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Sexual Orientation an Open Issue for Cicilline

Rhode Island Candidate Says Gay Status Isn’t Discussed

Even among the minefields of Rhode Island politics, David Cicilline has no fear that his sexual orientation will hurt him.

He is a survivor of six campaigns in the last 16 years, a prodigious fundraiser, an accomplished mayor of Providence and the early frontrunner in the crowded contest to replace retiring political scion Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D).

Cicilline, 49 and single, is also openly gay.

“I think it is completely irrelevant to voters. I think it’s completely irrelevant to this campaign. I don’t think voters care about sexual orientation of candidates, at least in Rhode Island,” Cicilline said in an interview with Roll Call this week.

In contrast to Scott Galvin, a Congressional candidate whose campaign signs were recently marked with anti-gay slurs in southern Florida, there has been no evidence of overt homophobia in the Rhode Island contest. But political observers from both parties think Cicilline’s sexual orientation will become an issue, if it hasn’t already.

While among the most heavily Democratic states in the nation, Rhode Island is also the most Catholic and relatively moderate on many social issues. It’s one of the only New England states that has yet to allow same-sex marriage.

Sexual orientation “is definitely an issue — good and bad. He is raising a boatload of money nationally around the issue. He’s got folks coming in to work the ground,” said one veteran Rhode Island Democratic strategist. “But if you go into any VFW or American Legion hall, it’s a negative. When people know it, yes, there is a bias, particularly around seniors.”

Cicilline’s candidacy has drawn the attention of at least two national interest groups, the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund and the Human Rights Campaign. Both have helped bundle campaign contributions for the mayor in recent weeks and are considering funneling more resources into the district before the primary on Sept. 14.

The HRC helped coordinate a July fundraiser for Cicilline in Philadelphia, while the Victory Fund recently helped arrange donor meetings in California.

“It’s exciting to see an openly gay candidate as the frontrunner,” HRC Political Action Committee Director Mike Mings said, noting that his organization would likely send “at least one staffer” to Rhode Island in the coming weeks to help coordinate field operations. “It’s uncommon to have someone in such a good position.”

Victory Fund President Chuck Wolfe, who has already visited Cicilline in Rhode Island multiple times this cycle, acknowledged that gay candidates regularly face bias across the country.

“It’s definitely going on, but it’s obviously less in New England,” he said. “But there is the church question: How strong is the Catholic church and how strong will any church influence be?”

The organizations have endorsed Cicilline and two other openly gay Congressional candidates this cycle. But Cicilline has the best chance of becoming the fourth openly gay Member in the next Congress, following Democratic Reps. Tammy Baldwin (Wis.), Jared Polis (Colo.) and Barney Frank (Mass.).

Galvin, who is struggling to stay competitive in Florida’s 17th district, finished the last quarter with just $15,000 in the bank and faces several better-funded primary candidates.

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