Anthony Gemma’s long road ahead

by John Perilli

On April 15, Mediapeel President and CEO Anthony Gemma announced that he would run as a Democrat for Rhode Island’s First Congressional District seat. With a sweeping speech invoking the likes of Franklin Roosevelt and Ted Kennedy, he put forth a plan called the “New Idea,” designed to bring jobs back to the unemployment-stricken Ocean State. 

This announcement puts Gemma on track for a heated primary battle against freshman Democratic incumbent David Cicilline ’83. Should he win, he would likely face Republican favorite Brendan Doherty in the general election. But before Gemma gets to that point, he has a number of obstacles to overcome.

Gemma starts out this election season nearly $200,000 in debt, mostly from loans he made to his own 2010 campaign for Congress. This is no small amount, considering his two chief opponents Cicilline and Doherty have $701,000 and over $560,000 in their campaign war chests, respectively.  If Gemma wants to make a significant mark on this race, he will have to overcome a huge monetary disadvantage to the well-known Cicilline and the potentially Super PAC-backed Doherty.

Gemma also might be looking too far ahead in his campaign — instead of attacking Cicilline during his announcement speech, he went straight after Doherty.

“I work in Rhode Island, I raise my family in Rhode Island, I own business and pay taxes in Rhode Island,” Gemma declared. “[Doherty] has zero understanding of the basic policies required to bring about economic recovery.”

While he has no guarantee of facing Doherty, Gemma will definitely meet Cicilline in the statewide primary on Sept. 11. His failure to address the Cicilline campaign directly is worrying, especially considering that a competitive primary could give the winning candidate a burst of momentum heading into the general election.

Gemma can attack Doherty all he wants, but unless he does something to distinguish himself from David Cicilline, Rhode Islanders will likely stay with the incumbent.

A third early issue in Gemma’s campaign is an incident he had with the media after his announcement speech. Rather than stay to take questions and disseminate his platform, Gemma left quickly without talking to reporters at all.

“It was surprising and definitely out of the ordinary,” commented Ted Nesi, a political and economic reporter for WPRI, a Rhode Island television news channel. “If this is a sign of things to come, then he could be in trouble.”

In a small, single-paper media market like Rhode Island, it is unwise to alienate any of the press. If he isn’t careful, Gemma could end up facing hostility from many reporters in the state. However, the 2012 election season is still young, and this event shouldn’t be seen as a definite indicator of Gemma’s media strategy.

“This is one minor event in a campaign,” Nesi said. “He has plenty of time.”

Lastly, Gemma took a surprising stand against the public service credentials of Brendan Doherty, the former colonel of the Rhode Island State Police. Gemma accused Doherty of living “in a public sector bubble” and of leaving his position early to collect a pension.

Public-sector unions are some of the strongest mobilizing forces in Rhode Island, and they have historically supported Democrats. By calling out Doherty for his service record, Gemma is making a risky move. The burden is on him to persuade Cicilline’s 2010 supporters to change their minds. Without strong support from unionized voters, Gemma will have a hard time winning.

Gemma has a long way to go before he takes a seat in Congress.  He will have to overcome an incumbent congressman and continue on to beat a Republican favorite whom he trails in the polls by 13 percent. But nothing is decided yet.

“He’s a wild card,” observed Ted Nesi. “I’m very hesitant to write Gemma off.”



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