On Politics
1:23 pm
Wed August 29, 2012

Gemma swings and misses at debate

Take your pick: Last night’s televised WPRI debate between 1st Congressional District Democratic candidates, U.S. Rep.  David Cicilline and challenger Anthony Gemma was A) a reality TeeVee show disguised as political dialogue, B) a Saturday Night Live parody of a congressional debate or C) both.

We will choose C, but only because the scene, as watched on television, contained elements of farce and the repellent nastiness that too often infects political theater these days.

Gemma kicked things off, waiting only a few seconds into his opening statement to call Cicilline “a liar’’ and assert “he’s going to lie to you again tonight.’’

Gemma’s opener was a riff off of last week’s overhyped news conference, where he claimed that Cicilline was personally involved in voter fraud and paying cash to people in Providence’s heavily minority South Side neighborhoods to vote for him and other candidates Cicilline supported.

As was the case last week, Gemma had no evidence that would link Cicilline to such corruption. As the debate progressed, Gemma kept coming back to the voter fraud allegations, which Cicilline turned back. “Stop trying to drag this campaign into the gutter,’’ the incumbent snapped.

What strains credulity in the voter fraud allegations was Cicilline’s reminder that facts are indeed stubborn things: He won two terms as mayor by such overwhelming margins that he didn’t need to buy votes at $50 each, as Gemma charges.

Incredibly, Gemma never tried to draw distinctions with Cicilline over the major issues that Congress deals with, such as taxes, the economy, education, the federal deficit and foreign policy.

When asked by panelist Ted Nesi of WPRI-TV what specific vote Cicilline has cast in his 20 months in Washington that he disagrees with, Gemma said he couldn’t think of one. “David and I are very similar,’’ said Gemma.

Very strange, considering that Cicilline has taken way over 1,000 votes in Congress.

Among the issues the two agreed on are Afghanistan, abortion rights (although Cicilline correctly pointed out that Gemma is a Johnny-come-lately to the pro-choice side), the death penalty (against) protecting Medicare and Social Security and federal tax and spending policies.

In a debate against an incumbent, a challenger’s task is always to focus on why that office holder ought to be turned out of his job. Remarkably, Gemma had no substantive reasons, except for his wild voter fraud haymakers and criticism of Cicilline’s stewardship during his last year as Providence mayor in 2010.

All Gemma mustered during this debate was unfocused rage. Even when asked what he liked about his opponent, all Gemma could come up with was adolescent snark: he said he liked the congressman’s necktie. (Cicilline took the high road, praising Gemma’s fundraising for breast cancer research via a foundation named after his mother, who died of the disease).

Gemma said he wouldn’t vote for Cicilline in the general election if the former Providence mayor wins the primary. Cicilline said he would support Gemma if he triumphs in the nominating joust.

Cicilline started the debate looking peevish and about as pleased to be on the same stage with Gemma as he would be undergoing a root canal without anesthetic. But once Cicilline got rolling he delivered a cogent message to Democratic primary voters, a majority of them liberals. Cicilline pledged to battle what he called Republican extremism in Washington and said U.S. troops should be brought home from Afghanistan, a move he said would save $100 billion a year.

Cicilline’s only real stumble came on the issue that has shadowed his single term in Washington: whether he was candid about Providence’s financial issues when he was mayor and running for Congress in 2010. Cicilline has apologized for misleading voters, but he still seems uncomfortable with the issue.

Cicilline gave a meandering answer to a question from the ProJo’s right-leaning political columnist, Edward Achorn. Achorn wanted Cicilline to boil down the Providence financial stewardship issue to a single word, but Cicilline wasn’t really able to do it. Cicilline did give a nuanced explanation of city finances and the corrupt city government he assumed after the administration of Mayor Buddy Cianci. Yet, Cicilline still seems reluctant to take ownership of his role in the $100 million river of red ink that was left for Mayor Angel Taveras. It was as if his apology is an Ed DiPrete-like “I apologize to those of you who think I did something wrong.’’

Unlike Gemma, Cicilline showed a grasp of an array of national and international issues. When Achorn asked him if the government should be using federal money and tax policies to pick `winners and losers’’ in the green energy economy (citing Solyndra), Cicilline’s quick retort was that Washington already favors petroleum in the tax code with billions of subsidies for oil companies.

Contrast that to Gemma’s fumble of a Nesi question about the growth of Medicare costs, which showed Gemma to be largely ignorant of the topic.

A word about the format: Tim White of  WPRI did his usual fine job as moderator and Nesi and Achorn asked good questions, even if  they too often didn’t get more than the usual `on-message’ answers of campaign cliche.  But why, oh why, was the audience at Rhode Island College not kept under better control?

The cheers, boos, catcalls, and sign waving, by partisans for both sides was a major distraction. At times, the audience drowned out questions and answers from the candidates. Why audience members were even allowed to bring in big lawn signs is bewildering. Politics has always been part spectator sport, and talk show nonsense has its place. But not at a televised debate for an important political office.

If C-SPAN decides to use this debate as part of its national coverage, we may have to change the Rhode Island license plate slogan from the `Ocean State’ to the `Yahoo State.’

Next time, how about a studio faceoff.

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