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Democrats Cicilline, Gemma meet in radio debate

In these Aug. 28, 2012 photos, U.S. Rep. David Cicilline, left, and challenger Anthony Gemma, right, speak during the 1st Congressional District primary debate at Rhode Island College in Providence, R.I.
In these Aug. 28, 2012 photos, U.S. Rep. David Cicilline, left, and challenger Anthony Gemma, right, speak during the 1st Congressional District primary debate at Rhode Island College in Providence, R.I.
Elise Amendola, Associated Press

EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. — U.S. Rep. David Cicilline and challenger Anthony Gemma clashed over character and who is best to represent Rhode Island in Washington in a live radio debate Tuesday a week before the state's Democratic primary.

Gemma, a businessman, used much of his time to hammer Cicilline over his time as Providence mayor, accusing him of doing too little to help the city's finances and later misrepresenting the city's fiscal health when he said in 2010 that he was leaving the city in "excellent" health even though his successor took over as it struggled with a $110 million deficit.

"Which of the two candidates can you trust?" Gemma said on Tuesday's debate, broadcast on WPRO-AM. "The city of Providence is in absolute shambles right now."

Cicilline defended his tenure in City Hall, though he again acknowledged being "overly optimistic" with his word choice. The freshman congressman blamed the city's woes on cuts in state aid, the end of federal stimulus money and the recession and said his administration succeeded in strengthening the city's health.

"I'm very proud of the work that we did," Cicilline said. "I'm responsible for every decision that we made."

While Gemma referred to his allegations that Cicilline's past campaigns had committed voter fraud, he focused less on them than he did during a debate last week. Gemma said that with time running out before the Sept. 11 primary election it was time to talk about issues such as jobs and the economy.

Cicilline dismissed Gemma's accusations as "baseless" and called them "a last-ditch effort to help a desperate campaign."

Cicilline again sought to place the race in a national context, urging Rhode Island residents to send him back to Washington to fight Republican priorities. He cited his work on legislation intended to help manufacturing businesses and vowed to fight to protect abortion rights.

"These Republicans aren't kidding," Cicilline said. "This is a really important election with consequences."

The winner will face Republican Brendan Doherty, the former leader of the state police, in the Nov. 6 general election.

Cicilline and Gemma will participate in a televised debate on WJAR-TV on Thursday at 7:30 p.m.