As Congressman David Cicilline approaches the upcoming Democratic primary scheduled for September 11, the first hurdle in his efforts to gain reelection to the House, the mood among local political junkies has been one of disappointment. You can almost hear talk show host Buddy Cianci wiping away tears as he laments the lack of attack advertising and mano-a-mano exchanges that made the race two years ago such a wonderful spectator sport (not to mention ratings bonanza); businessman Anthony Gemma hammered away at Cicilline’s performance as mayor while Cicilline fought back by attacking the first time candidate’s lack of experience and naiveté.
This time around for Gemma, there have been a series of missteps almost from the beginning, which suggests either the campaign is flaming out or they are engaged in a sophisticated stealth campaign that is going to surprise us all. On the day we interviewed Gemma, for example, about four weeks before the primary, we got a sampling of both. It turned out to be the same day Gemma’s field manager resigned, and the supporting staff that appeared with him certainly seemed young and “short in the tooth,” as they say. Yet under questioning, the candidate came across as supremely confident, citing his own polling numbers that show him as the only one who can beat Republican nominee, former state police head Brendan Doherty. “When I win this primary, the Democrats will rally around my candidacy to ensure we don’t lose this seat to the Republicans. If I lose, you’ll see even more switch over to Doherty,” he maintains.
Gemma explains what people are misreading as inactivity in his campaign to date: “We are concentrating on a sophisticated approach to targeting people who believe in our integrity and commitment to jobs creation and who actually plan to vote in the primary.” Gemma, who recently sold his advertising company to Alex and Ani before embarking on the campaign, feels he has a “secret sauce” in terms of maxing out the effectiveness of social media advertising. So far it has produced more punch lines than punch when it was revealed that he has over a million people signed on as followers, about equal to the entire population of the state.
So what can we expect from him during the final weeks before the primary? Here a more confident candidate leans forward and promises all will be revealed shortly and it’s going to be big. Without going into detail, Gemma suggests there will be a blockbuster piece of new information coming that will expose some voter fraud and integrity issues of major magnitude that are going to change the way people will talk about the campaign. Much of it, Gemma maintains, will not be focused on his opponent, but rather at more systemic corruption problems that involve all levels of government. Guess we’ll have to wait and see.
As for his campaign, Gemma feels it’s all about convincing voters that his experience and proven success at job creation in his own business will translate into kick starting a state that occupies the bottom rungs of the national economic ladder. His pledge is that his eight-point economic plan will bring in 10,000 new jobs to Rhode Island over the next five years. “And that’s a conservative number,” he argues. “We can leverage some private foundation opportunities to help too. And we can concentrate on jobs that are consistent with the real Rhode Island. We’re a blue-collar state, a state where people like to make things with their hands, and we’re good at it. That’s what we need, not just high tech, pie in the sky jobs.”
Gemma feels people misread him so he’s trying to change their perception of him this time around. “Basically, I’m first and foremost an honest guy who has worked hard for everything and knows business. And I’m not really negative. In addition, I need to convince people that I really am almost as liberal as David. I’m pro-marriage equality; I’m pro-choice; and I actually feel my immigration policies would be more liberal than the Congressman’s. But, most important, of all three candidates, I’m the only one that really understands business and has actually created jobs.”
David Cicilline, on the other hand, remains David Cicilline. He is surrounded by a professional staff that clearly knows what they’re doing. No one has ever questioned his work ethic or his ability to flood the airways with messages of his successes. But his poll numbers remain frighteningly low. And even some of his most loyal supporters, especially on the East Side, admit that he certainly didn’t leave Mayor Taveras and his team very many good cards to play.
It took well over a year until the Congressman acknowledged that perhaps there were some things he could have, make that should have, done better. And many of the hard decisions Taveras and the City Council have been forced to take recently perhaps should have been implemented years ago. “I do regret, and I’ve admitted it publicly, that I overstated when I said in a debate that I was leaving the state in ‘excellent financial shape.’ That was a misstatement, given the State had just cut us back by over $50 million in funding and the economy was worsening.”
“I just hope people look at the mess we inherited ourselves when I took office and judge me by the entire body of work over our eight years in office. We reformed the police department, we initiated the first co-pays with City workers, we actually started funding our pensions, we balanced budgets. I made a decision during my final year that our residents could not absorb another tax increase but that there were some important city services that had to be maintained. We borrowed from the rainy day fund and hoped that the economy would improve or that the State would restore some funding. None of this happened. And quite frankly, if I had stayed as mayor and won a third term, I would have had no choice but to do what Mayor Taveras is doing so successfully.”
So then why should voters trust him now in Washington and what special talents does he bring to an increasingly polarized House of Representatives? As the discussion turns to his efforts in Washington over the past 18 months, the congressman feels he’s on firmer ground. His work ethic is legendary and he proudly ticks off his successes in three general areas: the work he’s done solving problems quickly for constituents (and which form the basis of his current advertising campaign); the legislative work he has done in terms of Made in the US, education and infrastructure bills; and his successful efforts that have brought back funding to the state.
As to the race against Gemma, he says, “I certainly am taking this race seriously and I expect it will be close.” Congressman Cicilline goes on to say, “When voters look at my record and what I’ve accomplished in my first term in Congress, I will earn their support. We need a strong progressive Democrat representing us to provide pushback especially as the Tea Party seems to have hijacked Boehner and his fellow House Republicans.”
So here we are, down to just a few weeks before the primary, and with a well-funded Republican challenger ready to take on the winner, hoping for some bloodletting in the primary to help in his battle. It’s been eerily quiet so far though Gemma promises a wild last few weeks. He says there will be ads; that there is targeted marketing going on. And there is this big surprise he says is coming. Plus there remain some eyebrowraising elements to the Gemma campaign that keep puzzling us all.
On the other side, there’s Congressman Cicilline, who is incredibly focused and hard working, a skilled political operative and debater who knows how to swing those elbows. And someone who knows how to raise money. After almost a decade in political office, he presents well and confidently. In addition, the changes in the redrawn district, especially in Providence, are likely to help him in the primary.
So let’s all relax and await what should be an interesting end to a very strange campaign to date. And we’ll also await the real fireworks when the winner has to face a well financed Brendan Doherty.