Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee delivers his annual State of the State Speech this week. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay on why the governor’s words are crucial.
Lincoln Chafee has been governor for two years, but can any of his constituents honestly point to an accomplishment or speech that addresses our state’s crying need: a better economy that generates needed jobs.
Rhode Island’s unemployment rate is slowly coming down, but we still have a double-digit rate that is New England’s highest. Businesses seem to be voting with their money: private-sector investment is scant and the business seems to lack confidence in either the governor or the Democrats who run the General Assembly.
The brutal truth is that 2013 is the year that will make or break both Chafee’s legacy and any chance he has of winning the reelection he so wants in 2014.
When he ascends to the rostrum in the House chamber at the State House Wednesday evening to give his televised address, Chafee needs to reposition his administration and speak plainly and factually about a concrete plan for putting Rhode Island back to work.
It doesn’t matter that much of what ails Rhode Island isn’t his fault and didn’t happen on his watch. Chafee inherited a basket of problems that had their genesis in the administration of his predecessor, conservative Republican Gov. Donald Carcieri and the Assembly.
Chafee was stuck with a terrible economy, Carcieri’s disastrous $75 million taxpayer giveaway to Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling’s 38 Studios and tax policies pushed by Carcieri and his Democratic Smith Hill enablers that cut taxes for the wealthiest Rhode Islanders while slashing millions of dollars in aid to our struggling cities and towns.
A moderate Republican turned independent, Chafee was elected with just 36 percent of the vote in 2010. His immediate problem is that he hasn’t done enough to grow support. The last media public opinion survey was done four months ago by WPRI television and supervised by veteran pollster Joe Fleming. It showed Chafee’s approval rating at 29 percent – among the lowest of any governor in the nation. (That poll of 501 registered state voters carried an error margin of about 4 percent).
Maybe he could lean some lessons from moderate Republican Lincoln Almond, who had a rocky early tenure in office, only to right the ship by focusing on economic advancement. Almond was also helped by a growing national economy during the go-go Clinton years or the late 1990s.
Indeed, some Chafee admirers point to Almond’s reelection campaign and say Chafee can repeat history. Others brush aside the lagging poll numbers by noting that Congressman David Cicilline, our Washington delegation’s Lazarus, came back from an even worse standing in the polls to win reelection.
But Chafee isn’t likely to be as lucky as Cicilline, who drew weak opponents in both his primary and general elections. Breathing down Chafee’s neck are such formidable elected officials as Providence Mayor Angel Taveras, General Treasurer Gina Raimondo and, perhaps, Cranston Republican Mayor Alan Fung.
The governor needs to bulk up a political operation that seems nonexistent. He should do some polling and establish a fund-raising presence, even though he can self-finance much of a reelection. He shouldn’t fear the political gang seeing a poll on his campaign finance statements. Chafee, who couldn’t be persuaded by George W. Bush or Dick Cheney into supporting the Iraq War, doesn’t need a poll to tell him what to think.
What he does need is some help in crafting a message that puts an urgent focus on jobs and the economy. He needs to convince Rhode Islanders that he has a plan for economic revival and is working diligently at it. If he wants 2013 to be a successful year, Chafee on Wednesday must speak plainly and decisively about lifting us out of the doldrums.
There are some glimmers on the horizon. About 500 sorely needed construction jobs will be created by the Green Airport expansion. The Knowledge District project in Providence is slowly moving ahead. He ought to say that jobs are going to be created at Quonset, a bright spot in our economy.
Chafee ought to stop treating his job as if he is the state’s mayor. A governor must be a political leader, one who is respected, liked, and sometimes feared. Rhode Islanders want to know that their state’s CEO is capable of carving a credible path out of the wilderness. If not, Lincoln Chafee will have plenty of time to sail his boat when his term ends.
Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:35 and 8:35 and on all Things Considered at 5:45. You can also follow his political reporting at the `On Politics’ blog at RIPR.org