes. I think there is no question that a public option would have made the bill stronger.
You were the first openly gay mayor of a major city. What is your stand on gay marriage?
I believe in full marriage equality. I believe that every single Rhode Islander, every single American, should have access to the tradition of marriage, and should not be denied that right. I oppose the Defense of Marriage Act, and I am a co-sponsor of legislation to repeal it.
Is there anything else that you would like to speak about?
Two things. In the Democratic Caucus we have launched a whole agenda called Make it in America. The focus is on how we rebuild manufacturing in this country, and from my perspective in Rhode Island. Some of that is gone and we’re not going to get it back. But there has been a growth in new manufacturing, more high tech. The whole agenda really begins with legislation that provides for development of a national manufacturing strategy. Legislation that would prevent the Chinese from cheating in our trading via currency manipulation. The creation of the equivalent of an individual retirement account for capital investments in new manufacturing equipment.
Part of the legislation package is my bill, the Make it in America block grant. It would help manufacturers retrofit factories, buy new equipment, and retrain their workers. I’m working with our leadership in promoting this agenda, and the passage of this package of bills, because I really believe there is an opportunity to really rebuild the manufacturing sector in our state and support some of the new manufacturers in the 1st District and in our whole state.
If we’re going to maintain our position as a great economic power, we’re going to have to make things again in this country.
So I’ve been working on that. The environmental work has been very important. I am constantly advocating for the protection of our environment and beating back Republican efforts to undermine our clean air, clean water and food safety.
I have put together a common ground caucus with a Republican colleague of mine named Nan Hayworth. The idea of the caucus is that if you’re a Democrat and you want to join, you have to find a Republican, and if you’re a Republican and you want to join, you have to find a Democrat. Once we form we’re going to do things together that will help build relationships to work together for the American people.
One of the most disappointing surprises for me has been how partisan the Congress is now. I believe that this is a moment that we have to be true to our values as Democrats, our American values in protecting our seniors, protecting education, investing in infrastructure, and protecting our environment. At the same time we have to find a way to work together and to find solutions to these really challenging problems. I’m trying in my own way to bridge that division.
I think in many ways people really do expect Congress to work together to find solutions. On the other hand I know that I want to fiercely defend Medicare, and the Environmental Protection Agency, and investments in education, and our commitment to our seniors, and Social Security. There are people on the other side in the Republican Caucus who want to end Medicare, privatize Social Security, repeal the ability of the EPA to protect our water and our air, and cut Pell Grants.
So on the one hand we do want to try to find common ground, but we also have to protect and fight for the things that are really important to Rhode Island and I think important to the future of our country. That’s the challenge.
Do you think that the president has done an adequate job of protecting those Democratic values?
We are living – at least in my memory – in the most difficult time our country has ever faced both internationally and here at home. I think the president inherited and has been confronted with enormous challenges. I have continued to be incredibly impressed by his leadership. I’ve had my own disappointments on certain issues. There’s no way that you agree with the president – even the president from your own party – every single time. I think he’s met tremendous resistance. I admire that the president continues to forge ahead and find common ground.
I wish that we had concluded our involvement much more quickly. I’ve been fighting for a quick but responsible end to the war there. I think we’re spending money halfway around the world that should be redirected here at home.
Elections are a time to really compare candidates. As we’ve seen from the recent Republican debates, there are big differences between our president and all of the Republican candidates. I think that the American people are going to decide overwhelmingly that the values and the positions and priorities of this president mirror the positions and values of America much more so than any of the Republican candidates.
It’s the morning after Election Day 2012. Where are we as a country?
This is an important election. I think that in many ways what we saw around the country with the election of a lot of Tea Party candidates or Republicans who identify with the Tea Party is that this is a new movement. I don’t know that everyone knew exactly what the Tea Party stood for and what they were going to fight for once they got elected. I think now it’s much clearer to the American people what the Tea Party stands for and what their priorities are. They’ve made it clear that they are supporting another tax cut for millionaires and billionaires. They are fighting fiercely to protect subsidies to the oil companies. They proposed cutting Pell Grants and ending Medicare.
It’s much clearer now what the differences are and ultimately the American people are going to have to make a choice. Do they reelect this group of individuals in which case they can advance this agenda, or do they say, “No, that’s not the direction that they want for their country.”
Everyone always says that this is the most important election of our lifetime. This for me and for our country is really important because I can’t remember a new party having this much success. This is the moment we’re going to have to decide as a country, are those our values and is this the direction that we want to take America? If we do, then they will get elected and then they will execute the policies they’ve articulated.
I’m hopeful that we will make a different choice and that we will continue to be a country where there is a legitimate shot for everyone to achieve the American dream. Where we take care of our veterans, we protect our seniors, we protect our environment, and we invest in education.
I think those are the values of our party, and those are the values of our country, and that on the day after the election those values will be reaffi rmed by the results of the election.