It had to be in the 80s, before the Crowne Plaza was built and the battle was raging over the plan to build a jewelry trade center and when that fizzled, a hotel. Al Gemma led the charge to protect …
It had to be in the 80s, before the Crowne Plaza was built and the battle was raging over the plan to build a jewelry trade center and when that fizzled, a hotel. Al Gemma led the charge to protect Greenwood. That’s when Al “burst” on the local scene, as former Mayor Frank Flaherty remembers.
From those first days, it was apparent Al had a combination of gifts that made him formidable, if not fearsome. Al was smart. He did his homework and knew the details. He was passionate about what he believed in. He was a good orator.
Back then, the intersection of Main and Greenwich Avenues looked nothing like it is today. The site of the hotel was a sand and gravel pit and the intersection was tighter with none of the left turning lanes and controlled signals that keep traffic moving now. Whether a trade center or another development, Al feared motorists would cut through Greenwood to avoid the traffic jam at the intersection. That, as I remember, was his first appearance on the community stage that led him to becoming engaged in numerous issues and running for multiple offices under different political labels. He ran as a Republican, Democrat and independent. It seemed his political affiliation was not based on overarching party principles, or for that matter which of the two parties had the financial resources and workers to get him elected, but rather if he agreed with those in power. While there might be campaign records that document it, which I doubt go that far back, I don’t recall Al currying the endorsements from Warwick unions or those in office. He was a maverick who cared little for political decisions – especially when they affected him. When told he couldn’t march in the Gaspee Days Parade because he was a candidate for office and not an elected official, he showed up anyway and crowd loved it.
I learned of Al’s death Saturday from Mayor Frank Picozzi, who had received the news from Ward 6 Councilwoman Donna Travis. Frank had his run-ins with Al while serving on the school committee and, of course, had seen him at the microphone at civic meetings whether in an official capacity or commentator. Frank was impressed by his education and knowledge of arcane issues such as Egyptology.
“We were on opposite ends of political thoughts for many years,” said Frank Flaherty in a Monday call.
“He deeply believed in what he believed… there was not half way.” Over the years and as their views mellowed, Frank supported Al in one of his many runs for city council and later when he ran for state representative. Al was a member of the House when Paul Suttell’s appointment of R I Supreme Court Chief Justice came before legislators for confirmation. The House unanimously voted for Suttell except for Al who cast the single no vote.
When Frank asked him why, Al replied that he thought Frank should be the chief judge.
In an email, former Mayor Lincoln Chafee portrayed Al as, “a passionate and determined public servant. He could sting like a white faced hornet or be as loyal as an elephant depending on the issue. He devoted many decades to solving the challenges of his City of Warwick.” Chafee credited Al with helping resolved the long standing teacher contract dispute that moribund the district in the early 1990s.
Donna who served with Al on the City Council, likewise talked of Al’s breath of knowledge that could cast light on issues.
“He was so smart,” she said Sunday in a phone call. She said he highlighted positive things and had a “big heart.”
But he also had tunnel vision.
She said if he would get his point across and stop it would have been fine, “but he could go on and on,” and that led to contentious debate.
“Most of the time I was there, it was his way.”
Charles “CJ” Donovan remembers Al similarly. CJ, the endorsed Ward 7 Democrat, faced Al and William Russo, running as independents in 2010. CJ won the election. CJ knew Al and had followed his many campaigns and battles usually over the impact of developments and the growth of the airport.
“He was quick witted, too. When he believed in an issue, you better come prepared.” As developer Fred Carpionato moved ahead with the Crowne Plaza, CJ recalled how Al worked to secure the land for the Continental Little League fields working with Lou D’Ambrosca from the league. Al’s interest and concern for the neighborhood never waivered.
I experienced it on numerous occasions.
Unannounced, Al would show up in the office with a sheath of folders and newspapers under his arm. Sometimes it was to question of how a story was written and to point out what he saw as gaps in the reporting. He had highlighted portions of the stories that he spread out on the conference room table and then referred to documents in the folders. I learned quickly that unless I had irrefutable evidence to the contrary, it was pointless to argue.
Former Mayor Charles Donovan, CJ’s father, said “whether you agreed or not, he had an opinion… I never argued, I spent the time listening.”
Albeit a minor personal victory, I sat next to him during a meeting over development on Greenwich Avenue. By then the Crowne was built and, if it hadn’t been completed, plans to redesign the intersection were in progress. In fact, the meeting was at the Crowne and the management had set out a table with coffee and a tray of fat chocolate chip and oatmeal raison cookies.
Al had his packet of papers, which his wife Anne had carefully collated – she kept him on target – under the seat. Al was prepared to do battle for Greenwood again.
I leaned over and asked, “Isn’t this better than Council Chambers?”
He didn’t miss the inference that after all his crusades on behalf of the neighborhood that the Crowne turned out to be a positive development. He smiled and I believe he shared in that accomplishment.
Frank Flaherty put his relationship with Al this way: “It had its ups and downs. I’m glad I had ups with him.”
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