Cicilline & Gemma in CD 1 Battle: Who Won the Debate?
Wednesday, August 29, 2012
The growing animosity between the two Democratic candidates for Rhode Island’s 1st Congressional District was clear Tuesday night at Rhode Island College during the first debate of the election season, hosted by WPRI and the Providence Journal.
After not shaking hands prior to the debate, incumbent Congressman David Cicilline and challenger Anthony Gemma spent 90 minutes sparring over the issues as a raucous crowd repeatedly interrupted the two candidates with cheers and boos for each individual.
Gemma Can’t Let the Race Become Washington-Centric
When asked to pick one of the nearly 1,700 votes Cicilline has cast over the last two years where he would have voted differently, Gemma failed to come up with an answer. The reason: The two aren’t all that different on the majority of issues. They are both against raising the eligibility age for Medicare, allowing nuclear weapons in Iran and school vouchers and they both support women’s rights, voter ID laws and growing the economy through manufacturing.
The problem for Gemma is that despite all their similarities, Cicilline comes across as the more authentic candidate when it comes to federal policy. If the two were boxers, Cicilline would be Floyd Mayweather; content with winning on the scorecard by picking apart his challenger with stronger talking points and a calmer approach. Gemma is more like Manny Pacquiao; hoping to connect with haymakers while leaving himself susceptible to a more cerebral opponent.
Character is Key
If Gemma can’t offer clear policy differences (other than his support for ending Saturday mail delivery), he needs to establish himself as the more likable candidate in the race. On Tuesday, he labeled Cicillne a liar, pulled out a few strong one-liners and again accused the Congressman of rampant voter fraud, but he failed to focus in on his track record for job creation (neither candidate mentioned that Rhode Island has the second-highest unemployment rate in the country) and his work with the Gloria Gemma Breast Cancer Resource Foundation.
Instead, Cicilline mostly managed to stay above the fray, including suggesting that he would vote for Gemma if he were to lose the September primary and even crediting his opponent for the work he has done to honor his mother. Gemma meanwhile said he wouldn’t vote for Cicilline (neither would 52.1 percent of his supporters) and when asked to say one nice thing about the Congressman, he said he liked Cicilline’s tie.
Gemma’s opening remarks focused on the Congressman and former Providence Mayor’s misleading statements about the city’s finances during the 2010 campaign, but other than a few jabs throughout the debate, Gemma never homed in on the struggles of the capital city.
Monday’s WPRI poll suggested that nearly 80 percent of voters consider the city’s finances somewhat or very important when it comes to deciding on how they’ll vote in the Congressional race. Even though Cicilline stumbled when pressed about his handling of the city’s finances, Gemma rarely mentioned the $110 million deficit Cicilline left for Mayor Angel Taveras and never mentioned the fact that the city has the highest Hispanic unemployment rate in the country.
Voter Fraud Isn’t Working
Gemma may very well be on to something when he claims that voter fraud has been rampant in Providence over the last decade, but it’s unlikely to help him close the 12-point deficit he faces before the Sept. 11 primary. In Monday’s poll, 63.9 percent of likely primary voters said they are somewhat or very confident that Rhode Island’s elections are fair and honest.
Gemma’s problem is that he has been unable to convince the public that he actually has evidence that ties the Congressman to any wrongdoing. During the debate, Gemma spent too much time focusing on the crowd’s reaction to his claims rather than rolling out his case against Cicilline to the viewers at home. This gave Cicilline, who afterward called Gemma’s accusations “infuriating,” the opportunity to dismiss the claims and simply move on.
Cicilline Still Vulnerable
While most weren’t surprised to see Cicilline outperform Gemma during the debate, the Congressman still has an uphill battle when it comes to explaining the city Providence’s finances. The poll numbers may not change much over the next two weeks, but look for Gemma to spend far more time focusing on Cicilline’s record as Mayor of Providence, which is clearly still a point of contention for many voters.
Even if Cicilline goes on to win the primary, it will be difficult to win a character battle with Republican Brendan Doherty, who previously served as Superintendent of the State Police. Doherty won’t be able to match Cicilline when it comes to policy, but unlike Gemma, he probably won’t become unhinged either.
Enjoy this post? Share it with others.
Commenting is not available in this channel entry.