Chafee's Smith hill prospects

Lincoln Chafee faces all manner of landmines
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  November 3, 2010

BALANCING ACT Chafee has demonstrated some ability to work across party lines.
Lincoln Chafee rides into office with a weak mandate, at best.

The governor-elect won just over one-third of the vote, barely edging his Republican rival for the throne. And his signature campaign proposal — imposing a one percent sales tax on currently exempt items like food, clothing, and medicine — is deeply unpopular with the public

Already, some state legislators are balking at the idea. And even if Chafee is able to win approval of the sales tax expansion — a partial solution to the state's projected $320 million deficit — he will still be forced to make budget cuts that are bound to be unpopular, sapping his already modest political strength.

But if Chafee faces all manner of landmines in the State House, there is some reason to believe he can tiptoe through them.

The governor-elect, a former Republican senator-turned-independent, does not have close ties to a heavily Democratic Smith Hill. But in some corners of the State House, there is hope for a good relationship — or at least a better one than might have developed with Chafee's two main rivals for the governor's office, Republican John Robitaille and Democrat Frank Caprio.

Robitaille ran against "career politicians" and gave the General Assembly an "F" when asked to grade the legislative body during a debate — hardly a harbinger of warm relations. Caprio, in that same debate, gave the Assembly a "C."

Chafee, by contrast, studiously avoided criticizing the Assembly — "I'm not going to grade them," he said, "because I have to work with them." And while his reticence may not have played well with frustrated voters, it was welcomed on Smith Hill.

"I think he's got some room to work with us because he didn't run against us," said State Representative Art Handy, a Cranston Democrat and a leader of the progressive contingent of the legislature.

Chafee, moreover, has demonstrated some ability to work across party lines. As a Republican mayor of Warwick, he corralled Democratic votes on the City Council. And in the US Senate, he bucked the Bush Administration on some key votes — tax cuts, the war in Iraq, the environment.

Indeed, he is probably more ideologically aligned with Assembly Democrats than is Caprio, the Democratic nominee who made a naked appeal for right-of-center voters and Republicans during the campaign.

Insiders say the prospects for a gay marriage bill, which Chafee has strongly endorsed, are quite good in the next legislative session.

And sources close to Speaker of the House Gordon Fox say the legislature, which can no longer count on stimulus money to fill its ever-present budget holes, will take a serious look at the governor-elect's sales tax proposal.

This is not to say that Chafee and the General Assembly will always agree. Chafee, who had strong backing from teachers' unions during the campaign, has voiced skepticism around charter schools and the aggressive brand of school reform pursued by Education Commissioner Deborah Gist; Fox and other legislative leaders are strong Gist supporters.

Still, there is a sort of measured optimism in the State House hallways. For much of his eight years in office, businessman-turned-governor Donald Carcieri was at war with the Assembly, and got little done. Lately, with his second and final term coming to a close, he has taken a softer stance and seen some results.

The hope is that Chafee, who brings some political experience to the office, will have a shorter learning curve.

  Topics: This Just In , Politics, elections, Lincoln Chafee,  More more >
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