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Off to the races in U.S. House One

April 22, 2012

The campaign for Congress in the 1st District is shaping up as Rhode Island’s most exciting election this year. RIPR’s Scott MacKay wonders if  candidates can deal in issues rather than slogans..


Now that Democrat Anthony Gemma has jumped into the congressional race against incumbent Democrat David Cicilline, the field of serious candidates for the House seat appears settled. The winner of the Cicilline-Gemma primary joust will meet Republican Brendan Doherty in the general election campaign.

The first-term Cicilline has been hammered pretty much since the day he took office over the financial mess in city government in Providence, where he was mayor for 8 years before his election to Congress in 2010.

Facing miserable poll numbers (a Ferbuary 27 poll by WPRI- Channel had Dohertry ahead of Cicilline by 15 points; it carried an error margin of 6 percent)  Cicilline has apologized for saying that the city was in “excellent’’ financial condition when it obviously wasn’t. Now his challenge is to convince voters that he is sincere about his mea culpa. He would have helped himself greatly had he not looked like he was trying to put Providence’s finances in his rear view mirror as he ran for Congress. He won nearly 70 percent of the vote in Providence in 2010 and it looks like he will need that margin or close to it to keep the seat this time around.

The first hurdle for Cicilline is the Gemma primary challenge. If nothing else, it will force Cicilline to spend time and money he would rather save for a fall effort against Doherty. For Gemma to be serious, he must either raise enough money – or dig into his own ATM for it – to mount a media and voter turn-out effort that could take down Cicilline. Thus far, it is difficult to see Gemma making inroads with such traditional Democratic constituencies as organized labor and women’s rights advocates, who are in Cicilline’s corner.

So far Doherty has done many things well in his quest to become the first Republican to win this district since Ron Machtley held the seat in the early 1990s. He has raised money, hired professional staff and begun to put together the kind of organization rarely seen by Republicans in Rhode Island. What Doherty has not done is to give voters a road map to what he believes.

Doherty is “leaning on his poll numbers and that’s not the thing he needs to be doing,’’ says John Loughlin, the Republican who ran a competitive race against Cicilline in 2010. “He’s got to articulate some positions, which he hasn’t done.’’

Doherty had a distinguished career in the state police; his adult life has been steeped in public service. But he has never been in any elected office, so voters have little idea what he would do in Washington. So far, he has been content to repeat Republican talking points. He doesn’t seem to have many original ideas.

The First is one of New England’s most diverse congressional districts. It runs from the seen-better-days factory cmmunities of the Blackstone Valley, through the East Bay suburbs of Barrington, Warren and Bristol, then jumps the Mount Hope Bridge to Aquidneck Island and the rolling waves of the Atlantic and the Gilded Age mansions of Newport. There are large blocs of   elderly Franco-American and Italian-American voters as well as Latinos, an emerging force in the district.

The one element all candidates can agree on is that this is an economically-strapped district, with soaring unemployment, too many undereducated workers and a manufacturing economy that is mainly a memory.

In the purely political calculus, Doherty is likely to try to make this race a referendum on Cicilline and his candor, or lack thereof. In a presidential year in a district that is very likely to support President Obama’s reelection, Cicilline will grasp on to the president’s coattails and argue that electing Doherty would do little more than give Republicans another conservative obstructionist voice in Washington, D.C.

To win, Cicilline must run up a big margin in Providence because Doherty will probably do well in the such suburbs as Barrington, Cumberland, Tiverton, Lincoln, Middletown, Portsmouth, Little Compton and Smithfield.

It would be nice if the candidates got beyond the campaign clichés and provided some realistic solutions for our state and nation. Maybe Republican Doherty should be asked how he would raise government money to deal with the crippling federal deficit. And Democrats Gemma and Cicilline should be queried on which federal programs should be cut to help in this regard.

In these perilous times, voters should demand that this campaign is more enlightening than the poll-tested and nasty television advertising jousts that too often dominate our elections these days. To have any hope for rational government in the 21st Century, our politicians must understand that elections are about us, not them.


Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday at 6:35 and 8:35. You can also follow his reporting and analysis at Rhode Island Public Radio’s `On Politics’ blog at

2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 22, 2012 5:57 pm

    Excellent analysis by one of the few veteran reporters still sharing insights with us. It really would be great if Scott’s wishes for the campaign were to become a reality. Unforunately in these days of dumbing down to the electorate, it’s not likely to happen.


  1. RI Progress Report: Taveras Budget, DD Cuts, Welcome Wickford Junction

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