The Anthony Gemma fear campaign

Rhode Island state house

by John Perilli

Anthony Gemma certainly isn’t the first politician to cry “corruption” in Rhode Island. Before his hyped August 22 presser, in which he accused his primary opponent Democratic Congressman David Cicilline, D-R.I., of voter fraud, there seemed a chance that Cicilline might join a long line of Rhode Island politicians unseated by corruption scandals. Former Rhode Island Supreme Court Chief Justice Joseph A. Bevilacqua. Former Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci. The list is so long it’s a testament to our state’s culture.

But in all those cases, the evidence was overwhelming. Does Gemma’s evidence against Cicilline stand up? Or is Gemma just exploiting Rhode Island’s unique fear of political scandal for his own gain? It’s a fear instilled in us by decades of mob dominance and a string of corruption incidents linked to organized crime. It turns reasonable political observers into frenzied conspiracy theorists, and Gemma is counting on it to bring Cicilline down.

An Old Tradition

Rhode Island’s culture of corruption goes back many years, but it began in earnest in 1938, when a young mafioso named Raymond Patriarca, Sr., came to Providence. From his office on Federal Hill, Patriarca presided over a horrific criminal empire that included drug trafficking, loansharking, and numerous murders carried out well into the 1960s.

Patriarca also dipped his bloody hand into politics. He entered the confidences of one Joseph A. Bevilacqua, a rising star in Rhode Island who would eventually become Speaker of the Rhode Island House of Representatives and Chief Justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court. Bevilacqua carried on Patriarca’s legacy of corruption after the mob boss fell from power, even going so far as to praise Patriarca’s “good moral character” at one of the boss’ parole hearings. In 1985, though, Bevilacqua was forced to resign when it was revealed he was connected to an underground gambling ring.

This Patriarca-Bevilacqua partnership was a grievous precedent. Corruption became a central theme of Rhode Island politics, where it stayed for many years. In one variation on this theme, former Republican Gov. Edward DiPrete was imprisoned in 1998 for accepting bribes from state contractors. In perhaps the most famous variation, former Providence mayor Vincent “Buddy” Cianci was convicted in 2002 of running a criminal enterprise out of Providence City Hall. From these traumas, Rhode Islanders developed a reflex reaction of fear and cynicism to any potential political scandal, credible or not. And judging by some of the harsh responses to Gemma’s press conference, this reflex is still alive and thrashing.

Considering the Case

If Gemma wants to make Cicilline into the next Cianci or Bevilacqua, though, he will need more than fear — he will need solid facts.

Consider the evidence: At his press conference, Gemma quoted several sworn witness statements from Cicilline campaign workers dating all the way back to Cicilline’s run for mayor of Providence in 2002. Most of these accused Cicilline of voter impersonation — replacing people who didn’t vote with impostors who would vote in their place. Others accused him of giving city jobs away to his helpers. Gemma also claimed to have video footage that provided “clear evidence” of voter fraud by Cicilline’s campaigns.

Each of these cases is compelling on its own, but together they are too anecdotal to prove Gemma’s far-reaching claims. One of Gemma’s witnesses who went public, claiming to have been paid under the table to work for Cicilline, wasn’t actually doing anything illegal. Cicilline’s former Republican opponent for mayor of Providence, Daniel Harrop, called Gemma’s accusations “preposterous.” Additionally, voter impersonation is one of the most inefficient ways to rig an election. If Cicilline really wanted to boost his chances, he would have tampered with absentee ballots, but there’s no evidence of that.

Rather than wait for better proof, Gemma turned his anti-fraud crusade into a sensational scare campaign. He drummed up anticipation for his press conference a week in advance, promising an “immediate, stunning, game-changing impact on Rhode Island politics.” When the conference failed to have such an impact, he still plowed onward, calling Cicilline “unfit to serve” in Congress. His campaign continued to make insolent statements about Cicilline, stoking an already blazing media firestorm that took days to settle.  Most fearsome of all was the Cicilline-Gemma debate on Aug. 28, where audience members from the two campaigns squared off in a boisterous shouting match and rained jeers on the candidates all night long.

None of this was at all in proportion with the quality of Gemma’s evidence.

Gemma should be lauded for putting his integrity on the line, but he needs to stop using fear as a substitute for facts. Instead of presenting a proper case, he stirred up anxiety and took advantage of Rhode Islanders scared of another humiliating scandal. Any responsible democracy should be afraid of voter fraud, but baseless finger-pointing will not bring justice to this case, nor will it help Rhode Island move on from the years of corruption it has suffered.


photo of Rhode Island state house by Cometstarmoon (