Gay Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) defeated his challenger, businessman Anthony Gemma, to win the Democratic nomination to continue to represent Rhode Island’s 1st congressional district in the U.S. House in Tuesday’s primary.
Local media outlets called the race for Cicilline about an hour after polls closed at 8 p.m. in Rhode Island. With 98 percent of precincts reporting, Cicilline held 61 percent of the vote, compared to the 31 percent claimed by Gemma and 8 percent won by another candidate, Chris Young.
Cicilline faced criticism during the race — even though he’s running in a overwhelmingly “blue” state — as a result of financial difficulties facing the city of Providence, R.I., where Cicilline served as mayor before running for Congress.
A report commissioned by the City Council last year blamed Cicilline’s administration for a lack of transparency and for making a series of moves – like tapping into Providence’s rainy-day fund – without councilors’ approval. The lawmaker apologized in April, saying he should have been more forthright about the financial condition of the city.
Still, Cicilline retained support heading into the primary. The lawmaker was once again endorsed by the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund. In new campaign ads, former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, who once held the seat now held by Cicilline, vouched for the out lawmaker’s commitment to public service.
Sexual orientation did come into play during the Democratic primary. According to the Associated Press, Anthony Sionni, an unpaid campaign staffer for the Gemma campaign, compared the openly gay lawmaker on Twitter to convicted child molester and former Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky, saying there’s “nothing wrong with smearing a liar, thief, crook, Sandusky copy cat.” The state Democratic Party had called for Gemma to fire Anthony Sionni, apologize to Cicilline and disavow the message. In response, a Gemma campaign spokesperson reportedly said the tweet was “inappropriate” and Sionni agreed to leave the campaign.
Cicilline was running against a primary opponent who largely self-financed his campaign. According to Federal Election Commission reports, 80 percent of the $315,000 that Gemma raised was from him contributing or lending his money to his own campaign. In comparison, all the $1.7 million that Cicilline raised for his campaign was the result of outside contributions.
But Cicilline isn’t out of the woods in his bid to retain his U.S. House seat. He’s facing a challenge in the general election from Republican Brendan Doherty, a retired high-ranking police officer and former superintendent of Rhode Island’s Department of Public Safety.
According to a poll published by Rhode Island’s WPRI late last month, 52 percent of Gemma supporters said they’d back Doherty in the general election if the Democratic challenger lost the primary. Compared to the $1.7 million that Cicilline has raised, Doherty has $1.1 million in total net receipts. About five percent, or $50,000, of Doherty’s net receipts are from self-financing.
Chuck Wolfe, the Victory Fund’s CEO, said the choice is clear on LGBT issues heading into the general election because Doherty supports the Defense of Marriage Act, an anti-gay law that prohibits federal recognition of same-sex marriage.
“We’re pleased that Rhode Island Democrats have once again chosen David Cicilline to represent them in Congress,” Wolfe said. “Now voters will face a clear choice this November between a persistent champion for LGBT equality, and an opponent who supports the Defense of Marriage Act, which makes life harder for so many American families.”
The Victory Fund is citing the website Electful.com, which keeps track of candidates’ positions on issues, as the source for Doherty’s support for DOMA. On the other hand, Cicilline is an original co-sponsor of DOMA repeal legislation known as the Respect for Marriage Act.
The Democratic primary produced mixed results in terms of electing candidates who support marriage equality. One lesbian candidate, Laura Pisaturo, narrowly lost her bid to unseat a Democratic lawmaker who opposes same-sex marriage.
Many incumbent Democrats who support marriage equality fended off challenges from candidates who oppose it. Among those incumbents were State Sen. Ryan Pearson, State Rep. Arthur Handy, State Rep. Greg Amore, State Rep. Joseph Almeida, and State House Majority Whip Patrick O’Neill.
But in primaries in which pro-marriage equality challengers were running against incumbent Democrats who oppose it, the pro-LGBT side only won a single primary. Democrat Adam Satchell, a teacher and proponent of marriage equality, beat an incumbent Democrat who opposes same-sex marriage, State Sen. Michael Pinga.
Still, the outcome means a net gain of one vote in the State Senate at a time when legislation to enact same-sex marriage in the Ocean State is expected to advance next year.
In a competitive primary in State Senate District 29, incumbent State Sen. Michael McCaffrey, an opponent of marriage equality, won against Pisaturo, who was endorsed by the Victory Fund. McCaffrey had a narrow win against Pisaturo, taking 53 percent of the vote compared to Pisaturo’s 47 percent.
McCaffrey, chairs Rhode Island’s Senate Judiciary Committee, and, even though he’s a Democrat, has never allowed pending same-sex marriage legislation to advance in his committee. During a TV debate last month, McCaffrey said he “believes that marriage is between a man and a woman.”
Ray Sullivan, campaign director of Marriage Equality Rhode Island, said his organization is “incredibly proud” of the campaign Pisaturo waged despite her loss.
“We’re proud to have been a part of it,” Sullivan added. “She talked about issues that were important to people in that district, and if we had it to do all over again, we would absolutely stand with her.”
Asked whether marriage equality legislation can still advance, Sullivan said he intends to take McCaffrey “at his word” when the Democrat said during an earlier debate he’ll allow a vote on same-sex legislation in his committee despite his opposition to same-sex marriage.
“When we win a number of these races in the general election and we elect a pro-equality majority in the Senate in the general election, we expect Sen. McCaffrey to honor that commitment, and we look forward to scheduling a committee vote on marriage equality in the Senate Judiciary Committee,” Sullivan said.
In an interview with Washington Blade last week during the Democratic National Convention, Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, a supporter of marriage equality, said the election of Pisaturo would be “pivotal” in determining whether same-sex marriage legislation would be able to advance in the Rhode Island legislature.
Other Senate races had disappointing outcomes for marriage equality proponents. Same-sex marriage opponent State Sen. Marc Cote won his primary against challenger Lewis Pryeor, who supports same-sex marriage. Similarly, marriage equality opponent State Sen. Daniel DaPonte won over challenger and marriage equality supporter Roberto DaSilva.
One race in which there was no incumbent also yielded a loss for marriage equality supporters. In State Senate District 26, Gene Dyszlewski, who supports marriage equality, lost to Frank Lombardi, who opposes same-sex marriage.
In State Senate District 33, David Gorman, a Democratic supporter of marriage equality, lost to Leonidas Raptakis, a Democratic opponent of gay nuptials. But the result in that race is a wash in that district because the incumbent Republican, State Sen. Glenford Shibley, opposes marriage equality.
According to WPRI, a group known as People for Rhode Island’s Future spent $26,500 earlier this month to elect six pro-marriage equality candidates in the Democratic primary. That group reportedly received a $20,000 donation to make that happen from Tim Gill, a gay Denver-based entrepreneur and philanthropist known for working to advance marriage equality, as well as $15,000 from Esmond Harmsworth, a Newport, R.I., resident and founding partner of Boston literary agency Zachary Shuster Harmsworth Literary Agency.