Chafee and the RI Economy: Not as bad as media myth

Jun 3, 2014

It has become a Rhode Island cliché that Lincoln Chafee is a failed governor because he hasn’t done enough to create jobs in Rhode Island’s flagging economy.  This notion has been driven relentlessly by talk radio shills and the editorial and news pages of the state’s legacy print media outlets, some of which are groping for relevance in a reshaped media environment.

This view has been compounded by others in the state’s business and  academic spheres, such as Gary Sasse of Bryant University’s Hassenfeld Institute,  who bemoan the lack of ``leadership’’ in state government, whatever that means. Yet one test of leadership is not doing foolish things. By anyone’s measure Chafee passes this test far better than his predecessor, Republican Donald `38 Studios’ Carcieri.

The noise of the current campaign season also creates more bad publicity for Chafee as candidates and their flacks, particularly the Republicans, heap criticism upon his tenure and his supposed economic policy failings. It has become far too easy in our struggling state to harvest votes by slamming Chafee, who isn’t a great thrust-and-parry politician. He doesn’t enjoy that aspect of politics and doesn’t seek confrontation.

A peer beneath the veneer of the anti-Chafee vitriol shows that job growth under Chafee’s administration hasn’t been nearly as bad as critics claim when it is looked at in the context of two decades.  Facts are stubborn things. What the job numbers reveal is that Chafee’s administration has presided over the highest four-year job growth since Republican Lincoln Almond’s second term. (Almond was arguably the state’s best governor in three decades or so. Part of this was because he did no harm and didn’t get involved in dumb game-changer scams).

Whether one thinks that in a 21st Century global economy that any governor has great sway over the economy is another matter. Politicians tend to take too much credit for good economic times and then shoulder too much blame when things turn sour. Now more than ever, the economic world is configured in a manner that no governor, especially of a state as small as Rhode Island, can change with the wave of  a magic wand.

This not to sugar-coat reality: Rhode Island is still the sick economic orphan of New England, with an unemployment rate substantially higher than the national average. Chafee inherited this mess from Carcieri, whose second term was a fiasco. A look at the accompanying chart, courtesy of the state Department of Labor and Training, shows that nearly 20,000 jobs have been added to Rhode Island payrolls since Chafee took over from Carcieri in January, 2011.

Chafee’s record probably shouldn’t be compared to Almond’s robust second term, when the national economy was humming along. In the second Almond term, the state gained more than 24,000 jobs. It is a time remembered for strong growth in Rhode Island and the expansion of such companies as FM Global and Fidelity in the Ocean State. The Providence skyline was limned by a forest of construction cranes as the Providence Place Mall and the rebirth of downtown steamed ahead.

Things aren’t perfect and Chafee and his administration have not been world beaters. Yet the data states pretty clearly that he has not been the doofus of Rhode Island media exaggeration.  History will probably be kinder to him than Carcieri, who, in fairness, happened to be in office when the national economy crashed.

RI job growth