Asked about his future by the Providence Journal during the May 24 GOP event, Laffey offered a balancing act befitting his skills as an intuitive politician: “It’s really too early to even talk about stuff like that,” demurred Laffey, although he noted the state’s fiscal woes and indicated he would not rule out being available to solve “another crisis.”
He might as well have said: stay tuned for my second act.
Making lemons into lemonade
Laffey occupies a peculiar place in Rhode Island’s political universe.
After winning the mayor’s office in Cranston in 2002, he quickly became an oversized statewide figure, thanks in large part to prominent coverage in the ProJo and frequent attention on talk radio. Yet despite his own deep pockets and considerable support from the conservative Club for Growth, Laffey proved incapable last year, as the national GOP rallied around Chafee, of even winning his home precinct.
“I happen to think he’s peaked,” says Bill Lynch, chairman of the Rhode Island Democratic Party. “Frankly, they’re on to him in Cranston. If you look at the results right in Cranston, his meteoric rise has been matched by his descent.”
Yet Laffey, who calls himself a populist, is unlikely to go away, even though moderate elements of the local GOP tend not to like him. While everyone in politics has some degree of ego, says one prominent Republican, “I don’t think Steve Laffey does anything but what makes Steve Laffey feel important.”
Last year’s Senate run is a case in point. While taking out Chafee might have seemed like a real prospect (and one savored by national conservatives), Laffey would gain little traction in challenging as popular a Democrat as Jack Reed.
Instead, Laffey seems bound to go up against Chafee or Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian in a GOP primary in 2010 (the latter two are very unlikely, because of their longstanding friendship, to both enter the race). A much larger Democratic field is also in the making.
“The natural office for him would be the governor’s office in 2010,” says Brown University political science professor Darrell West. “It will be an open seat election, so he doesn’t have to worry about taking on an incumbent. The GOP doesn’t have a deep bench. He has a personality that is better suited for the executive than the legislative branch.” And since his politics are in line with those of Governor Donald L. Carcieri, West says, Laffey is not too conservative to win a statewide election in Rhode Island.
The smart and smooth-talking Laffey, who made a small fortune working in finance in Tennessee, has proven his ability to make contacts and raise big bucks. Yet the thing that his supporters see as his main strength — his willingness to fight like a pit bull on various issues — is viewed by critics as a turn-off.
Yet “if you’re the Republican Party, you can’t not have a guy like that in your starting lineup,” says WPRO-AM talk-show host John DePetro, a childhood friend. “The Republican Party can’t just be Mayor Avedisian and Governor Carcieri. The two [conservative and moderate] sides have got to find a way to make it work.”
DePetro says Laffey and he haven’t specifically talked about a gubernatorial run since that’s “so far off and so much could happen.” The talk-show host adds, however, “He loves the element of public service and running for office, holding office. He could go in now and make a fortune in the private sector. I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
Some GOP moderates, like former lieutenant governor Bernard Jackvony, will wait and watch to see if Laffey adopts a less confrontational tone than in the past.
Yet Laffey’s man-on-a-mission persona could benefit if Rhode Island continues to grapple with monstrous deficits and eye-popping tales of government waste.
While conservatives have sometimes been put off by parts of Laffey’s rhetoric, Andrew Morse, a founding contributor to the conservative blog Anchor Rising, writes in an e-mail interview, his financial experience and mayoral record could be a good fit for the governor’s job.
And as Morse notes, there’s a wider view among Rhode Islanders that “RI has gone as far as it can go with one-time revenue fixes and tinkering with existing programs. They believe it’s going to take someone willing to rock the boat more than a little and make major changes and in areas like pensions, healthcare, and education to move Rhode Island towards a prosperous and sustainable future. Laffey has never shown any fear of rocking the boat, and has ideas in all of the major policies areas. These will be major assets to a gubernatorial candidate in 2010.”