David Cicilline, the Rhode Island Democrat now leading a House antitrust investigation into the market dominance of Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Apple, is about to find out. But he has experience going up against “enormously powerful, very well-financed, very well-connected” special interests, which is how he now terms the technology industry.
That description also fit an earlier Cicilline opponent, former Providence Mayor Vincent “Buddy” Cianci, a charismatic and seemingly indestructible politician who ran the city for more than two decades. Cicilline braved a run to unseat Cianci in 2002 at a time when the incumbent was fending off corruption charges but still intent on winning a seventh term. By that year’s end, Cicilline was headed to the mayor’s office, Cianci to federal prison, and the seeds were planted for a bitter political rivalry that would last until Cianci died in 2016.
“If you can take on Buddy Cianci, you can certainly take on Mark Zuckerberg,” said Darrell West, a former political science professor at Brown University in Providence who now directs the Brookings Institution’s Center for Technology Innovation.
Cicilline is adept at social media and drives a Tesla, but until recently hasn’t been considered among the tech policy wonks in Congress. As a law student and lawyer, he didn’t spend much time studying the nation’s century-old antitrust laws, first used to target oil barons and railroad monopolies.
Yet for those who have followed his career, it fits into a trend of siding with the underdog. For Cicilline, the federal government’s lack of scrutiny as Google gobbled up its digital advertising competitors and Facebook acquired rivals like Instagram and WhatsApp has enabled the tech giants to corner their market, giving people little choice but to agree to terms of service that exploit their personal data.
“A monopoly’s good for nobody, especially for workers,” said J. Michael Downey, a president of a Rhode Island public sector union who is enthused about the congressman’s latest high-profile cause. “When he takes someone on, I’ve watched him do good things with it.”
Cicilline may be better known by some younger Americans for his championing of LGBT rights, and by older ones for his pithy attacks on President Donald Trump during regular cable appearances. He pushed early for an impeachment inquiry, bucking Speaker Nancy Pelosi despite being part of her leadership team.
Early on, Cicilline followed his father, a Mafia lawyer, into criminal defense work. He got experiences in taking on the “imbalance of power,” he said, by suing police for misconduct. He later served as a state representative before taking aim at Cianci, who had already served two long stretches as mayor. (The first ended after Cianci attacked his estranged wife’s alleged lover with a lit cigarette and a fireplace log.)
Cicilline pitched himself as an anti-corruption reformer. At one early fundraiser, Cicilline said Cianci’s supporters jotted down the license plate numbers of attendees, then used the information to identify and intimidate them.
“He didn’t take well to people challenging him,” Cicilline told The Associated Press in an interview. He said the sitting mayor also tried to dig up dirt about his legal career.