PROVIDENCE, RI – Governor Lincoln Chafee is discovering that it isn't enough to be right on the issues. Rhode Island Public Radio's Political Analyst Scott MacKay sat down last week with Chafee a year after his election as the state's first independent governor since the 19th century.
Lincoln Chafee sits in the second floor State House office that his father, John Chafee, held in the go-go years of the 1960s, a time when the red brick factories still churned out textiles, jewelry and electronics. A working-class Rhode Islander could own a home and afford to send the kids to college.
A Cold War military establishment generated thousands of Navy jobs at Newport and Quonset. The business and media establishment supported John Chafee even when he proposed raising taxes.
Lincoln Chafee became governor of a state in a deep economic and psychic funk. The factories are long shuttered; the Navy fleet sailed away decades ago.
The media has been dumbed down and tarted up. Now Lincoln Chafee must try to reverse decline in a state where much of the establishment takes a perverse glee in bashing him.
The younger Chafee has emphatically rejected the legacy of his predecessor, Conservative Republican Don Carcieri on a wide spectrum of issues from gay rights and immigration to taxing and spending.
On finances, Chafee believes in a we are-all-in-this together philosophy that would have the wealthy contribute to the price of civilization. Carcieri famously cut taxes for those making more than $250,000 a year while allowing cities and towns to raise property taxes and taxes on cars worth $6,000 or less.
Most of Chafee's positions are probably in line with the majority of Rhode Islanders. Yet he was elected with just 36 percent of the vote and seems to have a difficult time convincing the Assembly and the business community to go along with his views.
?Take the public pension overhaul. It is hard to argue with Chafee's position that State Treasurer Gina Raimondo and the Assembly should have included in the reform measure the faltering local pensions systems that threaten to turn Cranston, Pawtucket or Providence into the next Central Falls.
What Raimondo did was cherry-pick the easiest problem to solve. Her plan deals only with the state issues. She didn't tackle the much tougher issue of the local pensions, which would have meant taking on the contentious police and firefighter unions.
Yet Raimondo did what Chafee didn't. She focused with laser-intensity on the pension topic, did her homework and stumped the state to sell her plan.
Chafee too often muddles his message and thinks that if people like him they will respect him. A big problem is that nobody among the State House crowd fears him. In an era of the permanent campaign, Chafee seems to go to work every day not knowing how to articulate his priorities. He is no orator.
Chafee knew he would face brickbats from the right-wing babble of talk radio, but the attitude of some mainstream media has been silly. The Providence Journal, long the tribune of the well-born, has relentlessly blasted Chafee on its editorial page for being rich and out of touch with the average Rhode Islander. Does anyone ever remember the newspaper treating other wealthy politicians such as Claiborne Pell, Bruce Sundlun or Carcieri this way?
And WJAR'S Gene Valicenti recently insinuated on air that Chafee is the "most hated" governor in Rhode Island history. (Earth to Gene: How popular was Ed DiPrete when he was carted off to the ACI for a year's sabbatical at taxpayer expense or Bruce Sundlun before the depositors got their money?). Valicenti reportedly based his comment on Facebook postings.
Chafee says the Journal's attitude is largely about his proposal to extend the sales tax to newspapers, which have long been exempt. "Obviously proposing a tax on the Journal sent them into a temper tantrum," says Chafee.
Truth be told, Linc Chafee is comfortable in his own skin, approachable and less impressed with the trappings of office than any governor of the past 25 years, except for Republican Lincoln Almond.
Like Almond, Chafee has a palpable disdain for the grandstanding and gamesmanship that too often passes for governing at the State House. Unlike Almond, Chafee happens to be governor in bad economic times. The forest of construction cranes that hung over downtown Providence during the mid-1990s is long gone.
Don't forget that Almond was criticized for being too laid back and apolitical. Yet his administration was largely successful, limned by such projects as the Providence Place Mall and expansion of such job-generating financial services companies as Fidelity Investments and FM Global. Almond also cut income tax rates and built RITE care into a national model for children's health insurance.
At a time when each week brings news of another cheesy arrest of a politician, one thing Rhode Islanders know about Chafee is that he is a person of integrity, a political figure who doesn't know how to steal. And he has principles, whether you like them or not. As a U.S. senator, he bucked his then Republican Party and President George W. Bush on such important issues as the Iraq War and the tax cuts for the wealthy that have contributed mightily to the crushing federal budget deficit.
Chafee is also hurt by being an independent. He has no political party apparatus to back him up when the going gets rough. Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley, chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, has been after Chafee to become a Democrat.
Chafee says he is thinking about doing so.
Chafee clearly needs a political operation and should raise enough money to engage a pollster and a top-flight consultant such as Tad Devine, who worked on his 2010 campaign and made the best television ads of the last election cycle in Rhode Island.
But in the end, Chafee says he knows there is really only one issue in Rhode Island these days.
"We are dealing with a tough economy, people are really hurting," says Chafee. "There are a lot of people who want that middle-class dream of a decent job and being able to buy a house and send their kids to college and they aren't making it."
If Chafee can't deliver on the economy, come 2014 he may be another Rhode Islander looking for a job.
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