Analysis: Gemma misses target in raucous debate with CicillineAugust 28th, 2012 at 10:56 pm by Ted Nesi under Nesi's Notes, On the Main Site
Over the course of WPRI 12′s raucous 90-minute debate on Tuesday night, Gemma couldn’t point to a single one of the 1,697 votes Cicilline has cast in Congress where he would have voted the other way – going so far as to tell voters the two Democrats are “very similar” and would vote the same way on nearly every aspect of federal policy.
Gemma later came up with two policies on which he disagrees with Cicilline, neither of which is likely to win him many votes – he wants to end Saturday mail delivery and eliminate the Bush tax cuts for households who earn between $100,000 and $250,000. That allowed Cicilline to pledge fealty to just about every Democratic position under the sun.
It was that kind of night for Gemma, who repeatedly stumbled when the discussion veered away from questions about Cicilline’s honesty and integrity. And even then, he failed to press his advantage on what WPRI 12 pollster Joe Fleming says is Cicilline’s Achilles heel – his misleading comments about Providence’s finances in 2010.
Instead, Gemma has bet his entire campaign – and a six-figure chunk of his own wealth – on convincing 1st Congressional District voters that Cicilline, a familiar face on the local scene for at least a decade, is personally committing voter fraud by, among other things, paying campaign workers under the table.
While Gemma’s $40,000 private investigation has turned up oddities in Providence’s voting records, it hasn’t provided a smoking gun that directly implicates Cicilline and validates the two-time candidate’s astonishing accusations. Now Gemma has just two weeks to overcome a 12-point deficit with an electorate that already picked Cicilline once.
Gemma’s strategy is all the more strange because Cicilline remains surprisingly exposed on the Providence question – something Brendan Doherty’s campaign must be heartened to see. Pressed by The Providence Journal’s Ed Achorn on what adjective he’d use instead of “excellent” to describe the city’s finances in 2010, Cicilline dodged, weaved – and never answered. The same thing happened on grading Governor Chafee.
This campaign is very personal, and the tension between the two candidates was palpable. (The AP’s David Klepper reports they didn’t shake hands before or after.) The wall of sound hitting the two candidates on stage – cheers, boos, catcalls, heckles – made it hard to hear each other and the questions, let alone stay focused. Cicilline made slightly more of an effort to be cordial – asked to say something nice about the other candidate, Cicilline praised Gemma’s breast cancer fundraising; Gemma smirked and complimented Cicilline’s tie.
Cicilline was, as ever, quick on his feet and knowledgeable on policy minutiae, jumping on a fairly arcane question about Fannie and Freddie’s chief regulator while working to deflect those he didn’t want to answer. His relentless hammering of Democratic talking points (“millionaires and billionaires!” “Big Oil!”) probably plays well with primary voters – it’s unclear if it will be as effective with the less partisan general electorate.
Toward the end of the debate, Gemma brought up a genuinely interesting and unexpected proposal that was unfortunately drowned out by Cicilline supporters’ heckles, suggesting homeowners who get behind on their mortgages should be given the right to rent their homes for a few years and then buy them back once their finances stabilize. Cicilline mocked him, which was unfair – the leading liberal economist Dean Baker, for example, agrees with Gemma.
But that was a rare moment of policy clarity for Gemma, who is focused like a laser beam on his lonely crusade to pin Cicilline for voter fraud. Joe Fleming said after the debate he didn’t think the spectacle would win Gemma significant new support, which is what he needed to do. The question is whether Brendan Doherty can do a better job landing his punches this fall.
This post has been updated with minor revisions.