The Art of Inoculation

Providence Mayor Angel Taveras' top-to-bottom review of city finances, which revealed a two-year, $180 million structural deficit, has badly damaged the reputation of his predecessor, David Cicilline, who stands accused of covering up the capital's fiscal problems while running a successful campaign for Congress last fall. 

Congressman Cicilline, in an interview on talk radio station WPRO earlier this week, declined an invitation to apologize for his handling of the Providence city budget - focusing, instead, on the heavy state-aid cuts the city sustained during his administration, the impact of the recession, and the drying up of federal stimulus dollars. He also framed his choice, as mayor, like this: I could've raised taxes to address the budget woes, but I didn't think that was wise in a recession.

The one "regret" he allowed was that he didn't do enough to raise the alarm about the challenges the city would face going forward. Translation: he failed to inoculate himself against the heavy criticism he now faces.

Cicilline's comments called to mind an argument that a seasoned political hand made during a recent conversation about the Congressman's political quandary: what's most striking about all this, he said, is how careless Cicilline and his staff were with his mayoral legacy.

This observer said Cicilline, who presumably knew the depth of the city's financial problems, should have held a press conference after he won election to Congress, with Taveras at his side, touting his leadership of the city but warning of trouble ahead.

Critics, no doubt, would have cried foul: why didn't he bring this up during the campaign? And Taveras' audit of city finances would have meant plenty more trouble for Cicilline, press conference or no.

But a warning of some kind might have curbed the damage a bit and allowed his argument - heavy state and federal cuts, the recession, a conscious decision to avoid tax hikes - to be heard, rather than swept away in charges of duplicity.

There is, of course, a heavy dose of Monday morning quarterbacking in all of this. And perhaps none of it would've mattered in the face of a fiscal emergency Taveras has called a "Categry 5 hurricane." Perhaps a Nixonian approval number was inevitable for Cicilline.

But it's an interesting notion to ponder.

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