ON THE MARCH: Laffey calls himself the answer man for the state’s problems.
Shaping the field
Like Chafee, Laffey took time off and wrote a book, Primary Mistake: How the Washington Republican Establishment Lost Everything in 2006 (and Sabotaged My Senatorial Campaign) (Sentinel, 2007), in his case after getting beaten by the then-senator in the September 2006 GOP primary. Now, though, the Cranston Republican is the most thinly veiled among the possible 2010 gubernatorial candidates in his nascent campaign mode.
Asked whether he’s going to run for governor, for example, Laffey says, “I would say I haven’t made any formal decisions, but the state of Rhode Island is looking worse than Cranston when I became mayor. I look at the landscape. I would be, I think, the only person who knows how to fix these things, and I have a history of fixing things . . .”
Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian, a liberal Republican who has called Chafee his political soul mate, could potentially run for governor, although he says he’s currently focused on running for reelection. When 2010 was more distant, Chafee had touted Avedisian for the statewide office, suggesting that he himself, a Providence transplant, might run for mayor in Rhode Island’s capital
It was an intriguing concept, particularly because of the stark contrast that Chafee would represent from some of the prospective Democratic mayoral candidates, including Providence City Council Majority Leader Terry Hassett and state Representative Steven Costantino, chairman of the House Finance Committee. Now, though, since Providence Mayor David N. Cicilline’s position has weakened in recent months, it remains to be seen whether, as expected earlier, he will run for governor.
Among the Democrats, the most likely current candidates are Attorney General Patrick C. Lynch, who, due to term limits, can’t seek his office again, and General Treasurer Frank Caprio, who, like Cicilline, has aggressively been raising money. Lieutenant Governor Elizabeth Roberts and her predecessor, Charles Fogarty — who very nearly beat Carcieri in 2006 — could also figure in the mix.
Back on the Republican side, Avedisian declines to say which way he’s leaning for 2010. Taking note of the fluidity of Rhode Island’s political landscape, the Warwick mayor says he thinks Chafee is still trying to decide between a run for governor or mayor of Providence.
If Cicilline runs for governor, Chafee could be the closest thing to a like-minded would-be successor for a man whose leadership skills (like those of some other elected officials) came into question following the December 13 snow debacle, yet who has also brought a cleaner brand of politics to Providence City Hall.
Yet running for governor seems to be the smarter choice for Chafee, for pragmatic and philosophical reasons.
The smaller the venue, the more local the politics, and Chafee would have his work cut out in spreading his mayoral support beyond a reliable base of affluent liberals on the East Side.
Contrast that to a statewide run, where Chafee retains good favor and where some guilt remains on the part of voters. It’s worth remembering that when he got beat by Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse in November 2006 — a situation due mostly to the unpopularity here of George W. Bush — Chafee’s approval rating still topped 60 percent.
Adding to the intrigue, Chafee and Laffey — who each say that the other doesn’t figure in their planning for 2010 — are not exactly crazy about one another. Laffey repeatedly belittles Chafee in his book, while Chafee, in his own book, doesn’t even refer to Laffey by name.
Who will lead Rhode Island?
Chafee fondly recalls his own experience as the four-term mayor of Warwick, a time, as he recounts in his book, when he learned the nuts and bolts of politics, and developed an ability to oppose those on the other side of the aisle while also getting along with them.
Yet he also says his late father, John H. Chafee, enjoyed being governor more than being a senator, because “you can get more done.”
For his part, Laffey is not to be taken lightly as an opponent. While his book expressed excessive indignation that the national Republican Party would support a Senate incumbent in 2006, rather than a challenger who more closely matched the party’s mainstream, Laffey correctly notes that he was hurt by Matt Brown’s departure from the Democratic Senate primary that year.
During a recent interview over lunch at J.P. Spoonem’s in Cran¬ston, the seemingly indefatigable Laffey — who made a small fortune while having working in finance in Tennessee — almost simultaneously suggests he doesn’t need politics, and that becoming governor is preferable to having won office as a senator, anyway, since he is “an executive by nature, by background, by everything I’ve done.”
Laffey says Rhode Island could become “a wining place” by bringing state spending on social programs and other needs into line with the average of the other 49 states, and he supports remaking the state pension system as a 401(k) program, creating a more competitive tax structure, and increasing school choice, among other things. Extending his support beyond core backers won’t be a problem, he vows, since, “Anything, we’ve ever done, my core supporter has always been a Reagan Democrat.”
Chafee, sounding not unlike Carcieri when he burst upon the scene in 2002, says Rhode Island has to do a better job taking in advantage of its assets, such as the proximity of an Amtrak line to T.F. Green International Airport.
Talking in his office at Brown, he was reluctant to discuss such things as how he might outflank legislative Democrats, calling the question premature. Yet when it comes to economic development, he says, “You do have to work with everybody. I think that’s one of the governor’s mistakes. It just became too confrontational. Whether it’s his fault or whoever’s fault it may be, there’s a divide right now. It prohibits good positive action, and one of the miracles of watching government function was just watching Governor Sundlun get his terminal built [at the airport]. He just got it done.”
To some, Laffey’s bull-in-a-china shop approach is very appealing, the kind of thing necessary to curb legislative boondoggles and put Rhode Island on a better path.
“The idea that Carcieri has been confrontational is a total fabrication of the media,” says WPRO-AM talk-show host Dan Yorke. “Why? Because he has spoken his mind and because he has a value system? Don Carcieri is Steve Laffey-Lite. You haven’t seen confrontational until you’ve seen Steve Laffey . . . The only way you can be confrontational and effective is to be really confrontational.”
Yorke, who hosted Chafee for a polite segment on his show last week, says of the former senator, “I hope he enjoys his retirement. I think he served his purpose.” Chafee is “a good guy,” the talk-show host says, but he offers “a false impression. He’s got a self-actualization problem. He think he’s been courageous . . . The notion that he’d be more effective in an administration role puzzles me. I don’t see him as a decision-maker.”
When it comes to 2010, Yorke says, “You take a guy like Frank Caprio, probably the most aggressive thinker on the Democratic side, and someone like Steve Laffey, and you put Linc Chafee in that mix,” with television and radio debates, “and Linc Chafee will look like the junior varsity.”
There’s little doubt that Chafee is an unusual figure in politics, someone who can be awkward and ungainly at times — a decidedly different kind of public official than his late father — yet someone who also wins plaudits for his candor, fundamental decency, and lack of pretense.
Asked about the view that he’s weak or indecisive, Chafee says, “I can understands that people would want to make that accusation, based on my personality, but the facts would be in opposition to that . . . [as demonstrated by how he opposed] not just the war in Iraq, but the tax cut, and having the vice-president, one on one, just the two of us at a table, him for 20 minutes telling me why I had to vote for the tax cut. A lot of people wouldn’t be able to stand up to that pressure. To me, it was a not a problem at all.”