Democratic Rep. David Cicilline, a fixture of Rhode Island politics and a prominent leader of Donald Trump's second impeachment, unexpectedly announced on Tuesday that he will resign from the House to head a philanthropic organization. Cicilline rose swiftly through the ranks of leadership in Congress, and at 61 years old, his departure comes as a surprise. In a statement, he explained his decision to join the Rhode Island Foundation by saying it would allow him to "expand on the work I have led for nearly thirty years in helping to improve the lives of all Rhode Islanders."
In Congress, Cicilline established himself as a vocal advocate for progressive causes but was best known for co-authoring the article of impeachment accusing Trump of "incitement of insurrection" following the Jan. 6 attacks on the Capitol. Soon after, the House voted in favor of the article, making Trump the first president to ever be impeached twice. Cicilline was tapped by then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi to manage Trump's trial before the Senate, which ended in an acquittal, albeit with the support of a record number of Republicans.
Cicilline said his resignation will take effect June 1, at which point Gov. Dan McKee will be able to schedule a special election for later this year—the state's first since 1967. Cicilline's district, which covers the eastern half of the state and a large swath of Providence, is unlikely to change hands: Joe Biden would have carried the district by a 64-35 margin, and the congressman handily defeated an unheralded Republican opponent by a similar 64-36 spread to win a seventh term last year.
That victory capped a long political career that began with an unsuccessful bid for the state Senate in 1992, when he failed to oust the Democratic incumbent in the primary. But that was the first and last time Cicilline would ever lose: Two years later, he bounced back by winning an open seat in the state House that he easily held for a decade.
In 2001, Cicilline took a bold leap that would see him make history. Buddy Cianci, the legendary longtime mayor of Providence, had grown very popular after overseeing a renaissance in the city and deterred most serious challengers. Despite the seemingly long odds, Cicilline decided to run against the Republican-turned-independent incumbent, who nevertheless took his opponent seriously: Determined to blunt the openly gay Ciccilline's advantage with gay voters, Cianci assiduously courted the community, outreach that prompted Cicilline to quip, "He spends more time in gay bars than me."
Cianci, however, was as corrupt as he was popular and was convicted on a federal racketeering charge in June 2002, just before the candidate filing deadline. A new trio of Democrats jumped into the suddenly uncertain race, but Cicilline had been laying the groundwork for a year and defeated his nearest rival for the Democratic nomination 52-34. In dark blue Providence, that was the ballgame: Cicilline won the general election resoundingly, becoming the first openly gay person to serve as mayor of a state capital and making Providence the the biggest city in the country with a gay mayor.
After easily securing a second term four years later, Cicilline made the leap to Congress in 2010 after 1st District Rep. Patrick Kennedy, a fellow Democrat, announced his retirement. Cicilline defeated three rivals for the Democratic nomination, outpacing businessman Anthony Gemma 37-23. That fall, however, he faced the most difficult general election of his career thanks to the year's intense GOP wave, but he nevertheless earned his first term in the House with a 51-44 win over Republican state Rep. John Loughlin and has remained there ever since.
The timing of the special election to succeed Cicilline is murky, however, since Rhode Island's long-dormant law governing congressional vacancies now conflicts with federal laws that require absentee ballots to be sent to overseas voters well in advance. It's likely that an election will take place this fall, preceded by a primary that will likely prove all-important given the district's strong Democratic lean.