Doherty counts his father, who grew up in the Depression, as a singular influence. "He put a heavy emphasis on education and ethics and morality," he says. And when his dad fell ill and closed the dental practice, Doherty decided unasked to forgo an education at Bryant College and attend the cheaper Rhode Island College.
But he left during his sophomore year to attend the state police's demanding training academy; he'd heard, correctly, that it would be the last for several years and he didn't want to miss his shot.
Legend has it, the academy's top brass required him to box with his right hand tied behind his back. There was no rope involved, Doherty assures me, but he was told that if he threw a punch with his right, he'd be kicked out of the academy.
"What they didn't know," he says, "is that my left was better."
As he rose through the ranks with the state police, Doherty investigated white-collar crime and went toe-to-toe with wise guys like Anthony "The Saint" St. Laurent, William "Blackjack" del Santo, and Alfred "Chippy" Scivola. He wasn't all that impressed.
"They're not tough guys," he says. "Tough guys raise families. They're frauds."
Doherty also listened in on the state's first public corruption wire tap, targeting Lincoln Planning Board member Robert Picerno, who pled no contest in 2004 to four counts of soliciting bribes and three counts of conspiracy to solicit bribes.
The corruption cases he handled, Doherty says, "sickened" him.
Over the course of his working life, the colonel developed the raw material for a political career: broad name recognition, a sprawling network of friends and admirers, and an upstanding, regular guy image well-tuned to blue collar Rhode Island.
On a recent weekday morning, over a plate of eggs at the Modern Diner in Pawtucket, he listened as three Vietnam veterans — all retired law enforcement — pressed the case for better services. A lot of public officials, they kvetched, are out of touch with veterans.
"Not just veterans," Doherty interjected. "Life."
But if a career in police work comes with some obvious political perks, it comes with limitations, too. On the ride from the diner to his home in a well-groomed section of Cumberland, I pressed him on the issues of the day: the federal budget, Medicare, Social Security.
His answers were pat and occasionally unsure. We need to root out "waste, fraud, and abuse," he said, and honor our "social compact" with seniors currently receiving Social Security and Medicare benefits, while making unspecified entitlement reform down the line.
What animates him, it was clear, is national security. In his kitchen, Doherty spoke glowingly of a trip to Israel to study counter-terrorism strategies. Later, I saw copies of Foreign Affairs magazine scattered across his dining room table. "I want to go to Washington," he said, "to keep Rhode Islanders safe."
He told me that when he resigned as superintendent this spring after a public spat with Governor Chafee over immigration enforcement — one of several issues, he said, where he differed with the governor — it was security concerns that predominated. "This is not a Latino issue," he said, "it's an American issue. This is the post-9/11 era and we can never let our guard down again."