By the time a candidate for major office steps up to the microphone to officially declare for the seat, everyone already knows his intentions. And the pol rarely does much to liven up the proceedings — usually offering a predictable list of accomplishments and the usual pablum about bringing people together.
But when Lincoln Chafee, the former Republican senator-turned-GOP-apostate, announced his independent campaign for governor January 4, he did something daring. With the state facing a $600 million budget hole, Chafee called for an expansion of the Rhode Island sales tax to cover exempt items like food, clothing, and over-the-counter drugs at a reduced rate of, perhaps, 1 percent.
That’s right — a new tax on groceries and sweaters in the midst of the nation’s worst recession in decades.
“We have to honestly confront the immediate gap between the revenue we take in as a state and what we need to spend to support the services we provide,” he said, “particularly our schools and state colleges.”
Bold stroke of truth-telling leadership or political suicide?
“That’s the $64,000 question,” said Darrell West, a former Brown University political science professor who is now with the Brookings Institution in Washington. “Boldness is something voters love and hate at the same time. They complain about politicians who sit back and do nothing. But they sometimes punish them for bold ideas.”
Indeed, the track record for candidates who propose a tax hike during a campaign is not all that good. Chafee’s own father, a three-term governor, lost his 1968 bid for re-election to Democrat Frank Licht after proposing a state income tax.
And 16 years later, Walter Mondale accepted the Democratic nomination for president with this bit of risky rhetoric: “Let’s tell the truth,” he said. “Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won’t tell you. I just did.”
Mondale carried exactly one state in the 1984 election.
Lincoln Chafee, in an interview with the Phoenix after his announcement, acknowledged the political risk in his sales tax proposal. “I know it’s hazardous territory,” he said.
Indeed, Chafee said he had written a version of his announcement speech that did not include the idea. But he changed his mind about a week before the speech after yet another meeting with Rhode Islanders asking for concrete solutions to the state’s paralyzing fiscal troubles. “My goal is to say what I think is best for Rhode Island and take the consequences,” he said.
West, of the Brookings Institution, said Chafee may have some reason to believe his gamble will pay off. “If there’s ever a time the voters would reward boldness, now is the time,” he said.
And there are some tactical benefits, too. The announcement reinforces Chafee’s image as a genuine straight-talker who is not beholden to political consultants. Maureen Moakley, a political science professor at the University of Rhode Island, said the proposal puts Chafee out front on the looming tax question and places pressure on his rivals, Democrats Frank Caprio and Patrick Lynch, to offer up concrete plans.
And as one longtime political observer suggested, the idea should help Chafee in his high stakes fight with Lynch over support from organized labor. More revenue for the state should mean less pressure on the legislature to cut public employees’ jobs and benefits. The proposal could appeal to middle-class suburban voters, too: Chafee is pitching the sales tax expansion as an alternative to property tax hikes.
But Chafee’s idea could get lost in the forthcoming debate over Governor Carcieri’s proposed “net receipts tax,” a new levy on business that would lead to the elimination of one other Rhode Island tax — the corporate income tax, sales tax, or personal income tax. And, for now, the candidate’s proposal presents a tempting target for his opponents.
Indeed, the Democrats and Republicans are already taking their shots, hopeful that Chafee’s candidacy will go the way of his father’s some four decades ago.