Eyes on the prize

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  April 22, 2009
090424_Lynch
LAW AND ORDER VS. DOLLAR AND CENTS Lynch. 

PATRICK C. LYNCH
Observers say Lynch could have a hard time convincing voters that he is the man to turn around Rhode Island's ailing economy. As attorney general, after all, his natural strength is law and order, not dollars and cents.

And his current gig has other political drawbacks, too.

Rhode Island is one of just three states in the country that assigns criminal prosecutions to the attorney general, rather than a network of district attorneys, and a high-profile murder case gone wrong can be hard to shake.

"The problem with being an attorney general is you're only as good as your last conviction, so fortunes can change overnight depending on what's in the news," said West, of the Brookings Institution.

But the state's last attorney general, Sheldon Whitehouse, took Chafee's US Senate seat in 2006 — albeit after a failed gubernatorial run. And Lynch, who will term out next year, has been able to avoid any major controversies during his seven years in office.

There was considerable consternation when the Derderian brothers, owners of the Station nightclub, got off with relatively light sentences after pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter charges in the fire that killed 100 people in 2003. But Lynch forcefully denounced the judge's decision and, as he noted in a recent interview, cruised to re-election as attorney general just weeks later.

His biggest victory, a judgment that could have cost former lead paint manufacturers $2.4 billion in cleanup costs, evaporated last year when the Rhode Island Supreme Court reversed the decision.

But Lynch, who has won high marks for job performance in public opinion polls, has plenty to highlight. He points to a fight to oppose the expansion of a liquid natural gas facility in Providence, a role in the corruption investigation of former state senator John Celona, and participation in a 12-state lawsuit that produced a landmark US Supreme Court decision directing the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate the heat-trapping gases responsible for global warming.

Lynch said a diminished press has underplayed his most far-reaching work in favor of bloodier fare. And he suggested he was eager to tout his record on heftier matters in building the case for a battle-tested leader with the energy to shake up Smith Hill and lead the state out of its morass.

"I live with, on a daily basis, a sense of urgency," he said.

And his leadership skills, Lynch suggested, would make him more qualified to serve as governor than a candidate who might claim expertise in the ins-and-outs of state finance.

"If people are looking simply for a number-cruncher," he said, in a thinly veiled reference to Caprio, "I don't think that's the answer for our state. We don't need a clerical worker."

Lynch is expected to buttress that statewide leadership message with a strong, local appeal to voters in the Blackstone Valley, where he can count on support from Cumberland Mayor Daniel J. McKee and the legacy of his father, Dennis M. Lynch, who served as mayor of Pawtucket for years.

And the attorney general, who has laid out liberal positions on same-sex marriage and abortion, could also compete with Roberts for the progressive vote in places like Providence's East Side, observers say.

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