Republican Congressional candidate Brendan Doherty's decision, last month, to hire former Rhode Island GOP Chairman Giovanni Cicione as his campaign manager and spokesman has created an interesting subplot in his simmering primary battle with former state Representative John J. Loughlin II.
Cicione, after all, is something of a controversial figure in Republican circles.
His decision to block a vote, last year, on closing the GOP primary - Republican voters only, no independents - riled the conservative wing of the party. Some Republican activists were queasy about his interest in wooing Democrat Frank Caprio, the former treasurer and gubernatorial candidate.
And Cicione's "Clean Slate" advertising campaign - which promoted not just Republican candidates for the General Assembly, but independents - was variously criticized as too-inclusive, ineffective, and possibly dangerous. There were a handful of Republicans in the overwhelmingly Democratic legislature, after all, and wiping the slate clean didn't sound too good to them.
These are reasonable defenses of all these moves. Closing the primary in an election year, when candidates had already made their calculations about how to run their campaigns, can be problematic. And a party that has struggled to gain traction in a left-leaning state might do better, anyhow, to put forward the more moderate general-election candidates that an open primary favors.
That sort of pragmatism can explain overtures to moderate Democrats like Caprio and even something like the Clean Slate approach.
Cicione, in a recent interview, suggested that trying to win elections by relying on the GOP's small sliver of registered voters - 10 percent of the total, at last count - is foolhardy. And he suggested that Republican opposition to his plans - then-Minority Leader Bob Watson publicly criticized his Clean Slate initiative last year - made it harder for him to raise money and effectively execute.
But he acknowledged that Clean Slate didn't fare as well as he would have liked; indeed, the Rhode Island GOP made barely a ripple last year as a Republican tide swept the country. And the distaste for Cicione among local GOP leaders - city and town chairmen - is real.
These are the same local leaders who have lined up behind Loughlin, a former state representative who ran against Congressman David Cicilline last year. These are the same locals who have complained that Doherty has not done enough to court GOP activists. Doherty's decision to hire Cicione last month did nothing to advance the cause.
"Brendan Doherty did not pick the most popular man in the party to run his campaign," quips Loughlin spokesman Michael Napolitano.
Cicione dismisses Napolitano's comments as so much stirring the pot. "I'm not running for Congress," he says, "I'm just helping with the mechanics of it."
Of course, the city and town chairmen turned off by the Cicione hiring may be beyond Doherty's reach, anyhow. Their allegiance to Loughlin appears solid. But if Doherty is able to win the primary, he's got some fence-mending to do if he wants the local activists' help with his general election contest.