Providence, R.I. – Frank Caprio is holding one in his series of small business forums, this one
at AJ's Restaurant on Main Street in West Warwick. "If we could go around,
tell me about your business and tell me," he says, "and if you could change
something - or a few things - what would you like to see changed?"
Caprio hears that people are frustrated about the difficulty of doing
business in Rhode Island. Here's Jim Williamson of the West Warwick
Country Club: "The two biggest challenges that we have currently would
be property taxes . . . That combined with affordable healthcare, to provide
healthcare for the employees is also a big challenge."
In response, Caprio tells a story of an Ocean State restaurant owner who
cancelled his own health insurance, rather than leave his employees
uninsured - and risk losing them. Caprio says he understands how hard it
is for small business.
"And I know that everyone's looking down the line, saying, where
does it end? How can I get over the hump, you know, this week, this
month, this year? And that's why I think this election is so important," he
says, "because every decision that's made up at that State House has
to be made through the lens of, how does this decision affect the West
Warwick Country Club and businesses like yours?"
Helping small business is the central theme of Caprio's campaign for
governor, and he's held about 100 of these forums. He says as governor
he'd create jobs by easing credit and offering tax credits to small
businesses. Caprio, currently the state treasurer, points to his own office as
a model of responsiveness and efficiency that state and local governments
"We put in place a strategic plan," he says. "It's up on our Web site; you
can go there right now -- treasury.dot.ri.gov -- you can see last year's
strategic plan, the actual results from it, where we came in under budget.
So you can do that across all state government - there are 42 departments,
right? And imagine if every department in the town did that, too.
With no Democratic primary opponents and the most money raised by far
in the governor's race, Caprio is a formidable contender. A Rasmussen
survey last week showed him narrowly trailing independent candidate
Lincoln Chafee, the former US senator. Caprio hasn't hesitated to go after
his main rival, as he did during a recent debate on Channel 12: "If you want
to pay more taxes, support Senator Chafee. If you don't want to pay taxes,
Chafee says his idea of reducing state sales tax exemptions is preferable
to property tax increases and other de facto tax hikes. Caprio's pledge
of "no taxes" might still appeal to many voters -- especially in these difficult
economic times. The line is part of Caprio's carefully choreographed
campaign message -- but it strikes some observers as bit contrived. Former
Providence Journal political columnist M. Charles Bakst says this about
"He's a bright guy, he speaks very well, he's been around government -- he
has it in his blood. The thing that always strikes me about him, however, if
that when he has something to say it always seems rehearsed, as if he has
sat down with a focus group or a cluster of consultants and been through it
10 or 20 times like a candidate preparing for a debate."
Indeed, Caprio frequently repeats a few familiar phrases, like this one: "If
every business added one job we could cut unemployment in half in Rhode
State Republican chairman Giovanni Cicione calls this rhetoric "great,
but it's absolutely meaningless. It's a pithy little sound bite that has
no substance to it. You know, so why don't we add two jobs and cure
unemployment completely? Why? Because government can't do that."
But Caprio's campaign can draw on some impressive political resources -
like an appearance yesterday at the Rhode Island Convention Center by
former president Bill Clinton, who said Caprio will help the state to add jobs.
"One of the reasons I'm excited to be here, besides the fact that Frank and
his family have been good to me and were good to Hillary," Clinton said, "is
that the guy understands this. He intuitively understands what has to be
done to fix this economy."
But Caprio faces a challenge winning support from some parts of the
Ocean State's labor movement. National Education Association Rhode
Island executive director Robert Walsh says many union members wonder
how Caprio can stump with Bill Clinton - just one week after he appeared
with the Rhode Island Statewide Coalition, a conservative-leaning
"I think there's a real dilemma of trying to message to everyone, in an era
where everyone pays attention to all of your messages, and they see this
kind of campaign schizophrenia," Walsh says.
But the 44-year-old Caprio doesn't apologize for his efforts to win support
from Democratic regulars and conservatives alike. "This about getting
Rhode Island moving and about powerful ideas," he says. "On the local
level, there's a lot of people saying we need to do things differently in
Rhode Island, and I'm not going to let old labels and old fights stop
progress in Rhode Island, so I'm willing to work with anybody."
Caprio's run for governor got a lot easier when his Democratic rival, Patrick
Lynch, dropped out of the race earlier this month. That means he can focus
his attention and his $1.7 million campaign fund on independent Lincoln
After graduating from Harvard and Suffolk Law School, Caprio served two
terms as a state rep and seven more as a state senator from Providence.
For the last 21 years, he and his family have lived in Federal Hill. Caprio's
home is close to the family law practice, built on the site of the tenement
where his grandparents once lived.
"So my dad had always remembered when you were in the tenement
house as a kid, looking around the windows of the fire escape on the
second or third floor of the tenement houses, that you could see the dome
of the State House," Caprio says. "So he knew if some day he built an
office in that location, it would have beautiful views of the State House and
the downtown area."
So you could say that Frank Caprio has had his sights set on the
governor's office for a very long time. Another three months or so of
campaigning will determine if he finally gets there.