Cicilline and Gemma down to the wire; Doherty in the wings

Sep 7, 2012

There is only one Rhode Island primary election tomorrow (Tuesday Sept. 11) that is being watched from Woonsocket to Washington, D.C.  RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay brings you the first district Democratic donnybrook.

The 1st District U.S. House primary joust between Democratic David Cicilline and Anthony Gemma has been in-your-face nasty, as rough as it gets in a little state known for big political fights.

For whatever reason, businessman Gemma has spent most of his campaign tearing Cicilline down rather than building himself up. In running such a negative campaign, Gemma has turned political wisdom upside down.

Most campaigns that feature an outsider challenging an incumbent begin by building up the challenger with glowing television ads. Only after a positive foundation has been set does the challenger go negative on his incumbent.

Gemma has a story to tell; that of a lifelong Rhode Island small business leader who knows what it is like to meet a payroll and create jobs. Gemma could also have focused on the work he and his family have done battling breast cancer, the disease that claimed the life of his mother and too many other women in this state. Everybody has a mother.

But Gemma largely didn’t do that. Instead he spent $40,000 in scarce campaign money on private detectives trying to link Cicilline with allegations of voter fraud, some of it a decade old. (Wouldn’t that money have been better spent on ads driving a jobs message?) And Gemma spent news conference time trying to personally link Cicilline with voter manipulation efforts that just didn’t stick. Then, during the first televised debate, Gemma said he couldn’t think of one vote Cicilline cast in Congress that he disagreed with. Many RI political professionals thought this was a winnable race for Gemma, because incumbent Cicilline was in the dangerous position of being under 50 percent in polls of primary voters.

Yet, challengers rarely win elections by turning the campaign into a goat rodeo, replete with sleazy rumors and fraud allegations.

Waiting in the wings for the outcome of the Democratic contest is Republican Brendan Doherty, the former state police superintendent. Doherty has so far put together the best Republican effort in this congressional district since 1994, when Dr. Kevin Vigilante ran a competitive race against Patrick Kennedy, he of America’s Democratic royal family. Kennedy, of course, won in 1994 and never had a close race until he left in 2010.

Doherty has raised gobs of money and worked hard on the meet-and-greet circuit, gathering an organization that has done a fine job reaching out to Republicans, independents and old-time Democrats. Yet, Doherty has not been on television yet with positive advertising that gives voters a sense of who he is, which some political professionals view as a mistake.

This district is one of New England’s most diverse. It runs from the seen-better-days factory towns of the Blackstone Valley, through Providence with its lodestone of  new Latino voters, down the spine of the east side of Narragansett Bay and over the Mount Hope Bridge to the wide lawns and ocean views of Newport and Little Compton.

The margin of victory will be crucial for Cicilline. If he squeaks out a win over Gemma,  Doherty will bring in a new haul of   national Republican money and momentum. So Cicilline needs to show voters that he has solid support among the Democratic base, meaning 60 percent of the vote or more. A runaway victory for Cicilline could give him needed traction for a general election campaign that is sure to be difficult.

Cicilline must confront his record as Providence mayor in a more forthright manner. And he has to make this election about national politics and ask voters who support President Obama for reelection why they would hamstring the president with yet another congressional Republican. Cicilline is sure to start hammering Doherty with negative television starting Wednesday, perhaps trying to tie Doherty with the failings of  former Gov. Donald Carcieri, a major Doherty supporter.

Doherty must learn to speak about the issues facing the state and nation in a more compelling way than he has so far. Doherty will seek to lower debate expectations, saying such things as “I’m not a great talker, or a fast talker, but I’m a straight talker.’’ But he will have to meet Cicilline head on during  televised debates. It won’t be enough for Doherty to simply invoke the Jimmy Carteresque “I’ll never lie to you ‘’ slogan aimed at Cicilline’s financial stewardship of Providence. To win, Doherty must tell voters that he not only has the integrity, but the intellect and the grasp of  issues that will convince thousands of  Democratic and independent voters in this economically struggling district that he is worthy of their split ticket votes.

Scott MacKay’s commentary is heard every Monday at 6:45 and 8:45. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at