Republican Gabriel Gomez is a political newcomer who has yet to master talking points or sound bites. So it’s possible the Republican candidate for US Senate didn’t plan to describe his Democratic rival as “pond scum.”
Maybe Gomez, a Cohasset resident, was thinking about a recent report in Wicked Local Cohasset about a plague of algae blooms in the town common pond. Whatever the inspiration, Gomez not only stuck with the insult, he expanded upon it. If he really wanted to go negative, he said in subsequent interviews, he would refer to Ed Markey as “Congressman.”
There are books on the topic of insults and their classic role in politics. Still, it’s a curious strategy for a candidate who is trying to market himself as a different kind of politician. It plays right into Markey’s effort to paint Gomez as a petty and ultra-partisan Republican who will go to Washington and advance the national GOP agenda — not a big selling point in Massachusetts.
Markey’s quest is buoyed by the the traditional arrogance of an entrenched Bay State Democrat. A light campaign schedule plops him into assorted ice cream shops and other friendly settings where he plays Mr. Nice Guy. Meanwhile, pro-Markey web ads go after Gomez in a darker fashion. Unpleasant they may be, but the anti-Gomez ads are fundamentally accurate.
A more experienced candidate — or one with a clearer message — would take them in stride. Getting Gomez to respond as he did was a win for the Democrats. The “pond scum” remark generated more press than any other exchange in this special election, and much of it was unflattering to Gomez — with good reason.
The former Navy SEAL objected to a Web video that simultaneously displays his image and that of Osama bin Laden. The terrorist’s image comes from a film produced by a group that criticized President Obama for the way he handled bin Laden’s death. By his own admission, Gomez acted as a spokesman for the group in at least two television interviews. But now he contends that he was never “part of” the group, and that it’s low of Markey to put bin Laden’s image next to his.
“It’s a complete lack of respect to have any serviceman, let alone a SEAL, next to Osama bin Laden,” said Gomez. Actually, Gomez is showing disdain for voters if he believes they will accept such a silly explanation for his immature choice of words.
Asked about the “pond scum” remark after a Tuesday press event at a Mattapan auto repair shop, Gomez said, “You want to know the honest to God’s truth? I’m human. I’m not perfect, as my wife knows. It was one of those moments . . . my thought came out.”
He declined to characterize it as an “over-reaction.” Still, if he said anything at all conciliatory after the initial insult, he might have a shot at what he also said is the goal of his campaign: to “earn the respect of voters.” Respect is something to think about, given the possibility that polls showing a consistent Markey advantage hold true on election day.
Republicans have an obviously tough time winning elections in Massachusetts. The ones who succeed do it like Joe Malone did when he first ran for office by challenging Senator Edward M. Kennedy. No one, including Malone, really believed he could beat Kennedy. But he used that 1988 Senate campaign to raise his profile in a positive way.
As a vintage Boston Phoenix article by Michael Crowley put it, “Not much more than an asterisk in the polls, Malone did earn praise for resisting the urge to utter words like ‘Chappaquiddick.’ ” From there, Malone went on to stage a successful campaign for state treasurer. He encountered problems in office, but the original Malone template for beating Democrats still resonates.
Gomez probably never expected to win the primary that made him the surprise GOP nominee. It’s more likely he was warming up for a future run as lieutenant governor, where the story of his immigrant heritage and Navy SEAL service would be a nice counterpoint to a Republican gubernatorial nominee like Charlie Baker.
But Gomez did win. So far, primary night was the high point of his campaign. So far, “pond scum” is the low point.Joan Vennochi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.