Wide Open Races: Four Dems on the Campaign Trail

by by Simon van Zuylen-Wood

President Obama's disapproval ratings are nearing 50 percent, and nationally, Republicans are polling anywhere from 5-14 percent better than Democrats. Whiz-kid political swamis like Rasmussen and The Cook Political Report project a Republican House takeover and a slim Democratic majority in the Senate. As the 2010 midterm elections draw near, Democrats are haunted by bleak visions of 1994. Sixteen years ago, with President Bill Clinton down in the polls, Newt Gingrich’s Republican army trampled Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress. Despite accomplishing what Clinton’s 103rd Congress could not--healthcare reform--Democrats in Obama’s 111th Congress will still be punished. It’s not what they have done that will doom them—it’s what they haven’t. With the economy in the tank, many will use the ballot as a simple referendum: vote red for more jobs. Brown University Lecturer in Political Science Dr. Jeremy Johnson notes “The two most important elements in determining the vote in midterm elections are the interrelated variables of presidential popularity and the economy.”

And that helps explain why nationwide, a rash of politically nubile Republicans may have a leg up on dozens of entrenched Democrats--it's a bad time to be an incumbent. But in Rhode Island, none of the highest profile races have particularly strong GOP challengers and only one features an incumbent--Representative Jim Langevin (D-Dist. 2).

Here, it’s Democrats, not Republicans who smell blood, and they too are eager to capitalize on voter frustration with a ‘broken’ Washington. Statewide, 1,956 Democrats are running for public office, 13% more than in 2008. In the weeks preceding the September 14 primary elections, several Democratic candidates for the US House in the First Congressional District have proudly adopted the angry ‘outsider’ rhetoric that buoyed the Tea Party all summer.

Representative Patrick Kennedy is stepping down from the House this January after 16 years in office. Four Democrats are vying to fill his seat in Congress, which represents Northeast Rhode Island: Providence Mayor David Cicilline B’83, plumbing mogul Anthony Gemma, former RI Democratic Party Chairman Bill Lynch, and State Representative David Segal. Cicilline, the favorite, is the closest the race has to an incumbent. In this anti-establishment political climate Cicilline's familiar face has actually armed opponents with what they hope is a golden bullet. In this rare moment of statewide political flux, his opponents feel this election could be the best shot they ever get.

Segal and I meet at liberal enclave Blue State Coffee. A nervous barista tells Segal he looks like Ricky Ricardo, then turns down the music so I can better interview Rhode Island’s Great Progressive Hope.

Over iced coffee, Segal and I discuss one of his campaign ads, “Nobody’s Puppet.” In the television spot, a mechanic, a doctor, and a hair stylist—all played by muppets—do things the cheapskate way, screwing over their clients.

“Part of it is a statement about the structures of Washington in general,” says Segal, who represents Providence in the RI General Assembly. “Part of it is a more direct statement about the corporate money the supposed corporate reformer David Cicilline’s been taking.”

Though the ad doesn’t make this explicit, its quirky inaccessibility is vintage Segal, who can come across as distant and smart-alecky.

The “structures” in question are the federal government taken hostage by the banks, the oil lobby, and the insurance companies, among other corporate malefactors. Aware that the current political climate is not necessarily a favorable one for the far-left, Segal has channeled his rage against the machine ethos into a series of well-timed attacks against Mayor David Cicilline. According to Segal, “Cicilline claims he’s a progressive, yet he’s taking money from coal, from nuclear…from downtown developers in Providence [and] the Council of Insurance Agents and Brokers, which opposed the public option [for the new federal health care law].”

In an August 31 debate, the usually tepid Segal, getting increasingly hot under the collar, used two of his wild-card challenges to ask Cicilline if he’d give back donations from a corporate nuclear energy Political Action Committee. Cicilline coolly deflected the question, responding that one returned donation wouldn’t solve the larger issues with campaign finance rules. Cicilline has denounced the recent Citizen’s United v. FEC Supreme Court decision that allows unlimited corporate-financed electioneering.

Segal’s biggest obstacle, however, isn’t Cicilline, it’s name recognition. Segal’s consistent Huffington Post contributions preach to the choir, and his rising progressive star is not well known outside of Providence.

Segal has racked up endorsements from major Rhode Island teachers and heath care workers unions, as well Council 94—the largest labor conglomerate in the state. But with the smallest war chest of the four candidates, Segal doesn’t have the cash to blast the message across the state in time for Tuesday, and will resort to playing the underdog.  “Did you see the Projo article yesterday?” Segal asks me with a big grin. “It called me a willing monkey wrench who threw himself in the workings of the political machine.”

Even the thirty-year old Segal, who has been in Rhode Island politics for eight years, can’t resist an opportunity to distance himself from the political scrum. “I’ve been in public office, but you know, I’m the outsider’s insider.”

Anthony Gemma joined the race late, in July, and blundered badly in his first televised Congressional debate, repeatedly confusing the word trillion with million when discussing the national budget deficit. He’s kept his eight week-old political career afloat by loaning his own campaign $300,000.

Campaign manager Dan Mercer concedes that this summer has been a learning experience for Gemma, who founded the ubiquitous Gem Plumbing and currently runs a marketing start-up.

“He’ll tell you it probably wasn’t his best public speaking appearance…he got that one out of his system,” Mercer says. “But he’s not a politician, he’s a businessman…he doesn’t know the nitty gritty details of politics.”

Waiting for Gemma to return from a campaign engagement in Pawtucket, I sit with Mercer and two other staffers, Mike Giblin and Mike Mota, at Campaign Headquarters on North Main Street in Providence. Dressed in polo shirts, khaki shorts and Nikes, they fill in admirably for Gemma, who arrives an hour late.

Giblin looks tired. The wears of a relentless chip-on-our-shoulder campaign are evident. “I only knew it was Sunday today because the church parking lots were full,” the rumpled Giblin says. He sinks back into his swivel chair  and doesn’t say anything for the next hour.

Gemma, whose campaign slogan is “Enough is Enough,’’ is running on the expectation that voters value private sector over public sector experience. Mercer explains Gemma’s decision to attempt the jump into politics now.

“When in Rhode Island is there a Congressional seat without an incumbent?” Mercer says.
Mota jumps in. “Especially Patrick Kennedy’s seat!”
“Especially Patrick Kennedy’s seat,” Mercer echoes. “And when in recent history have you ever seen such a frustration of the public with established politicians?”

“The whole country is suffering,” Mota says, striking an emotional tone. “And who better to put people back to work than Anthony Gemma? He’s the only candidate, among all the candidates, who’s actually put people back to work.”

To Gemma, having zero political experience is a plus, not just because he’s the well-respected owner of GemPlumbing, but because, as Mota puts it, “He’s got no skeletons to hide.”

And it was skeletons, spooky or not, which ultimately contributed to the defeat of established pols like Arlen Specter and Lisa Murkowski in recent US Senate primaries.

It can be tricky, however, to locate a salient Gemma ideology amidst all his anti-establishment fire and brimstone. Mercer likens Gemma to a monkey-wrench, who lodges himself in the gears of the establishment machine. Sounds familiar…

Blackstone Valley fixture Bill Lynch has spent his summer railing against “career politicians,” despite his 12-year chairmanship of the RI Democratic Party. Lynch’s father Dennis was mayor of Pawtucket for a decade and his brother Patrick is Rhode Island’s outgoing Attorney General.

Lynch’s campaign seems both short on ideas and on energy, though I can’t know for sure, since his office did not return my calls. Primaries typically have lower voter turnout than general elections, in part because people don’t remember they’re taking place. In that respect, mobilizing one’s own base to vote can be equally important as getting one’s message out—something the other candidates grasp. Segal seemed almost bashful in describing the 10,000 call-a-night “phone bombs” his field organizers routinely put together. Cicilline’s exuberant campaign manager Eric Hyers assured me that “nobody is knocking on more doors than we are.” Gemma even announced during a debate that he had more LinkedIn friends than President Obama. Lynch, by contrast, has 93 Twitter followers and a lackluster website which offers no campaign updates or specifics on issues. While Cicilline’s site posts his calendar -- five senior centers (where everybody votes) in two days-- Lynch’s invites you to a barbecue at a country club two weeks ago.

Lynch may be hoping he can bypass the young, internet-literate bloc altogether, and draw from his base of old-guard Democrats, familiar with the Lynch family name. His television spot stars “Judy”, a 60-ish woman in a velour tracksuit.

Judy’s fed up with Lynch’s opponents, seen in the ad auditioning for Congress on a gameshow set. “Bahh,” she waves her hand at the lot of ‘em. Lynch then appears in a neighborhoody coffeeshop and tells the camera he too is fed up with career politicians, and issues three campaign promises. 1. He’ll fight to create jobs—mentioning this whenever possible has become a political necessity in Rhode Island (fifth highest unemployment rate in country at around 11.9%). 2. He’ll fight to preserve social security (out of left field—an overture to the older crowd). 3. Finally, he unleashes his favorite talking point and ultimate anti-incumbent tactic: he’ll fight to institute term limits in Congress, “starting with my own.”

If Segal- or Lynch-leaning voters end up choosing David Cicilline on Tuesday it may be for the same reason The Providence Phoenix endorsed him: “Whatever his shortcomings, Cicilline’s pluses outweigh his minuses. He is right on the issues. He is a skilled politician. And he has a national network of contacts that is not to be underestimated.” In other words, the very political and corporate connections his opponents decry will help him get things done in Washington. Not that he’s necessarily worried about those opponents. Cicilline has frontrunner money—$900,000 in cash as of second-quarter filings. Gemma, in second place, had $181,000. Perhaps most importantly, he carries himself like a frontrunner. On August 31 Cicilline’s team organized a “Debate Watching Party” in the basement of the Local 121 restaurant on Washington Street in Providence.

The under-thirty set is poorly represented, save for volunteers and staffers, who pace in the back. The crowd chuckles when Gemma stumbles, boos when Segal challenges Cicilline, and talks among themselves when Lynch has the floor. Cicilline’s campaign manager Eric Hyers behaves like a trading-floor jackal--he's affixed to his BlackBerry and pumps his fist whenever his man sticks home a good point. One candidate joked to me that Cicilline’s team has a sort of “frat boy” vibe.

Cicilline’s strategy on the podium and in interviews is the same: if possible, frame all responses to highlight experience and successful initiatives as mayor of Providence. After the debate, he comes directly to Local 121 to greet his supporters. In a momentary pause from his friendly lap around the room, he briskly walks my way, hand extended.

“You must be from The College Hill Independent.”
“Yes, how did you know?”
“You’re the only one here I don’t recognize.”

Later, by phone interview, he addresses Gemma and Segal’s frustrations with him, namely that Gemma thinks he was a bad mayor (bad economy, bad schools) and Segal thinks his pockets are padded with corporate interest money. To the first point, Cicilline talks uninterrupted for five minutes about each positive thing he’s done or attempted as mayor. The list is long. To the second point, he sighs and says all the negativity is “unfortunate.”

“It’s nice to have ideas,” he says, referencing the other candidates. “But ultimately it comes down to experience and getting things done.”

It’s the frontrunner’s privilege to ignore criticism: he’s doesn’t have as much to prove. Based on the experience and name recognition he garnered at City Hall and in the state legislature, Cicilline is the de facto incumbent. After the debate, ABC6 political analyst and former Providence Mayor Vincent “Buddy” Cianci lauded Segal for his attacks on Cicilline, in what amounted to an approving pat on the head. At Local 121, I egged Cicilline to comment on Cianci’s well-documented bent against him. The current mayor started and stopped a few times before leaning back, smiling, and settling on “no comment.”

If Cicilline does win on September 14, his GOP challenger will in all likelihood be John Loughin II, Rhode Island State Representative and House Minority Whip. Now that the immovable Patrick Kennedy is out of office, Loughlin may see a lot of GOP money and endorsements from the national ranks, as Scott Brown did in Massachusetts. A longtime local political reporter who wished to remain anonymous predicted that if Cicilline couldn’t win more than 35 percent of the vote in the primary, a horde of salivating Republicans would storm the state in an effort to paint another Kennedy seat red.

Simon van Zuylen-Wood B ‘11