In a resounding show of support from 1st District Democratic primary voters, Congressman David Cicilline swamped businessman Anthony Gemma to win renomination, establishing a strong foundation for a general election showdown against Republican Brendan Doherty, of Cumberland, the former state police superintendent.
On a sun-dappled late summer day, Cicilline rolled to a convincing victory all over the 1st District, from Woonsocket, where he captured 63 percent of the vote, to Newport, where 80 percent of primary voters supported him over Gemma and Christopher Young, a perennial candidate mired in single digits. Cicilline won every city and town in the district except rural Smithfield.
Gemma’s defeat came after his nasty campaign against Cicilline, an effort that was historically negative, even by the standards of Rhode Island Democratic primary elections. At one point, a top Gemma campaign volunteer called Cicilline, who is openly gay, a “pedophile’’ on the social media site Facebook. Gemma tried to link Cicilline with voter fraud and spent much of his campaign time labeling Cicilline as a “liar.’’
It all went for naught as Gemma lost even in his hometown of Lincoln and in neighboring Cumberland.
But the most satisfying victory for Cicilline had to be his 74 percent showing in Providence, where he served as mayor from 2003 to 20011 and was blamed by critics for telling less than the truth about city finances during his last year in office.
Cicilline’s huge win salvaged his political career, which had been subject to lagging poll numbers and caustic criticism from opponents who asserted he misled Providence residents by maintaining during his 2010 congressional campaign that city finances were in excellent shape. Shortly after Cicilline left office, the new mayor Angel Taveras, announced that the city was facing a $110 million deficit and was on the brink of bankruptcy.
It appears that Democrats in this most Democratic of cities have forgiven Cicilline for his misstatements, for which he has apologized. It was a sobering result, too, for some state political pundits and especially talk show personalities, who prematurely buried Cicilline’s career.
The general election campaign promises to be rough: Republican Doherty’s campaign inadvertently sent to Rhode Island Public Radio a news release for a news conference tomorrow where Doherty plans to call Cicilline “untrustworthy’’ and “unqualified to represent the people of Rhode Island.’’
The release states that Doherty intends to spotlight Cicilline’s tenure as Providence mayor, which ended in early 2011. The accusations are not new: they focus on whether Cicilline was honest in asserting that the capital city’s finances were in excellent shape just weeks before the new mayor, Angel Taveras, took over and announced that the city was on the brink of bankruptcy.
Doherty will also charge that Cicilline has been misrepresenting Doherty’s positions on Medicare and Social Security. The former state police chief’s blast is surely the start of a rough-and-tumble campaign.
“I will never let David Cicilline get away with lying about himself, Providence, me or the elderly,’’ Doherty says in the news release.
Cicilline’s retort: Doherty is resorting to “vicious and personal attacks.’’ Cicilline hit on a theme he is sure to use over and again between now and the November election – that Doherty is a “`Romney Republican who is on the wrong side of virtually every issue important to Rhode Islanders.’’
Doherty, said a Cicilline statement issued by his campaign in response to the Republican’s opening salvo, “ wants to continue giving tax breaks to millionaires and billionaires, is pro-life while David is pro-choice, and wants to raise the Socual Security age for working men and women in our state.’’
The first District runs from the Blackstone Valley and such struggling old textile cities as Woonsocket and Pawtucket, through both the affluent East Side neighborhoods of Providence and the city’s poor South Side, down the east side of Narragansett Bay’s Bristol County’s leafy, waterfront towns of Barrington, Bristol and Warren and over the Mount Hope Bridge to the oceanfront mansions of Newport and Little Compton.
The district has been reliably Democratic for the 16 years it was represented in the U.S House by Patrick Kennedy; the seat opened up when he opted against reelection in 2010. Cicilline won a four-way primary among Democrats and defeated Republican John Loughlin of Tiverton to claim the seat.
Barack Obama won the district with better than 60 percent of the vote in the 2008 presidential election and is likely to run up such a margin again in November. So watch for Cicilline to try to link Doherty with a national Republican Party that has shifted further to the right than the last time a Republican won the district, in 1988, when moderate Ron Machtley defeated veteran Democrat Fernand St Germain, who had been tarnished by corruption allegations. Cicilline will also ask voters who are supporting Obama why they would want to send another Republican to Washingtion, D.C. to obstruct the president’s agenda.
The campaign between Gemma and Cicilline was unusually harsh. This was a rematch of the 2010 race in the 1st Congressional District, which was redrawn by the General Assembly after the 2010 U.S. census to help Cicilline.
Gemma focused his campaign almost exclusively on Cicilline’s tenure as Providence mayor, scoring him for misrepresenting the city’s financial health during his 2010 campaign against Republican John Loughlin.
Gemma also hired private detectives from a company run by former RI state police officials to allege that Cicilline was personally involved in voter fraud, including paying people to vote illegally in South Providence districts where minority group voters are a majority.
Yet, on issues of substance, Gemma didn’t differ in an discernable way from Cicilline. In the most-watched television debate between the combatants on WPRI-TV, Gemma could not identify one of more than 1,500 votes Cicilline has taken in Congress with which he disagreed.
Among the issues the two candidates agreed on were withdrawal from Afghanistan, protecting social security and Medicare, protecting abortion rights and federal tax and spending policies.
Gemma largely ended up the campaign as a laughingstock, leaving journalists and political professionals scratching their heads at his campaign strategy. In the end, this Gemma campaign will go down as one of the oddest ever in Rhode Island.