In 2012, election year intrigue awaits

Punditry Dept.
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  December 28, 2011

The new year is, of course, an election year. And while the presidential race will probably be less-than-dramatic in Rhode Island, there will be plenty of other intriguing fare for the political junkie.

Here are five things to keep your eye on in 2012:


When then-Providence Mayor David Cicilline won election to Congress in the fall of 2010, it was easy to imagine him holding on to the post for as long as he liked.

But when news broke that Providence was in dire fiscal condition, despite his campaign assurances to the contrary, Cicilline took a major hit in the public opinion polls.

And he only burnished his reputation for manipulation in recent weeks with a brazen, and apparently successful, effort to reshape his Congressional district to his electoral advantage.

All of this means Cicilline's bid for re-election should provide the year's finest political drama.

First up: the Democratic primary. In a crucial development virtually lost in the redistricting brouhaha, one of Cicilline's most intriguing rivals — banker Merrill Sherman — recently said she would not run against him next year.

That leaves two potential Democratic challengers — businessman Anthony Gemma and former State Representative David Segal. If both hop in, they could split the anti-Cicilline vote, handing a victory to the incumbent.

But it's possible to imagine other scenarios in a three-way race: Segal, for instance, cutting into Cicilline's liberal base and putting Gemma over the top. And if Segal or Gemma can get Cicilline in a one-on-one matchup, the Congressman could be truly vulnerable.

If Cicilline makes it to the general election, he will, no doubt, try to focus the race on Washington Republicans. He'll argue that he would be a bulwark against cuts to Social Security, while his GOP opponent — be it Brendan Doherty or John J. Loughlin II — would strengthen a Republican Party run amok.

His GOP opponent will, doubtless, hammer Cicilline on Providence's finances and his trustworthiness — a line of attack that would be particularly potent for Doherty, a former superintendent of state police with a squeaky clean reputation.

But the meta-story, here, will be this: can Cicilline's savage political acumen — which might, incidentally, make him the best representative Rhode Island's First Congressional District could offer in this hyper-partisan age — best a (self-serving) GOP call for integrity in public affairs?


Governor Lincoln Chafee had a rough first year in office. Some of his highest profile policy pushes — an expansion of the state sales tax, a gay marriage bill — flopped.

He managed to alienate organized labor, which provided crucial electoral support in 2010, with his backing of state pension reform. And when the bill passed, he got little of the credit.

His foot-in-mouth disease didn't help matters. And a recent Brown University poll put his approval rating at just 27 percent.

Chafee has hired a new chief of staff in George Zainyeh, a widely respected political operative who once ran against Chafee for the Warwick mayoralty, in a bid to turn things around.

Zainyeh's charge: imposing discipline and infusing the administration with a bit of swagger. It will be a tough task: Chafee is a mild-mannered sort with a long history of wandering off message.

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