Not tough enough?

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  April 13, 2011

The administration's long-term play begins with a series of top-level appointments that have won wide acclaim — Richard Licht, the politically savvy former lieutenant governor, as his director of the Department of Administration; the widely respected Janet Coit as head of the Department of Environmental Management; most recently Lisa Holley, to take over the troubled Department of Motor Vehicles.

It continues with policies — the sales tax hike, investment in an underfunded higher education system, a carrot-and-stick approach to cities and towns that have neglected their pension obligations — that the administration believes will pay off down the line.

And it includes a careful courting of the legislature — headlined by the governor himself. Chafee is a regular in the State House cafeteria. He drops in on the legislative leadership from time to time. And he wanders into mundane committee hearings with some frequency. Smith Hill denizens say the administration has been far more accessible and open to ideas than the Carcieri clique that preceded it.

"I don't think [Chafee] has a sense he's in the ivory tower and everyone else is below," says State Senator Paul Jabour, a Providence Democrat who recently hosted the governor at a bakery in his district.

Whether that good will translates into victories in the frenzied final days of the legislative session is another question.

But the Chafee Administration is clearly hoping that conciliation — with the General Assembly, with organized labor, and even, it argues, with business — will make for good politics over the long haul.

Amid all the confrontation elsewhere, the governor said, "I think we can stand out as a community that tackles our fiscal challenges in a very cohesive, long-reaching way."


If that sounds like mere spin, Chafee is quick to point out that some of his more combative counterparts aren't faring all that well at the moment.

Walker, the Wisconsin governor, has better poll numbers than Chafee — 43 percent approve and 53 percent disapprove, at last count. But his negatives have soared since his high-profile clash with public employees. And voters appear to be turning on him.

The GOP lost Walker's old county executive seat. And a conservative state Supreme Court justice, once considered a lock for re-election, appears to have just squeaked by in a contest widely viewed as a referendum on the governor.

Some of Walker's Republican colleagues have it even worse. Ohio Governor John Kasich has an approval rating of just 30 percent. And Florida Governor Rick Scott, polarizing even before his election, is at 35 percent.

But those who would wield the cleaver are not all destined to alienate the voters. Christie, the charismatic New Jersey governor, is doing quite well in the polls. And get-tough Democrats like Cuomo and Brown — cutting costs without the vitriol — are in a strong position.

Here in Providence, Mayor Angel Taveras commissioned a top-to-bottom review of city finances, declared a "Category 5" hurricane, and fired every teacher in the school district to give himself maximum budget flexibility.

He is now, according to the Brown survey, the most popular politician in the state. And the governor inevitably suffers by comparison.

But if Chafee might have profited from a more aggressive approach, it's hard to imagine him actually pursuing such a course. There are the political realities, of course: he won with governorship with strong support from public employee unions.

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