Providence, RI – Anthony Gemma is one of four Democrats vying for the 1st Congressional District seat left open by retiring Patrick Kennedy.
Sports memorabilia cover the walls of the back room at Twins Pizza in North Providence. About 40 people, mostly older, fill the room eating the free pizza and chatting. Off in the corner, Democratic candidate for Congress Anthony Gemma leans in as he explains his jobs plan to a potential voter. "This is what I look at for Rhode Island, is a board of directors," says Gemma.
This infusion of business into politics runs strong in Gemma's campaign. He is, after all, a business owner making his first run for elected office.
"As a business owner, as a taxpayer, and a citizen, I'm very frustrated almost boarder lining, I would say almost boarder lining angry," says Gemma. "Angry that our government is just not listening to us"
After college, Gemma took over the family plumbing business, and now he runs his own ad agency. Gemma's applied his marketing savvy to the campaign trail, most noticably by plastering his face on the side of what seems like every bus in Rhode Island.
Brown University Political Science professor Wendy Schiller says Gemma's running a smart ad campaign.
"I think he needs name recognition. But the next thing he needs is a really sound, sensable platform to goes with the name recognition. But he's right in the sense of, you've got to get your name out to begin with before anybody's going to even listen to what you're going to say," says Schiller.
Gemma's telling voters that he's in favor of the President's health care package, doesn't think Wall Street reform went far enough, and the country needs to lock down the borders while putting undocumented residents on the path to citizenship.
Gemma's registration as a Democrat this past spring raised questions about his commitment to the party. He considers himself an independent thinker who's a Democrat at heart.
"I am pro-life except for rape, incest and health of the mother. On the other side I am for marriage equality, so that puts me more on the other side of the equation," says Gemma.
Gemma's jobs plan is the centerpiece of his campaign. It calls for turning Rhode Island into the nation's Wellness Capital. It's what he drills into voters at the meet and greet in North Providence.
He says he can deliver on the wellness promise by putting federal and state officials on what he calls the Executive Board of Rhode Island.
"And I believe I'm best suited to do that, to kind of bridge a divide between what's happening at the federal level and the state level," says Gemma.
It's a great idea, says Schiller, but one better floated by a candidate running for governor.
"That's not what congress people do. So it seems as though the ideas that he has are really good, but it seems to reflect a lack of understanding of what members of Congress can and cannot do," Schiller explains.
As a candidate for Congress, Schiller says Gemma needs to tailor his message to the job. The way she slices it, the winner of this four-man race needs only 27-percent of the vote. And that's where Gemma's $240,000 war chest - most of it self-financed - comes in to play. If Gemma can get the disenfranchised voters to the polls, Schiller says, he's got a shot.
"You need to get people to get people up at their house, drive them to the polls, call them up, make it easy for them to vote that day," says Schiller. "And if you can get your organization to get people out the door and vote, then you have a much better chance of winning. And money can help do that."
Gemma says his internal polls show him right up there with frontrunner David Cicilline. He says political watchers should brace themselves for a lot of suprises out of this primary race for Congress.