Laffey’s campaign also rolls out a serial news release describing the “Washington Taxpayer Rip-Off of the Week,” recounting, for example, how the 2006 federal Transportation Bill includes $950,000 to create an education center at a 90-year-old zoo in Jackson, Mississippi. The tacit suggestion is how government waste is endemic, and that someone like Laffey, perhaps best known for taking a tough stand against the overly generous compensation once received by Cranston crossing guards, is required to bring about change in the nation’s capital. Not coincidentally, his campaign motto is “the smallest state, the strongest voice.”

Unmentioned in all this is how Laffey, who enjoys the robust support of the Washington, DC-based Club for Growth, is far more conservative than Chafee, a moderate often disparaged by his critics as a RINO (Republican In Name Only). Laffey, for example, is unapologetically pro-life, he backs a constitutional amendment to outlaw flag-burning, and he has been a largely unquestioning supporter of George W. Bush and the war in Iraq. By contrast, Chafee supports abortion-rights, he voted against the amendment to prohibit flag-burning, and he was the only Senate Republican to vote against the war. Occupying a curious middle ground, Chafee mixes and matches maverick stances and unusual idiosyncrasy (making a show of writing in the name of Bush’s father in 2004, for instance, rather than that of the current president himself) with a significant measure of fealty to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.

Laffey usefully eschews labels, describing himself in sometimes rote terms as a problem-solver competing against “career politicians.” He frequently invokes his roots as the son of a toolmaker who returned to Cranston, following a successful financial career in Tennessee, to put the troubled city on a strong economic footing. He calls the eight improvements in the city’s bond rating over roughly three years “the fastest and most dramatic turnaround we can find in Rhode Island.” In a move that alienated some supporters, Laffey has cultivated the state’s politically important Latino community, establishing a sister-city relationship, for example, with a Guatemalan community. He steers clear of mentioning how he once attributed his return to Cranston to divine guidance.

Blessed with a keen intellect and supremely comfortable in his own skin, Laffey is the most personable candidate in the Senate race — the kind of guy who can easily chat with average folks at a diner in Pawtucket or Woonsocket. (Trying to exploit this common touch, one of his campaign commercials referenced his fondness for Dunkin’ Donuts’ coffee — a tie that led the company, in a ProJo story, to disavow any support for Laffey’s campaign.) Then again, Laffey’s likeability hinges on the extent to which individual voters like his politics.

Asked whether his self-description as a populist clashes with his profile as a conservative Republican, Laffey says, “No, I don’t even know what that means. I represent a reform movement that I want to put forth,” and he references how his Web site,, brims with policy positions — fleshed out with video and Power Point presentations — for reducing American reliance on foreign oil and addressing other challenges. While it’s fair to wonder how far his ideas, like stimulating the renewable energy industry through tax credits, would get in the Senate, he seems serious about his self-described role as an agent of change.

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