By Richard C. Dujardin
In his first venture into phone conferencing with his Rhode Island constituents, U.S. Rep. David N. Cicilline talked about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, about federal aid to education and other topics during an hour-long chat Tuesday night from his office in Washington.
According to his press secretary Jessica Kershaw, some 1,000 Rhode Islanders had signed in to the interactive "teletown hall" meeting in which the Democratic lawmaker fielded roughly 14 questions.
There were no specific questions from the callers about the budget crisis in Providence, where he had been mayor for eight years, or about the Providence School Board's decision to send out termination letters to nearly 2,000 Providence teachers, but Cicilline responded to a call from a man named Bruce who asked, "How we are going to protect our public schools from being cannibalized by municipalities trying to balance their budgets?''
"I am a strong believer in public schools," Cicilline said, adding that he believes public education is one of the best ways of moving people from poverty into the middle class. "I think we have to understand that supporting public education is our moral obligation."
The congressman commented that just as Rhode Island's education effort is being helped by a $75-million Race to the Top grant from the federal government, he foresees a need to fight "for additional federal investment" and was happy to see that President Obama's budget proposal calls for more Race to the Top.
Asked by "Clare in Cumberland" whether he thought Rhode Island is going to end up with the same kind of standoff as in Wisconsin, where the Republican governor and the Republican-controlled legislature have vowed to eliminate collective-bargaining rights for state workers, Cicilline said: "I hope not."
"Unions have been a part of this country for a very long time," Cicilline added. "We have to be sure to protect workers' rights...Yes, we have to recognize that the world is changing, and that some difficult decisions will have to be made on benefits and pensions, but the best way to do that is through the collective-bargaining process...I agree with the president that vilifying people who work in the public sector is not a good idea."
Just returned from a fact-finding trip to countries in the Middle East, Cicilline said he was struck by the "incredible bravery and dedication" of U.S. troops in Afghanistan - including some "wonderful residents from Portsmouth" - but he believes it to be an "open question" as to whether troops should remain in Afghanistan at the same level for a protracted period.
"What will happen when we leave that part of the world? Are the Afghans capable of maintaining their institutions after we leave?"
The congressman said the investment that the U.S. has put into nation building in Afghanistan has made him wonder why there isn't more such investment going on here at home. "It raises questions as to what is the right policy as we go forward, and I will be looking hard at what we should do."