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POLITICS AS USUAL (By Jim Baron) Cicilline has to make the race about Congress

March 4, 2012

If news coverage were the NFL, Channel 12 would have drawn two penalty flags last week for piling on.
Right after a Brown University poll the previous Thursday slammed both Gov. Lincoln Chafee and Congressman David Cicilline to the ground, Channel 12 pounced with everything they had — investigator Tim White, analyst Ted Nesi and pollster Joe Fleming — right on top of their already battered bodies. (The penalty flags are, of course, just metaphors, Channel 12 didn’t do anything wrong. Those reporters did their job and did it well.)
Put another way, the Brown poll bent each of the politicians forward with a devastating punch to the gut, then the Channel 12 crew delivered a haymaker to each of their outstretched jaws. If this were a cartoon, each of them would have stars and tweeting birds circling around their head.
In both polls, Chafee and Cicilline each approached record low popularity numbers. But while they are staggering around the ring wondering what truck they were hit by, I don’t believe that either is down for the count just yet.
Chafee has the luxury of time, he doesn’t have to run again until 2014.
We’ll get to him later.
Cicilline, however, not only has to prepare for a re-election contest this year — against a Republican who knows a thing or two about body blows and haymakers — but as soon as this week he is likely to have a primary opponent in the form of Lincoln businessman Anthony Gemma, who came in second to Cicilline in a four-man race two years ago.
Despite his poll numbers, Cicilline is still pretty popular among Democrats, particularly the party pooh-bahs; Gemma, not so much.
It would be, as Cicilline so earnestly puts it, the fight of his political life, but it is one he has at least the potential of winning. But it is a fight that he really doesn’t need because it will sap the time, money and energy Cicilline will need to take on formidable Republican Brendan Doherty in November. Doherty has no primary opponent on the horizon, so he can keep his powder dry and spend the whole summer raising money and preparing a campaign against whichever candidate the Democrats put up against him.
If Cicilline is to have any chance at all of winning, he has to make this a race for the U.S. Congress and not a referendum on his performance as mayor of Providence. He has to make people shut up about Providence. And the only way to do that is to swallow his pride and make a mea culpa about Providence.
You see, it’s not really Cicilline’s performance as mayor that is making him so unpopular. He can, and does, mount defenses such as saying he actually came close to fully funding the pensions during his tenure. A lot of the blame for Providence’s poor financial condition can be laid at the feet of former Mayor Buddy Cianci and he is still a wildly popular radio host. Former Mayor Joe Paolino has a lot to answer for about things that happened while he was in City Hall, but Paolino is very well thought of today.
Anger is directed at Cicilline not because of what happened during his administration but because people are convinced he lied about it to get elected to Congress. He bragged during his congressional campaign, while he was still mayor, that Providence was in “excellent financial condition.” Angel Tavares hadn’t made a dent in the cushion of the mayor’s seat before he compared the finances of the city to a Category 5 hurricane.
So to have any chance of winning, Cicilline has to make this a race about the U.S. Congress and national issues that affect Rhode Island. He can do that if he has the help of two top politicians. No, I am not talking about Tavares and General Treasurer Gina Raimondo, even though conservatives are currently having a cow over the fact that Tavares and Raimondo lent their names to a fundraiser for Cicilline. The two pols I have in mind who could boost Cicilline’s chances are House Speaker John Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.
Without a doubt, the best strategy Cicilline has at this point, perhaps his only one, is to try to convince liberal and moderate Rhode Islanders that they don’t want to send another Republican to the House to further strengthen the GOP in Washington.
He has to convince voters that Boehner and Cantor hate seniors, hate education, hate women, hate Social Security and Medicare and hate cute little kittens and puppy dogs. He will be trying to make the argument that if voters send Doherty to congress to punish him for Providence, they will be endangering their own Medicare and Social Security, and in light of the present debate, access to birth control and other reproductive rights.
Chafee has, perhaps, even a tougher job than Cicilline. Cicilline has allies in the Democratic Party. Chafee is an independent, which is another way of saying he is on his own. Perhaps that is how he ended up at the bottom of the pile when the poll results came out. Picture Chafee as the frail quarterback with a single number on his back, looking unsuccessfully for someone to complete a pass to as behemoth linemen converge on him from all sides. The benches on both sides of the field are filled with potential competitors and everyone in the crowd is cheering for somebody besides him.
Having spurned the Republicans, and being spurned by them at the same time, is Chafee looking perhaps looking to join the Democrats’ team.
Chafee is a national co-chair of President Obama’s re-election campaign (one of 36, but its something) and on the day when Vice President Joe Biden was in Rhode Island recently, the governor announced his endorsement of Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse for re-election to the Senate.
Was that just a thumb in the eye to the Senate GOP that Chafee didn’t get along with, or was it an overture to the Democrats to accept into their fold someone who could not only run as an incumbent, but bankroll a big portion of his campaign as well, freeing Democratic money and organization to fight off other opponents.
The Democrats don’t really need Chafee, they have a bench of loyal party members who look into the mirror and see a governor smiling back at them.
But Chafee pretty much needs the Democrats. If they run a real Democrat against him, Chafee’s political goose is cooked.
He won last time because he had three opponents who were for all intents and purposes running as Republicans, including Democrat Frank Caprio.
If Chafee runs for re-election with a D after his name, he has at least a fighting chance for a second term. With his poll numbers, that is the best he can hope for.

Speaking of Channel 12, I’m glad their spitting contest with Cox Cable isover.
It was getting tedious seeing those “important messages” from both sides about how much Cox was going to pay Channel 12 to transmit its programming.
Neither side has released details about who won, but somebody blinked because at 12:01 a.m. on March 1, Chanel 12 was still available on Cox Cable.
Cox had to have the leverage in that fight. After all, for Cox not to carry Channel 12 would be a significant inconvenience for them. For Channel 12 not to be on Cox Cable would be an utter freakin’ catastrophe for them. Their revenue depends on ratings and ratings depend on people being able to see them. Yeah, NCIS is a good show, but how many viewers are going to break out the rabbit ears to see it?
Like I said, it’s just good that the fight is over.

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