Carcieri’s superb communication skills bolster a Reaganesque affability that is the political equivalent of gold. This constitutes a very stiff challenge for Lieutenant Governor Charles J. Fogarty, the governor’s expected Democratic challenger in the November election. The two-term lieutenant governor is not without considerable attributes, including a broad Democratic base, a very strong handle on a range of policy issues, and a better-than-perceived ability as a speaker, and he trailed Carcieri by only 11 points in a poll released by West in February 2005. And although the governor has made few conspicuous gaffes, the 10 months before an election can be a long time in politics.
Some Democrats are privately skeptical about their party’s gubernatorial hopes, however, and it’s not hard to understand why. They hope to create a substantive debate around health-care, good-paying jobs, and other big needs. As one observer says, “Fogarty’s challenge will be to talk about the greater policy issues affecting our state and whether we’ve really made any headway — is this guy [Carcieri] actually more flash than substance?” The effectiveness of this argument remains to be seen. But the tendency of more people to focus on a fleeting human-interest story — like the eviction of Madeline Walker in South Providence — rather than the important, but more abstract issue of global warming, could foreshadow the outcome.
Velvet glove, iron fist
Fogarty could benefit from low expectations. For starters, the Democrat — who is expected to make a formal campaign announcement in February — enjoys the party’s unified support. He has twice won statewide election, something that the more liberal Myrth York could never do during three turns, in 1994, 1998, and 2002, as the Democrats’ gubernatorial standard-bearer. Rhode Island’s union movement, which has little love for Carcieri, can also be expected to lend strong support to Fogarty.
Although Fogarty’s large forehead and receding hairline make for a somewhat ungainly appearance, he is capable of effectively marshaling his political persona with a mix of substance and self-effacing humor. A case in point was his response to Mike Stanton’s revelation in the ProJo that Robert Urciuoli, the recently indicted president of Roger Williams Medical Center, had, among other expense-account excesses, billed a trip to Arizona for what proved to be a non-existent health-care conference. Besides announcing plans to sponsor legislation requiring a stringent code of ethics for hospital leaders (while Carcieri saw no such need), Fogarty was pitch-perfect in telling M. Charles Bakst, “I find it hard to believe that you would schedule yourself to go to a conference and find out there wasn’t a conference. I may be absent-minded myself, but I don’t seem to have that problem.”
Still, for all of Fogarty’s policy expertise and regular guy credentials, his toughest hurdle — in an age when citizens often judge officeholders by their public persona, rather than the impact of their policies — lies in convincing voters to oust a genial seeming and generally well-liked incumbent.