Last Republican standing

By IAN DONNIS  |  March 7, 2007
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POLAR OPPOSITES: While Laffey remains a question mark, Chafee touts Avedisian as a gubernatorial candidate in 2010.

The making of a mod
To his critics, Avedisian, like Chafee, is a RINO — a Republican in name only — and Providence Journal editorials have occasionally taken him to task for being too generous with public employee unions.
 
For his part, Avedisian says he became a Republican, and remains one, because of the example set by such moderates as John Chafee, Lila Sapinsley, Claudine Schneider, and Susan Farmer.
 
The mayor, who served as a Senate page for the elder Chafee from 1981-82, recalls how congressional moderates were considerably more plentiful, and political debate more civil, at the time. A framed Cal Ripken Jr. jersey hangs in his City Hall office, a keepsake from the days when he went to school from 5:30 to 8:30 am, did his work as a page, and then “went to every home game possible” of the Baltimore Orioles.
 
Avedisian, whose family has long roots in Warwick, went on to work as a legislative aide for Sapinsley, then the Senate minority leader, while he was studying political science at Providence College. As part of the tiny GOP presence in the General Assembly, he says, Sapinsley emphasized the importance of advancing ideas and principles, rather than who got the credit. He went on to work for the Rhode Island Republican Party, for Fred Lippitt during a run for lieutenant governor, and then for Almond.
 
The relative prosperity of Warwick, which has a sizable middle class, and less of the grinding poverty that afflicts Providence, has enabled Avedisian to pursue a number of pet initiatives, mostly related to health-care and the environment.
  
He touts the city’s $12.2 million surplus, its low crime rate, and its sizeable property tax collections. Sounding both the populist and the policy geek, Avedisian describes how Warwick is home to the state’s first municipally owned therapeutic pool — something, he says, that was identified as an important need in talks with seniors.
 
The mayor also points with pride to the creation of Everett Wilcox Family Health Center, which offers health-care to uninsured and the underinsured; to how Warwick implemented automated trash collection and recycling in 2003, making it a statewide leader; and to how a variety of previously scattered social agencies were grouped together in one building, making them more convenient for citizens.
 
The presence in Warwick of T.F. Green Airport is a double-edged sword — it represents a vital economic generator for the state, yet also an irritant for nearby residents. During Avedi¬sian’s watch, the state, under Carcieri, started paying the city $800,000 in annual impact fees — far less than it would yield if the airport corporation were taxed, but a welcome windfall of revenue nonetheless.
 
The mayor, who is single and lives in Pawtuxet Village, presently serves as president of the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns.
 
His relations with Carcieri were a bit bumpy after the governor took office, a partial byproduct of how Avedisian chaired the 2002 primary campaign of rival Republican Jim Bennett, a childhood friend, but Avedisian says that turbulence is now in the past. By any stretch, though, his collegiality and connections with Democrats — such as how he spoke at the funeral of Representative Paul Sherlock, another longtime friend, in 2004 — seem unusual for a Republican. Then again, perhaps all this makes perfect sense for someone who resides in the political center.
 
State Representative Joseph McNamara (D-Warwick) says, “The mayor is very hardworking and dedicated to the city . . . I think the mayor realized at a very early age that good public policy is also good politics and it transcends party lines. If we’re elected to do a job, then to accomplish that, you have to work with folks in a bipartisan manner.”
 
Brown University political science professor Darrell West says the future looks bright for the mayor. “Avedisian is not a bomb-thrower, he’s a problem-solver,” West says. “He works well with other people and gets things done. I think voters appreciate that style.”
 
Warwick City Council president Joseph Solomon calls Avedisian “a pretty congenial individual,” and praises him for “an excellent bedside manner. He’s very sympathetic to personal situations of individuals when things are tough. I think that’s probably one of the things that stand out from a personal perspective.”
 
George Nee, secretary-treasurer of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO, applauds Avedisian — whose mayoral campaigns have been endorsed by the Providence Central Labor Council — for respecting the collective bargaining process. “I think he has bargained tough on behalf of the city’s position, but he has bargained and not grandstanded,” says Nee, in contrast to Laffey.
 
The ProJo, on the other hand, has editorialized that the Warwick mayor is too cozy with labor, and not sufficiently concerned about taxpayers. In September 2005, for example, one editorial said that “Avedisian seems to be speeding in the opposite direction” as the state struggled to get public-employee pensions under control. More recently, on February 28, another editorial, noting how he may have gubernatorial hopes, said that Avedisian “seems loath to lose these 23 patronage jobs [for municipally em¬ployed crossing guards], with their expensive perks.”
 
Avedisian responds by saying the crossing guards’ contract has yet to be settled, and that during the last negotiation four years ago, the city cut the number of guards and obtained a co-pay on health insurance costs. “I think people should wait to see what the negotiations yield this time,” he says.

Will he go for the gusto?
Should Avedisian run for governor in 2010, he faces a definite contradiction: while he seems capable of running well statewide, his stiffest challenge could be in overcoming a conservative in Rhode Island’s tiny GOP primary.
 
Asked whether he might run as an independent at some point, the mayor says, “I haven’t really thought about leaving [the party], so I have to say at this point I would be committed to remaining a Republican.”
 
For Avedisian, being anything other than a moderate is hard to imagine. “You can see both sides, you can go back and forth, and come up with a third alternative,” he says. With polarization still prevalent in DC, it’s up to local governments, the mayor says, to demonstrate that peoples’ common concerns are greater than their differences. A lot of it, he says, comes down to spending “a little time just talking to someone, [so that] you get a totally different perspective of where they’re coming from.”
 
At the same time, Avedisian recalls standing in the kitchen of the Crowne Plaza in Warwick last November, trying to find the words to make sense of the defeat of Linc Chafee, Rhode Island’s preeminent moderate.
 
Like Chafee, Avedisian has the Republican Party in his DNA, even if it might not always seem to make sense. In terms of the political future of his friend, whom he calls his “political soul mate,” the mayor says, “I think he needs a little bit of time to assess what he wants to do.”
 
When it comes to the possibility of his shooting for a higher office in 2010, the same sentiment may well apply to Avedisian.

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