Gemma’s Bombshell: Will it Change the Election?
Tuesday, August 21, 2012
Democratic Congressional candidate Anthony Gemma’s all-in move to attempt to tie incumbent Congressman David Cicilline to voter fraud and “other potential criminal actions” is a make-or-break strategy that could shatter his reputation if it doesn’t pan out, according to an informal survey of more than a half dozen political observers.
Gemma is set to hold a press conference Wednesday afternoon to explain why he hired a private investigation firm with ties to the State Police to look into voter fraud. In a cryptic Facebook post last week, Gemma claimed he’ll unveil “breaking news that will have an immediate, stunning, game-changing impact on Rhode Island politics,” but the candidate and his spokesperson have not responded to multiple requests for more specific details.
The Gemma campaign’s refusal to release additional information and the decision to turn the release of his opposition research into a full-fledged media event has led some to question the candidate’s credibility.
“Claiming criminal fraud is much more serious than a typical campaign charge,” said Darrell West, Vice President and Director of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C. “It goes beyond what usually happens in politics and requires a much higher level of evidence. If Gemma doesn’t have substantial evidence, his name is mud in Rhode Island. I don’t recall past elections where that type of charge was made. If he has real evidence, he should go to the U.S. Attorney and not hold a press conference.”
Could Lose More than Gains
Others say without producing compelling and confirmable research on Cicilline, Gemma could potentially find himself in a situation where he loses more than he gains. Rhode Island College professor Dr. Kay Israel said Gemma can’t afford to be in a “Henny Penny” situation.
“This is a fascinating situation,” Israel said. “I've heard of October surprises and last minute attacks before, but the concept of pre-announcing them is new to me. Rather than magnifying the attack, it merely focuses on the value judgment of the candidate disclosing it. If it's not really earthshaking, one can only wonder about that candidate's ability to make important and realistic decisions.”
Wednesday’s press conference won’t be Gemma’s first unconventional tactic of the campaign. After openly criticizing Cicilline since the Congressman took office in January 2011, Gemma waited until April to officially announce that he was running for the 1st Congressional District seat for a second time. At his campaign announcement, Gemma refused to take questions from the media and then suggested his focus was on Republican challenger Brendan Doherty and not the incumbent.
Gemma stuck to his script for several months, but his tune has changed with the Sept. 11 Democratic primary on the horizon. Two weeks ago, Gemma also suffered a blow when his field director, Joseph Lazzerini, abruptly left the campaign. While the campaign claimed Lazzerini’s resignation came because he wanted to focus on returning to school, Lazzerini just started a new job as the field organizing director for the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers.
Since making his voter fraud claim public last week, the focus has shifted to Cicilline, whose campaign has demanded Gemma “put up or shut up” when it comes to his information. In an e-mail sent to supporters Monday, campaign manager Eric Hyers suggested “David’s opponent is desperate” and warned that the next three weeks will see “some outrageous political stunts.”
“The other side is pulling out all the stops and sinking to new lows,” Hyers wrote. “I’ve never seen a group of people with such a lack of decency.”
Gemma Must have the Goods
Despite the Cicilline campaign’s critique of Gemma, Quest Research pollster Victor Profughi said there has long been accusations of voter fraud in the Ocean State, although an organized effort to cheat the system has never been uncovered. 2012 will be the first election where voters must present a form of identifcation at the voting booth.
“When it comes to voter fraud, rumors about it creep up from time to time,” Profughi said. “Hard evidence of rampant, organized voter fraud has, however, been scant during my 40 plus year tenure in Rhode Island. Some years back allegations of large scale fraudulent voting were plentiful and directed especially at South Providence, but even then it is doubtful that even if true any citywide election was impacted.”
For Jennifery Duffy of the Cook Political Report, having hard evidence against Cicilline is the key. Duffy said it is common for political campaigns to make serious accusations against opponents, but suggested it is important to first see exactly what Gemma has.
“If he doesn't have the goods, then it just adds to the narrative of the weak campaign he is running,” Duffy said.
University of Rhode Island political science professor Maureen Moakley also suggested Gemma could be the one who suffers most from his announcement.
“He would have to have direct info that Cicilline actively and knowingly engaged in fraud - not that perhaps one of his staff did,” Moakley said. “My gut tells me that in the end the one who is toast is Gemma - but we need to wait and see.”
Is Gemma Helping Doherty?
Meanwhile, Doherty, the Republican who held a double-digit lead over Cicilline in a WPRI poll earlier this year, has been more than willing to sit on the sideline and watch the Democrats rip one another. Still, even if Gemma’s claims have legs, analysts say that doesn’t mean Doherty will cruise to victory in November.
Roger Williams University political science professor Dr. June Speakman, a Cicilline supporter, said history points to candidates both surviving and imploding following major revelations. Speakman pointed to President Bill Clinton and Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank as politicians who “weathered serious storms,” but also noted that Howard Dean and Gary Hart saw their campaigns unravel following scandals.
“One this for sure, is that it's too early to say whether this ‘hands the race to the Republicans,’” Speakman said.
Brown political science professor Wendy Schiller agreed, noting that the Gemma accusations may come across as “blatantly political.”
“Gemma has yet to present one coherent argument for why he should be the Democratic nominee rather than Cicilline, and for that matter, Brendan Doherty has not yet really made his case for why he should replace Cicilline,” Schiller said. “The real question is what are these candidates running on and when will they tell the voters?”
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