COMMENTARY: Chafee, Taveras off to similar starts

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Governor-elect Lincoln Chafee and Providence Mayor-elect Angel Taveras hail from very different backgrounds. But so far both are hinting at new styles of governing.

Chafee is a scion of one of New England's pedigreed Yankee families. Taveras is the son of newly arrived immigrants from the Dominican Republic. But the differences may end there.

So far, both Taveras and Chafee are breaking with the way the people they are taking over from ran their offices. At the State House, Chafee, who ran as an independent, is reaching out to Democrats and labor union leaders who were shunned for most of the last eight years by Republican Governor Don Carcieri.

Chafee has chosen Richard Licht, a lifelong Democrat and former state senator and lieutenant governor, to be administration director, the second most powerful job in any administration.

The appointment of Licht is important not only because he is a talented, Harvard-trained lawyer and seasoned State House operative. What is remarkable is that Chafee picked someone who gave him no campaign money and even contributed to his Democratic opponent, Frank Caprio. It also shows that Chafee doesn't have the disease that poisons so much of Rhode Island politics - that version of political Alzheimer's where you forget everything but the ancient grudges. Licht's uncle, Frank Licht, defeated Chafee's father, John Chafee, for governor in 1968 after a rough campaign. And Licht himself challenged the senior Chafee for U.S. Senate in 1988.

None of that apparently mattered to Lincoln Chafee.

Chafee has also signaled that the Carcieri strategy of consigning labor leaders to Siberia will end. Robert Walsh of the National Education Association/RI was a major campaign adviser and is on the transition team.

Chafee is a former Warwick mayor, which obviously pleases Taveras. Chafee knows what it is like to balance a municipal budget. Taveras and Chafee may be coming from different places, but their voter bases were remarkably similar. In Providence, the fulcrum of both the Taveras victory and Chafee's huge win in the city came from an alliance of wealthy East Siders and less well-off Latino voters.

And Chafee has pledged to rescind Carcieri's executive order cracking down on illegal immigration, which Taveras and other Latinos found divisive.

Outgoing Mayor David Cicilline had frosty relations with the City Council, which Taveras has already moved to heal by meeting individually with council members. And Cicilline was criticized for relying too heavily on the opinions of those who live in the 02906 zip code on the East Side. (The complaint around the city during the Cicilline years was that the "O-Sixers'' control everything.) Taveras, who lives in Mount Pleasant, says he plans to have more diversity in his administration. Taveras also says he will work for better relations with city employees; don't be surprised if you see the new mayor walking the beat with police officers or tagging along with public works employees as they fill potholes.

It is, of course, easy to say the right things in the post-election blush of victory. Governing is different. Awful things happen. Carcieri was barely sworn in when he faced the horror of the Station fire, the biggest disaster to ensnare our state since the 1938 Hurricane. On his first day in office in 1991, Bruce Sundlun was dealt the credit union mess.

Here's hoping Chafee and Taveras get longer honeymoons and a chance to work together to move our state and capital city forward.

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