PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) - Businessman Anthony Gemma formally jumped into the Democratic primary against Congressman David Cicilline on Sunday evening, saying he offers his party its only chance to keep the 1st Congressional District seat in light of the incumbent's dismal poll numbers.
During a 15-minute speech before supporters and reporters in Prospect Terrace Park, Gemma offered remarks that were long on soaring rhetoric if short on substance. He never mentioned Cicilline by name but repeatedly criticized Republican Brendan Doherty for retiring with a state police pension and failing to understand economics.
"Brendan Doherty is the last person we should send to Congress," Gemma, who lives in Lincoln, told the crowd amid intermittent raindrops as he stood in front of a statue of Roger Williams that overlooks the capital.
Doherty issued a statement calling himself "the only candidate with the proven track record of leadership and the character necessary to restore economic growth to Rhode Island." The Republican also said Gemma had already hinted he would run, "so despite his apparent indecision, today's announcement comes as no real surprise."
Gemma cited his background in business, including plumbing and media-buying, to argue he is "most equipped - and therefore most likely - to create thousands of well-paying jobs in Rhode Island and, by extension, in the United States." He promised more details in the weeks to come but said his proposals would include a plan to make college more affordable.
Gemma also played up his Democratic bona fides, name-checking Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, Claiborne Pell, John Pastore and John Fogarty, and paraphrasing Ted Kennedy's famous 1980 "dream will never die" speech. Gemma said he would follow the New Deal and the New Frontier with "the New Idea."
The Sept. 11 Democratic primary between Cicilline and Gemma will be a rematch of the 2010 election to choose a nominee for the seat, which was vacated when Patrick Kennedy decided to retire. Cicilline won easily with 37% of the vote, compared with 23% for Gemma, 20% for David Segal and 20% for Bill Lynch.
While he never mentioned Cicilline directly on Sunday, Gemma referenced the congressman's recent round of apologies for inaccurate comments he made in 2010 about Providence's financial situation, saying: "I won't have to apologize for lying so I could win your vote under false pretenses."
Gemma warned that Democrats risk losing a safe seat in Rhode Island if they keep Cicilline as their nominee. "The numbers don't lie," he said. "In the general election, I'm the only Democrat who can defeat Brendan Doherty."
Cicilline's allies argue Gemma may have a difficult time convincing Democratic primary voters to defect from Cicilline because of his lack of history with the party, his one-time financial contribution to former Republican Gov. Donald Carcieri and his statements during the 2010 campaign.
"There are some big differences between the candidates in both the primary and the general and this election will be about who can best stand up for the middle class and fight for common sense policies to get our economy back on track," Eric Hyers, Cicilline's campaign manager, told WPRI.com on Sunday.
A February WPRI 12 poll showed Doherty with a double-digit lead over both Cicilline and Gemma in a general election matchup, though more voters were undecided with Gemma as the Democratic nominee.
Gemma refused to answer any questions from reporters on Sunday; after the speech he shook a few attendees' hands, then quickly got into his SUV and departed. A supporter criticized members of the media for following Gemma to ask questions, saying they'd "chased him away" from his kickoff event.
Gemma suggested he has the support of North Providence Mayor Charles Lombardi, as well as Providence City Councilmen Wilbur Jennings, Nicholas Narducci and Davian Sanchez, though not all of them were on hand Sunday. Former Providence City Council President John Lombardi attended but said he was only there to listen.
Gemma begins the race in a deep hole financially - he still owes himself nearly $200,000 from personal loans he made to fund his 2010 primary campaign. Gemma had $1,771 in his campaign war chest as of March 31, compared with Doherty's $559,645 and Cicilline's $701,249, Federal Election Commission filings show.
An earlier version of this story said John Lombardi was supporting Gemma; Lombardi has not endorsed him.
Copyright WPRI 12
Rhode Island's governor has made a visit to New Jersey to speak to a student society at Princeton University.
The Central Falls Police Department has a full-time K-9 Unit once again.
Providence police identified the teenager who was shot and killed in broad daylight Wednesday, and the murder suspect was arraigned on multiple charges.
See the shenanigans and high jinks elves all over Southern New England are getting into.
A hospital on Long Island, N.Y., says it's donating Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis' birth records to the Kennedy library in Boston.