Rhode Island Primary Arrives, Claws and All

Posted September 10, 2010 at 6:13pm

Few predicted that Rhode Island’s 1st district — occupied by the retiring Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D) for 16 years — might be up for grabs this November.

But few predicted a bloodbath in the Democratic primary on Tuesday, either.

Despite calls for civility from the state Democratic Party chairman, political newcomer and local businessman Anthony Gemma has attacked primary opponent Providence Mayor David Cicilline with such ferocity in recent days that Republicans are beginning to see an opportunity.

“The only hope here is a completely bloody primary,” a GOP campaign aide said. “And Gemma has stepped up to the plate to make that happen. This is a scenario that has to play out for this district to be competitive.”

Don’t think it can be that bad? Here’s the partial script from a recent statewide radio spot that highlights the capital city’s high unemployment rates, empty buildings, failing infrastructure and foreclosures:

“What did David Cicilline do? Nothing. In fact, one of the things he did do to make the news was get involved in a coverup of his brother’s felony. David Cicilline was quite possibly the most ineffective mayor in the city’s history. Now he wants to be our Congressman. Are you kidding me?”

A similar ad featuring the “Are you kidding me?” mantra ran on statewide television last week as part of an $85,000 media buy.

It may be too little, too late to help Gemma, who is pushing to redefine a relatively popular mayor who is widely respected among his party. The presumed Republican nominee, state Rep. John Loughlin, couldn’t have asked for more.

Gemma went so far as to take his case directly to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee on Thursday when he asked Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) to “formally and in the strongest possible terms implore Mr. Cicilline to end his congressional campaign immediately.”

“In my opinion, independent, media-documented patterns of deception, misconduct, and dereliction of duty demonstrated by Mr. Cicilline both as mayor of Providence and as a candidate for Congress are at variance with the core principles of the Democratic Party and violate even the most forgiving standards for campaign conduct,” Gemma wrote in a seven-page letter to the DCCC. “Left to continue these patterns and absent the sternest official public reprimand by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Mr. Cicilline will represent a huge and perhaps even insurmountable advantage for the likely Republican candidate, John Loughlin.”

Loughlin, who has a military background, faces a token challenger Tuesday. Having employed the consulting team behind the success of Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), Loughlin has already been the beneficiary of high-profile fundraisers hosted by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

While the most recent public polling is more than a month old, Cicilline has long been the presumed leader in the Democratic race, enjoying a clear advantage in cash and standing in the polls.

Gemma was largely unknown the last time a poll was taken, but voters almost certainly know him now.

The Cicilline campaign has yet to respond to the allegations outlined in the letter to the DCCC, which include the revelation splashed across the front page of the state’s largest newspaper last week that Cicilline was overpaid by roughly $20,000 over the past four years. The mayor has promised to refund the overpayment, which his office said was an accounting error applied to many city managers.

But Gemma characterized the overpayment as an “illegal acceptance of pay raises.”

“Please understand that I take no satisfaction whatsoever from sharing this sad litany with you. Yet the facts are clear, and their implications for the Democratic Party are inescapable,” Gemma wrote to Van Hollen. “David Cicilline has demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that he is unfit to serve in the Congress of the United States of America. The fate of Rhode Island’s 1st District congressional seat hangs in the balance. And the weight of David Cicilline’s perfidy is tipping the scale toward the GOP.”

The DCCC had no formal comment on Gemma’s request. But Van Hollen is not likely to intervene.

“Following Tuesday’s primary, (jobs and the economy) are the issues candidates will be talking about with voters until November,” DCCC spokesman Shripal Shah said.

Loughlin spokeswoman Cara Cromwell had only this to say when asked to weigh in: “Regardless of which Democrat comes out of the primary, we’ve got the momentum and the message to win.”