Having attended Anthony Gemma’s news statement in Providence’s Prospect Terrace Park, I’ll say this right off the bat: I went expecting a more polished candidate than appeared in 2010. I was disappointed.
Let’s get to the big part of it right away: fleeing the conference almost as soon as he was done. By 6:21 pm Mr. Gemma was gone from an event that had started at six o’clock. Many of his supporters had not even gotten to meet the man. He briefly took a photo with a small child, then shook hands with some of Providence’s local politicians before hopping into his SUV and driving off.
This accomplished one thing: it pissed off the media. One veteran reporter said she’d never seen never seen any politician behave that way at a campaign event in nearly two decades of reporting. The moment he stepped into that tinted-window truck, Mr. Gemma had given up two opportunities; winning over reporters and schmoozing with his own supporters. These were people who turned out at 6:00 pm on a Sunday for him; when most are eating with their families. The least he could’ve done was say hello to as many as he could. If that meant taking questions from reporters, well, so be it. That’s being a politician.
Mr. Gemma needs the press more than they need him. For instance, his primary opponent, sitting U.S. Congressman David Cicilline, has actually reached out to the press, inviting WPRI’s “Newsmakers” to enter his home to interview him. He also issues posts on this website.
In 2010, Mr. Gemma won only 23.1% of the vote in the Democratic primary, merely 3% over his nearest rival, David Segal, who had less money to spend. Now that Mr. Cicilline has begun apologizing very publicly for saying Providence was in “excellent fiscal condition” during his last campaign, it’s likely that Segal voters will be keener to jump to Mr. Cicilline’s defense, rather than staying home. Without press coverage, Mr. Gemma loses much of the ability to get out his message other than through advertising. And without making friends of the press, Mr. Gemma makes it that much more difficult to garner positive coverage.
Mr. Gemma was clearly attempting to set himself up as the frontrunner in this race on Sunday. He attacked Brendan Doherty by name, and never explicitly mentioned David Cicilline. I’d say it’s wise for Mr. Gemma not to attack Mr. Cicilline while he’s apologizing (it makes you look like a bully) but Mr. Gemma did make veiled reference to Mr. Cicilline’s apology by attacking it as something he wouldn’t do, completely negating that strategy.
What seems reasonably intelligent is the collection of Providence politicians Mr. Gemma’s gathered; John Lombardi, Davian Sanchez, Wilbur Jennings… though all are problematic. Providence will play a major part in this race. Last time, nearly a quarter of all of David Cicilline’s votes came from Providence. Mr. Gemma placed a distant third in the capital city. Both candidates have to walk a tight path here: Mr. Cicilline’s fate is tied to Providence’s, in many ways. But Mr. Gemma cannot blast the city without alienating its voters, many of whom proudly voted for David Cicilline, some of them twice.
Beyond that, the clear lack of specifics and the empty rhetoric in the speech betrayed a problematic candidate. Mr. Gemma was the “quirky” candidate in the race last time, sounding like he was running for Governor rather than U.S. Congressman. Let’s be clear: the “control of the House may come down to one seat” argument is unconvincing. It’s only happened once before: in the 72nd Congress when 19 representatives-elect died before taking office and 14 flipped to the Democrats, leaving a sole Farmer-Labor Party member as the deciding vote. This seems unlikely to happen again. However, Mr. Gemma immediately undercut the notion of being a strong Democrat by saying he was willing to buck his party on certain issues.
Mr. Gemma had some intelligent moments. He focused on jobs, though he just said he knew how to create them. But smartest of all, he avoided divisive social issues where he could easily lose support among Democratic partisans. However, since issues like reproductive rights are about to enter center stage in Rhode Island, he must find a way to prevent himself from being lumped into the same category as Brendan Doherty in Democratic minds.
Given both his inability to work the crowd and press, and his occasional stumbles during his speech, Mr. Gemma is clearly an imperfect candidate. Perhaps he has a touch of stage fright. He does not win the award for “most improved” since 2010. That doesn’t go to anyone. There were dark clouds hanging over the Park as Mr. Gemma made his announcement. There’s a dark cloud hanging over this whole race. Democrats should be very worried. Both their candidates are flawed, deeply, but in different ways. Republicans now have their greatest chance to take one of the most liberal districts in the country.