After their raucous, televised debate a week previous, there was an air of expectation surrounding Congressman David Cicilline and businessman Anthony Gemma's recent Democratic primary debate on WPRO radio.
Would this be Armageddon II?
But listening to the pair, I couldn't help but be struck by the speed with which politicians can turn the stunning and scandalous into the rote and banal.
It wasn't that long ago that Gemma was staging a wild press conference outside his Providence office, accusing the incumbent and his associates of systematic voter fraud dating back to 2002.
There was talk of scared voters holed up in their attics with weapons; a claim that a high-ranking member of the state's House of Representatives had cross-dressed to cast a fraudulent ballot; all manner of shouting from the podium. And beneath the surface, sober — and unsubstantiated — charges that Cicilline's associates had recruited and paid for fraudulent votes.
This was radioactive stuff. And it nearly melted the hall when the two candidates debated the first time.
When they came together again, though, the feel was quite different. Sure, there was no studio audience to egg them on. But that was not all. When the debate moderator, WPRO's Bill Haberman, brought up the voter fraud charges, there was no real heat in the room.
To be certain, tactical considerations played a role. Gemma, apparently chastened by a political and media elite that lashed out at him for making unverifiable charges, made a conscious decision to back away from the voter fraud allegations. And Cicilline, of course, had no interest in lingering on the topic.
But the deadly weight of the talking point was in evidence, too. Gemma's main claim (I wouldn't have made these charges, I wouldn't have put my integrity on the line, if there was nothing there) and Cicilline's retort (these are ridiculous allegations distracting us from the real issues) were lifted from the first debate and delivered with all the passion of a Mitch McConnell appearance on Meet the Press.
Rhode Island's most explosive political circus in memory had, in a matter of days, fizzled. And not for want of new developments: in the wake of the press conference and the first debate, Gemma had added some meat to the bones — putting forth a former Cicilline campaign volunteer who alleged, in an on-the-record interview with the Providence Journal, that she'd helped pay for fraudulent votes during Cicilline's 2002 mayoral campaign.
Somehow, that just didn't come up.
Perhaps there is something heartening in our capacity to swallow and routinize these sorts of charges, to pivot to issues like jobs, taxes, and Medicare that matter more to voters. But it all seems, well, uncreative. Lifeless.
Perhaps I'm just making a base call for a more entertaining politics. If that's your thing, all hope is not lost. Cicilline and Gemma have one more debate scheduled, after the Phoenix goes to press, and perennial fringe candidate Chris Young is scheduled to participate.
This is a man who, in previous public appearances, has brought along a statue of the Virgin Mary, proposed marriage to his girlfriend, and crooned about class struggle — a scratchy tape recording, in hand, for musical accompaniment.
The circus, it appears, will be back. If only for a few minutes.