In Chafee we trust

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  October 14, 2010

The plan is meant, in part, as an answer to the state’s enormous budget problems. But it has also become the central metaphor for Chafee’s campaign: a symbol, for his support-ers, of a leader willing to tell voters the hard truths; a symbol, for critics and more than a few political operatives, of a candidate who has misread the public mood in breathtaking fashion.

A recent Brown University poll had fully 73 percent of voters against raising the sales tax and just 19 percent in favor. And Chafee’s chief rival, Democrat Frank Caprio, has hammered at the idea relentlessly.

Chafee says he was well aware of the political risk when he proposed the tax expansion at his official campaign kick-off in January. After all, his father lost the 1968 gubernatorial election when he argued that the state needed to impose an income tax, only to watch his opponent endorse the proposal after taking office.

John Chafee was devastated by the voters’ rejection, his son says. But the pater familias emerged with a reputation for integrity that carried him into the Senate. And Chafee counts his father’s embrace of the unpopular income tax as the seminal moment in his own political development. Indeed, Chafee’s sales tax pitch seems more an ode to family legacy than a calculated political gambit.

Chafee insists he can find some advantage in the proposal, turning his opponents’ unwillingness to offer their own specific remedies to the state’s budget woes into evidence of character flaw.

But that won’t be enough. A “trust me” message works best when there are serious ethical concerns about the opposition. And the Chafee camp is taking dead aim at the Democrat who stands between him and the governor’s office: “The More You Find Out About Caprio,” reads a small sign taped to the front door of Chafee’s campaign office, “The More You’ll Trust Chafee!”

Chafee’s commercials refer to Caprio, a former state legislator who now serves as treasurer, as a “20-year State House insider” and highlight a Wall Street Journal article suggesting that Caprio traded campaign contributions from law firms for legal work with the treasurer’s office.

The campaign has made hay of two Providence Journal pieces focused on Caprio’s father — a judge and chairman of the Board of Governors for Higher Education who helped win jobs for friends at Community College of Rhode Island. (There could be more coming from the paper on that front.)

And Chafee has called out Caprio for his role, as a state senator, in directing a $25,000 legislative grant to a private school attended by his son.

The cumulative effect of the charges may be enough to move the needle a bit on Election Day — and moving the needle may be enough in a race that is tight, according to all the polls.

But in Rhode Island, observers say, none of the stories amount to a smoking gun. “This is a state where you’ve had public officials indicted, convicted, and sent to jail,” says Darrell West, a former Brown University political scientist. “That is people’s baseline for unethical behavior.”

That may explain why Chafee is also making frequent reference, on the campaign trail, to the North Providence Town Council members recently arrested for taking bribes. But Chafee isn’t running for Town Council. And his “clean government” message can seem remarkably out of step with the moment. As he ought to know.

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