I’m Ian Donnis. This week, I’m talking with First District U.S. Representative David Cicilline about how Democrats overcame expectations and what happens next in Congress. Head of Common Cause Rhode Island John Marion joins me to analyze Rhode Island’s election from a good government perspective. And South County reporter for The Public’s Radio Ben Berke takes us inside the surprising upset of Bristol County, Massachusetts, Sheriff Tom Hodgson.

First up, my conservation with the Democrat who has represented Rhode Island’s First Congressional District since winning election in 2010.

Ian Donnis: Congressman David Cicilline. Welcome back to The Public's Radio.

U.S. Rep. David Cicilline: Thanks. Great to be back.

Ian Donnis: As we know, the party that holds the White House usually suffers losses in the midterm elections. Why did Democrats outperform those expectations this year?

Rep. Cicilline: Well, I think Democrats outperform those expectations for three important reasons. One, I think Americans know that we are the party that is trying to deal with the number one issue in people's minds. And that is the high cost of goods, both food, gas and other household items. We have enacted legislation to lower costs, our Republican colleagues have opposed those efforts. They talk a lot about inflation, but they have no plans. I think one, we've delivered on the key priorities of the American people. Second reason is I think that people are very worried about the loss of important freedoms, whether it's right to abortion services, or marriage equality, that Republicans have become the party of taking away people's freedoms. And thirdly, I think Democrats are the party that's supporting and protecting American democracy. And people understand that threat.

Ian Donnis: It looks like Republicans will still win control of the US House, if that happens, they will try to stop President Biden's agenda in its tracks. How can Democrats respond to that in an effective way?

Rep. Cicilline: Well, I would say first, I think there are about 30 races that are -- haven't been called yet. So I hope that there is still a path, I know, there's still a path for Democrats to retain the majority. If we don't, we're going to continue to do what we've always done. And that is, engage the American people in these important fights and keep pressure on Republicans to work to improve the lives of the American people. You're right, that they have been obstructionist in everything we've tried to do. And if they take the majority, there's no reason to expect they'll act differently. But our best strategy is really to make sure we're making the case to the American people. So that Republicans hear from their constituents about the urgency of lowering costs. of protecting basic freedoms. of respecting and protecting our democracy.

Ian Donnis: Do you expect Nancy Pelosi to seek to continue as the Democratic Leader in the House?

Rep. Cicilline: I think it's unclear. You know, I think the speaker had intended, you know, sort of I think the expectation was that she would conclude her second term as a speaker of the house after this election. That was, I think, the representation that was made early on to the caucus, that she would limit herself to two terms. I do think that the really extraordinary performance of Democrats across the country, and the recent despicable attack on her husband, are things that are weighing on the speaker, and I don't know that she's made a decision, but we have our caucus elections on November 9, so we'll have some answer by the end of the month,

Ian Donnis: November 9?

Rep. Cicilline: November 30. I'm sorry.

Ian Donnis: You've moved up in seniority since first winning election in 2010. What role would you like to play in the Democratic leadership in the House?

Rep. Cicilline: My hope is that I will have the opportunity to play a role in developing and communicating the Democratic message. I think, you know, we were very successful in 2018 when I was the co chair of DPCC. And bringing us back into the majority, along with Hakeem Jeffries and Cheri Bustos, I think that's an area where we always can use some help, and that is effective messaging and communicating the work we're doing. So I think the new leadership team will be configured differently, but hopefully, we will really, in a serious way increase our communications work and messaging work.

Ian Donnis: The midterm elections notwithstanding, we've seen how Republicans have been very effective at flexing their power. You've been in the minority, for most of your time in the US House. They've reshaped the US Supreme Court in a much more conservative direction. Republicans have gained control of a lot more state houses, how come Democrats haven't been able to muster a stronger response?

Rep. Cicilline: Well, I mean, I think part of it is there are rules that exist in the Senate that make it difficult for us to get legislation to the President's desk. That is the filibuster, of course, which allows the minority in the Senate to overrule the will of the majority and we have dozens of good pieces of legislation that would pass the Senate if they applied a rule of a simple majority vote and then send it to the President's desk. But I think that's one of the impediments. You know, we've gotten a lot of work done The, you know, Equality Act HR one, the for the people act, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, the universal background check. I mean, the list goes on and on of bills that are sitting on the Senate Majority Leader's desk, because we can't get 10 Republicans to support those bills. I think that's a mistake. I think the Senate ought to change its rules and, you know, behave like a democracy and vote things up or down and get them to the President's desk. But look, I think Democrats are very committed to doing all we can to improve the lives of working people in this country. And our Republican colleagues, unfortunately, especially in the house, are very focused on, you know, protect the interests of their donors of big corporate special interests, whether it's the big drug companies or big fossil fuel companies or big gun manufacturers. And, you know, we're going to continue to do the work to improve the lives of the people we represent.

Ian Donnis: We're talking here with first district Rhode Island Congressman David Cicilline. And we've seen how conservatives have made the term 'woke' into a pejorative. Some liberals, including the comedian Bill Maher, think that Democrats are too caught up in cultural issues when their focus should be more narrowly on economic issues. What do you think? 

Rep. Cicilline: Yeah, I think it's completely wrong. I think Democrats are singularly focused on economic issues. That's why we passed the inflation Reduction Act to lower the cost of prescription drugs and health care and to make it easier for families to afford health care. That's why we made investments in renewable energy to bring down energy costs. That's why we passed the CHIPS Act, so we can compete internationally for the production of chips and the biggest infrastructure investment in a generation to create good paying jobs. I mean, we've been very focused on economic issues. And frankly, it's been the Republican party that's been focused on these cultural issues, like banning books, and, you know, changing curriculum in public schools. Things that are, you know, limiting a woman's decisions about our own healthcare, all things that they see as politically powerful, and as a kind of path back into power. But, you know, the Democrats have focused on the economic issues. And you know, this idea of woke, if woke means being a community that values everyone that respects everyone that creates economic opportunities for everyone, that's a good thing. That's the bedrock of the Democratic Party, the bedrock principles. So, you know, I think what we saw in this last election, what we'll certainly see in the coming years is the effort to divide us by stoking these divisions using these cultural issues to try to pit us against them. And I think what people want is people to come together and work together in a productive way to improve people's lives. That's what Democrats are doing, putting people over politics. I think what you're seeing with Republicans, unfortunately, is exploiting everything and abandoning even the truth to achieve their objective.

Ian Donnis: There was one poll this campaign season that showed President Biden's approval rating underwater in the second district by 12 points. That's quite an indictment in a blue leaning state like Rhode Island, do you think President Biden is the best choice to lead Democrats into the 2024 Presidential race?

Rep. Cicilline: I would say, first of all, I wouldn't agree with your characterization that that's an indictment. Look, this has been a hard couple of years for everyone, including Rhode Islanders, between the pandemic and the economic catastrophe that follow the pandemic. It's been a really challenging time. And when you ask people about whether, you know, they approve of the president, he gets low approval ratings. But when you ask him as compared to almost every other Republican, he prevails. So I think it's the moment we're in, I think the results of the midterm election shows that the President and the President's agenda, in fact, are making a difference in people's lives. When faced with choices of election deniers, and insurrectionists. And people who have no plan to lower costs. The American people rejected those candidates. And so this overperformance in the midterms, I think, is further evidence that the President is on the right path. And I think if the president runs again, he will be reelected. The decision or not whether he does is obviously his but if you look at all that he's gotten done in the first two years, and the performance of the midterms, it's hard to argue that there's any stronger person to lead the Democratic Party.

Ian Donnis: Even before the recent uptick in political violence. You have described receiving threats at your office, how has that caused you to alter how you approach your work and your life?

Rep. Cicilline: It hasn't caused me to alter it in any way, my responsibilities remain the same. And, you know, unfortunately, political violence and threats of political violence have become a regular part of our lives. And that's regrettable, it shouldn't exist against any candidate or officeholder of either party of any party. And everyone in politics and outside of politics should condemn political violence in every way. This is not the way we do things in America, but sadly, it's become more and more of a reality.

Ian Donnis: How do we as a nation come back from this heightened level of political violence in the view of experts that it's likely to continue for some time?

Rep. Cicilline: Well, I think that one of the important things is for those of us who have the privilege of serving in positions of responsibility in public life, we should all condemn it, you know, nobody should, you know, in any way, excuse it and mock it or make up conspiracy theories around it. But people should just condemn it. It's bad for the country, the rest of the world looks to America as an example of a great democracy. And we have had, you know, most of our life as a country free from this kind of political violence. And we should all recognize it's unhealthy. It's dangerous. It's not who we are as a country. And, you know, making sure people are held accountable who engage and incite this, and voting people out of office who give, you know, quarter to it, I think is a very important way to move forward.

Ian Donnis: Do you expect do you expect Republicans to press to cut or restrain aid to Ukraine?

Rep. Cicilline: Yes, there is a clear pro Russia coalition within the Republican caucus, you have people like Marjorie Taylor Greene, who have already said, if Republicans take control, we will not send one more penny to the Ukrainians, very dangerous statement. And so I think, you know, when you look at the majority that the Republicans might have, if Kevin McCarthy is the speaker, he's going to need to keep everyone in his coalition or his caucus happy. And so I expect that we're gonna have some real challenges in continuing to support Ukrainian people in their fight for democracy.

Ian Donnis: This was a big week for you not only did you win re election, you also opened a downtown bar called Clementine named for one of your great grandmother's on Washington Street across from Trinity rep. What make you're interested in in doing this?

Rep. Cicilline: You know, I love obviously love the city of Providence. I was walking by that spot about nine or 10 months ago, and it said for lease, and I thought, Oh, this is a really cool space. I would love to create something down here, which would be fun place to come before Trinity after PPAC, you know, kind of early evening. I had a restaurant probably 25 or 30 years ago in Narragansett. I worked my whole life in restaurants, both as a busboy and as a waiter, put myself through college and law school, so I've always liked the business, but it just seemed like a cool opportunity to open something in downtown which I love. And, of course, it was a lot more work and took a lot longer than I expected. But now that it's open, I'm delighted I have it in your right it's named after my great grandmother.

Ian Donnis: What will the signature cocktail be?

Rep. Cicilline: The Clementine Fizz, of course.

Ian Donnis: All right, first District Congressman David Cicilline, a Democrat. Congratulations on your reelection. And thank you for joining us.

Rep. Cicilline: Thank you so much for having me.

The good government perspective on the 2022 election with John Marion of Common Cause RI

Ian Donnis: John Marion, welcome back to The Public's Radio.

John Marion: Thank you for having me.

Ian Donnis: The election season is over. What do you consider your most important takeaway on the campaigns from a good government perspective?

John Marion: Well, so here in Rhode Island, you know, election day was largely uneventful, which is , something we're grateful for after sort of the pandemic election of 2020, which was a much bigger challenge. There were the minor hiccups that we normally see on an election day. But but for the most part, things ran as they should. In terms of nationally, I think there was a big sigh of relief, because there was a palpable threat of, you know, violence in some of the swing states. That hasn't really materialized. And it seems that, you know, the folks who are running actively as election deniers, particularly for Secretary of State's offices, were largely defeated. So there's, there's a big sigh of relief there.

Ian Donnis: You couldn't turn on the TV during campaign season without seeing a flotilla of negative ads. This is where candidates put a lot of their money and why they feel the need to raise so much money. Even though there's a lot of good reporting in Rhode Island on candidates and campaigns, does this, this level of TV advertising distort the process?

John Marion: Yeah, you know, Rhode Island was in a situation we're not normally in, which was we had a, you know, competitive race that mattered at the national level. And so we saw far more, particularly TV advertising than we typically would because of that. But most of the negative ones were actually from outside groups. They weren't by the candidates' campaigns. And that's, you know, largely the result of the Citizens United decision in 2010, where we see these super PACs, and these leadership PACs controlled by folks in Washington DC coming in and doing sort of the dirty work for the campaigns that the campaigns might not want to do themselves, because they have to stand by by their ad. And it's an you know, it's an unfortunate byproduct of the campaign finance system that the Supreme Court created for us.

Ian Donnis: You mentioned how voters in a lot of states rejected denialist candidates, do you think voters can resolve this issue by repeating these candidates? Or does denialism linger as a longer term threat?

John Marion: Yeah, I mean, I think that threat is still there, you know, that some folks in my circles seem to, you know, this week sort of be saying, well, you know, let's breathe a big sigh of relief. You know, certainly things went well, so far across the United States. But I think that threat is still there. And we have to be vigilant, particularly given, you know, that, that we have the next election is a presidential election, and there may be -- you know, candidates who are promoting this running for president. So I think we just have to keep pushing back against the narrative, that our elections are rigged, because there is no proof that our elections are rigged.

Ian Donnis: How do you evaluate the level of voter turnout in the Rhode Island election? And what does that tell us about the health of our democracy?

John Marion: Yeah, so we don't have the final number in, you know, it looks like turnout in Rhode Island was in, you know, the good but not great category. So we didn't get anywhere near the number of we had in 2006, which was a, you know, a record setting a midterm election. We didn't quite touch, I believe that 2018 number. So there's still a ways to go. I would say, we also don't know sort of the particularly the breakdown of who turned out quite yet in terms of age and some of the other demographics. So it's going to take some time to sift through that but we have a ways to go. We can still make voting more accessible by things like same day voter registration, you know, that we're going to push for going forward.

Ian Donnis: We see here in Rhode Island, how the ruling Democrats sometimes manipulate the redrawing of political districts for their benefit, a process known as gerrymandering. Republicans do that in other states. Is this essentially politics as usual? Or has gerrymandering taken a turn for the worse in terms of how the two parties approach it across the nation?

John Marion: Yeah, so that's a fascinating issue, if you look at it nationwide. So compare Michigan and Wisconsin. In Michigan, the Democrats claimed a trifecta with a majority of the votes statewide. So so they flipped, I believe the state senate for the first time since the mid 80s. You know, the, essentially, the institutions were responsive to what voters turned out in Michigan. In Wisconsin, even though they reelected a Democratic governor, and had a narrow Republican victory in the Senate. There's close to a supermajority for Republicans in the state legislature. The difference in Michigan, they had an independent redistricting process, in Wisconsin, it was a partisan process. You know, Rhode Island suffers from the same partisan gerrymandering that Wisconsin suffers from, although maybe to a little less of a degree. You know, so we still have work to do on that in Rhode Island.

Ian Donnis: One of the quirks of the political process here in Rhode Island, is we actually get our election results pretty quickly and much more quickly than in Massachusetts, a state that has sometimes held up as being better than Rhode Island. Is Rhode Island likely to be able to continue to maintain that distinction, or will changing voting technology affect that? 

John Marion: Well, so it's a result of a couple of things. One is, unlike the vast majority of states, elections aren't run by counties here. In much of the function of election administration is held at the state level, when it's held at either the county or the municipal level in other states. And so removing sort of a layer of bureaucracy is part of the reason we get results quicker. The second reason is we have voting equipment that wirelessly transmits unofficial results on election night. We're the only state in the nation that has that statewide, it's actually not necessarily a good thing that we have that ability because it opens up sort of a threat vector in our voting system. And in the future, the next generation of voting equipment won't allow that. So they'll have to come up with another system, but many states reported very quick results without having that type of voting equipment. So I think we can come up with alternatives that will lead to pretty quick results. But you know, not open up that vulnerability.

Ian Donnis: Executive Director of the nonpartisan good government group, Common Cause of Rhode Island, John Marion, thank you for joining us. 

John Marion: Thanks for having me.

The surprising upset in the race for Sheriff of Bristol County, Massachusetts

Ian Donnis: The sheriff of Bristol County message. The sheriff of Bristol County, Massachusetts, Tom Hodgson has been among the most durable elected officials in southern New England. He served in that role since the late 90s. Winning re election every six years, but Hodgson got defeated by Attleboro, Mayor Paul Heroux this week. South Coast correspondent for the public's radio, Ben Berke covered this race, and he joins me now. Hey, Ben, 

Ben Berke: Hey Ian

Ian Donnis: So not to put too fine a point on it, but Hodgson has been winning elections since you were four years old. How did he make sense of his surprise defeat this week?

Ben Berke: Yeah, I mean, Hodgson was quick to blame it on the advertising paid for by these out of state PACs that got involved in the race. There was one, Every Town for Gun Safety that's backed by Mike Bloomberg, and another called the Working Families Party, which gets some funding from the Soros family.

Ian Donnis: Is that really credible that that kind of outside spending is the factor that changed the outcome?

Ben Berke: I mean, it'd be hard to measure it scientifically. But I think it is fair to say it had a significant impact. Those PACs put about $375,000 into advertising for Heroux's campaign, and Heroux's campaign only raised about $175,000 on its own. So you can see the impact was significant.

Ian Donnis: In terms of the geography of Bristol County, was there any notable change in support from past elections in this one?

Ben Berke: Yeah, it's interesting on on election night, I was informing Tom Hodgson that he had actually lost his hometown of Dartmouth. And he said, "Ach, we never win there." He was explaining to me that you know, he's never performed super well in the cities like Fall River or New Bedford. Then on election night, he said we're waiting for the north of the county. We're waiting for the results to come in up there. And when they did finally come in, it turned out Heroux had beaten him there too. And that was the real surprise in the selection. Heroux outperformed Hodgson in several suburbs that had supported Hodgson in the past, including North Attleboro, Seekonk. Mansfield, Easton, and he also won in Attleboro, where Heroux is currently the mayor, which isn't a huge surprise, but that city had turned for Hodgson in the past.

Ian Donnis: You mentioned how Hodgson pointed to spending by groups backed by George Soros and Michael Bloomberg. Democrats called that an anti semitic dog whistle in but you know, Hodgson, of course, is for Republicans. So was this a real accurate charge? Or was this just a partisan back and forth?

Ben Berke: That's the power of a dog whistle. Is it's very hard to say, if you actually watch the advertisement that Senator Markey and Senator Warren were criticizing Hodgson for, for playing. They mentioned George Soros as a donor for Heroux. And immediately the video kind of zooms in on Soros' nose. As a Jew, it struck me as an anti-Semitic trope. But again, the power of a dog whistle is it's it's hard to pin it down.

Ian Donnis: So now Paul Heroux will take over as the Sheriff of Bristol County, how do you expect him to be different from Hodgson and why does it matter?

Ben Berke: Well, Heroux, on a very basic level promised to improve living conditions for inmates. But he also promised to take a more scientific approach, I guess, you could say, to measuring whether the rehabilitation programs that they run in the jails are working. So he wants to basically create systems to measure statistically if these programs that they're running are preventing people from reoffending and committing crime when they get out of jail. To put that another way he wants to measure whether or not people are really starting a stable lifestyle when they get out from behind bars.

Ian Donnis: To wrap things up, remind our Rhode Island listeners about why Massachusetts has sheriffs, which are a vestige or a part of county government in Massachusetts, something we don't have in Rhode Island.

Ben Berke: Sheriff's run the county jails, someone has to do it. And in Massachusetts, the way the Constitution is written and it was written a long time ago. It's an elected official who does it

Ian Donnis: Any indication of what is next for Tom Hodgson.

Ben Berke: He told me he just had a grandkid born and he's excited to usher that new face into the world. He mentioned he might write a book he might start a talk show. You know, I've heard some chatter on the conservative talk radio in New Bedford that some people want him to be the chairman of the Massachusetts GOP going forward. But the short answer is he didn't know what he was going to do next on election night because I think he was really counting on remaining the Bristol County Sheriff.

Ian Donnis: Ben Berke, South Coast reporter for the public's Radio. Thank you for joining us.

Ben Berke: You're welcome Ian