Cicilline's Grip on Firefighter Fight Begins to Slip

Mayor David N. Cicilline's political home run - a high-profile spat with the firefighters over their plans to picket the US Conference of Mayors - is looking more like a triple these days. But a triple is still pretty good.

The firefighters, who have been in a years-long contract fight with the city, have managed to keep Vice President Joe Biden and other prominent figures in the Obama administration away from the event. Democrats, after all, do not like to cross picket lines.

And when news of Biden's decision first broke last week, Cicilline took the offensive: labeling the firefighters selfish and declaring he would not cave in to unreasonable contract demands in a bid to lure the veep to town.

That put the mayor in a good political position. He could claim he was protecting the city's bottom line and standing up for a down-on-its-luck metropolis. And he could label the union greedy amid tough times for the average Rhode Islander.

The waters have muddied a bit since then. Buddy Cianci and others in talk radioland have hammered Cicilline in recent days for his years-long failure to settle the firefighters' contract in the run-up to the conference. The mayor has taken some heat for exploiting the situation for political gain. The ACLU is the latest group to criticize the city for asking protesters, including the firefighters, to register before picketing the event. And as details of the mayor's and firefighters' dueling contract proposals become public, it doesn't appear that there is so much separating the two sides - weakening Cicilline's case for fiscal steward.

But it says here that this is still a good fight, politically, for the mayor.

Things could shift in the next couple of days. But for now, it seems the backlash of the last few days is largely inside baseball: when the conference has come and gone, the average voter isn't going to remember much about picket registration and contract detail. The average voter will remember the broad outlines of the fight - the firefighters kept Joe Biden out of town and Cicilline wouldn't cave - and those broad outlines favor the mayor.

And just as important, this battle has shifted the focus away from a recent spate of bad publicity for the mayor. It was not too long ago, after all, that we were talking about his brother's attempt to pass a bad check with the city and Cicilline's decision to pull out of the governor's race.

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