In a recent forum at Laurelmead retirement home, political newcomer Matt Fecteau had one pointed question for U.S. Rep. David Cicilline: “When are we going to debate?”
Never mind that the two had already been sitting next to each other for more than an hour answering questions when this exchange occurred; Fecteau was adamant that the two should debate one-on-one.
Why that hasn’t happened is a bit of a dispute. Fecteau maintains he’s reached out to Cicilline’s campaign without response. Cicilline says he was already committed to an ongoing volunteer engagement in one instance and otherwise has not received any other invitations from parties who would host the debate.
But the situation also lends insight into the contest for the Democratic nomination for the 1st Congressional District seat between the 31-year-old former Army captain with virtually no political experience and the veteran politician with a long-standing presence in the state.
Fecteau said he knows he needs more time in front of voters. His path into politics was not something he’d always envisioned. While at the Community College of Rhode Island, where he earned an associate’s degree in 2003, he spent eight months interning in the Pawtucket office of U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, who held the 1st District seat before Cicilline. He was also a White House intern with the National Security Council for four months in 2009.
The decision to run, he said, came following his two tours in Iraq between 2007 and 2009, when he returned to the United States and was frustrated with the state of politics. Specifically, watching Cicilline’s reelection to Congress in 2012 was an impetus to run, he said.
“There were no jobs when I went into the Army. I came back from Iraq and I saw the situation was still bad, and that hasn’t changed,” Fecteau said.
Cicilline, the former Providence mayor seeking his third term in the House of Representatives, meanwhile acknowledges that being a member of the minority party in Washington limits his effectiveness. In many cases, he said, bills he has supported that pass the House with bipartisan support never make it to the Senate.
Asked about his top accomplishments this term, Cicilline still calls responding to constituents — things like helping voters sort out what happened to their Social Security checks — one of the most important responsibilities he has. He also said he takes pride in standing up to what he describes as poor ideas in Republican leadership. On the House Budget Committee, he opposed a version of the budget that would have turned Medicare into a voucher program.
“A lot of what you’re doing is trying to stop bad things from happening,” Cicilline said of his role in Congress.
As for legislation he’s proud of, he pointed to an amendment he authored in the National Defense Authorization Act that helps U.S. manufacturers secure government contracts related to the Afghanistan National Security Forces. The issue was brought to his attention, he said, when Woonsocket-based Northwest Woolen Mills could not bid on a contract due to federal regulations.
Fecteau’s agenda focuses on jobs and supporting American manufacturing. He said that can be accomplished by supporting incentives for local expansion of manufacturing; companies that export jobs overseas should be penalized and prevented from accessing such incentives.
Fecteau’s other priorities stray from the usual hot topics. In the interest of increasing the number of people who vote, Fecteau said he would introduce legislation to make Election Day a holiday. He also advocates term limits in Congress, saying that such a limitation would help reform a culture of political favoritism.
Cicilline, meanwhile, said he thinks the way to fix favoritism is to make changes to campaign-finance regulations coupled with longer terms in the House. In particular, he said, he supports a measure that would require super PACs to disclose their top three or four donors. Those donors typically make up much of a super PAC’s fundraising.