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Q&A: Rep. David Cicilline ’83 looks to engage young voters at Town Hall event

R.I. First Congressional District Rep. discusses cosponsoring Equality Act, automatic voter registration

Rep. David Cicilline ’83, D-R.I., will host his first civic engagement event — the Town Hall for the Next Generation — focused on engaging young adults in Rhode Island at the Providence G Ballroom this Thursday.

Cicilline spoke with The Herald about the importance of today’s youth in the legislative process, his work in Congress, the Equality Act and how Brown contributes to city and state policy-making.

What are you hoping to accomplish with the Town Hall For The Next Generation event, and how did it come about?

The purpose of it is to provide an opportunity for young people to speak directly to me about the issues that are important to them, and to give me an opportunity to speak about the things that I am working on that I think matter to young people. I am always looking to create more opportunities for constituents to share their views, and we are doing it in a number of ways: an email newsletter, telephone town halls, neighborhood conversations and open office hours in each of the 17 communities that I represent in the first congressional district. What I’ve noticed is that there are not enough young people at these different opportunities. I thought, “What about if we create a town hall specifically designed to focus on the issues of millennials — and sort of that age group of 18 to a little older at 35 — in a place that’s convenient for young people and at a time that is convenient for them?”

What makes today’s youth unique, and how will this event benefit them?

Young people are suffering from the same condition as the general public.  The presence of big money in our political system has exacerbated the impression that people have that their voices are being drowned out by special interests in Washington and this has made people disengaged with the process, which is very harmful for our democracy. We have to be more proactive in terms of creating opportunities for young people to become engaged in civic life in the community in which they live. I am interested in listening to young people’s ideas and also want to have the opportunity to report to them about what I’m working on because they’re my bosses.

What issues are you expecting young people to voice at the Town Hall discussion on Thursday?

I know that one of the most important issues for young people today is crushing debt that they are accumulating in terms of their education costs and the impact it has on their lives after they graduate. I think that people are also very interested in what kind of leadership we are providing in the world as we respond to the very serious issue of climate change. I also expect that young folks are likely to be interested in criminal justice, social justice, equality issues such as criminal justice reform and police community relations and particularly a piece of legislation that I introduced called the Equality Act that will prohibit discrimination based upon sexual orientation or gender identity within housing, employment, public accommodation, jury service, federal funding and education. It’s a very comprehensive civil rights bill. Also the Voting Rights Act and efforts that will make it more difficult for folks to access the ballot box.

Is there anything specific that you are working on that you are eager to share at this event?

I’ve introduced a bill which I’m anxious to share at the Town Hall about automatic voter registration, which will provide that when you turn 18 you are registered to vote and then you are provided an opportunity to opt-out within 21 days of when you are notified. Oregon did that and added over 300,000 votes to their voting log so I’m hoping to get people excited about automatic voting registration and how easy it will be for young people to vote. I am hoping that they will be excited by the Equality Act because millennials really more than any other generation get what inequality means and how it harms individuals who are subjected to it, how it haunts our diginity. Also, I want to particularly raise the issue of immigration reform which I know is very important to young people.

Why did you choose to run for Congress, and what do you hope to accomplish as a Congressman?

I served as mayor for eight years before I ran for Congress, and one of my great frustrations was that people in Washington didn’t understand what it took for cities and communities to be successful. So I thought, “Let me go to Washington and fight for the things that I know are critical building blocks of great communities.” And I think that if we get more mayors in Congress, it would be a better institution, and we’d get more things done.

You sit on the House Judiciary and Foreign Affairs committees. What issues are you focused on specifically within each one?  

On the Judiciary, I am focused on some of the reforms of the government surveillance programs, privacy issues, questions of intellectual property and criminal justice issues. On the Foreign Affairs Committee, I serve on the Africa and International Organizations subcommittee, as well as the Middle East subcommittee, so I am very focused right now on the president’s recent decision to send 50 advisers to Syria — I’ve been outspoken on the issue that I’m fearful of becoming more deeply involved in the Syrian Civil War. I also was very involved with Secretary of State Clinton in respect to the Iran Nuclear Agreement.

How do you think the new House majority speaker, Paul Ryan, could best restore bipartisanship and cooperation within Congress?

It is important that he work with Democrats to get things done that are urgent priorities of the American people — raising income for American families, rebuilding the crumbling infrastructure of our country, access to affordable health care, the cost of higher education, strengthening Medicare and Social Security. I think that Paul Ryan is tasked with standing up to the far right of his party and finding common ground with the Democrats to work on these important issues.

What was the purpose behind the Equality Act?

I worked on this legislation with a number of partners and organizations who have been involved with the work to promote equality in the LGBT community. Many of us felt that, although we had made progress with marriage equality and “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” this idea of scraping and scratching for one right at a time was maybe not the right approach anymore. Instead, we should be thinking about how do we end discrimination in every context against members of the LGBT community, so we wrote a bill that adds sexual orientation and gender identity to all of the main civil rights statutes. For instance discrimination in housing, employment, public accommodations, jury service, federal funding and education. We introduced the bill with 170 Democratic cosponsors in the House and 39 cosponsors in the Senate. And the president endorsed the Equality Act (on Tuesday), which is great news.

What kind of advice to you have for recent college graduates who do feel frustrated by Congress and think their values aren’t being represented?

Get involved. We need to hear the voices of young people in our political system — whether it’s running for office, working on a campaign, writing a letter to the editor, writing a letter to your congressman. Changing the world is not a spectator sport.

Who is your hero and why?

I prominently display a poster in my office of Bobby Kennedy — someone whom I admire tremendously. I think that he spoke about the values of our country in a really eloquent way and lived his life in a way in which he gave meaning to those values in his fight against injustice and his fight for equality.

What role do Rhode Island’s educational institutions and specifically Brown play in your position as congressman or, previously, as mayor?

Brown, like the other teaching institutions in Rhode Island, has an important role to play not only in the young people that study there or the faculty that teaches there but also in contributing to good public policy. And I call upon Brown in many different ways — on Brown’s students, faculty and the Brown College Democrats. I also regularly reach out to the Watson Institute for consultation.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.


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