Linc Chafee’s tough road

Oct 5, 2012

Governor Lincoln Chafee is not on the ballot at next month’s general election. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay tells us why Chafee is lucky he isn’t facing voters.

It has been nearly two years since Linc Chafee was elected governor as an independent with just 36 percent of the vote. From Republican Governor Donald Carcieri and the Democrats who run the General Assembly, Chafee inherited a dysfunctional state government, communities on the edge of bankruptcy, the 38 Studios fiasco and one of the nation’s worst economies.

Chafee began his tenure with an ambitious sales tax increase and overhaul plan, that whatever its merits, managed to alienate large segments of the business community and the Assembly.

Chafee’s idea was arguably a good one: lower overall sales tax rates on most items but expand taxes to items that have not historically been taxed. But it was launched without the new governor forging a consensus among lawmakers and business leaders and was thus doomed to fail.

There is really only major issue in our state at this point: it really is the economy stupid. With stubbornly high unemployment, Rhode Island is the only state in New England with a jobless rate well above the national average. As the recovery gains traction in neighboring states, we are being left behind.

Rhode Island has a weak governor system; our colonial forefathers left us with a legislature that is paramount. And there is plenty of blame to pass around, especially in a General Assembly where way too much time is spent on such trivia as who gets the next judgeship, cushy state job or low-digit license plate.

There is obviously not enough focus on Smith Hill about reversing Rhode Island’s economic trends. Has anybody seen the legislative investigation into what went wrong with the 38 Studios video game deal, which has beleaguered Rhode Island taxpayers on the hook for as much as $102 million?

The problem for Chafee is that when you’re governor, people expect that you’ll be a leader. Chafee has done a terrible job of   articulating a vision for Rhode Island’s economic future and putting a program in place. Even when state government does the right thing – witness the state employee pension overhaul – the governor gets scant credit. Chafee supported the pension changes, but State Treasurer Gina Raimondo was the primary architect and she harvested most of the political credit. Chafee worked very hard to extend pension change to our state’s struggling cities and towns and generated support from 33 town and city councils. But in the end he couldn’t convince the Assembly to go along.

To view the sad result of  Chafee’s lack of a coherent economic message, all you have to do is  peer beneath the veneer of the latest WPRI-TV public opinion survey done by respected local pollster Joe Fleming. The poll of 501 Rhode Island voters was done in late September and carries an error margin of  about 4 percent.

Among the startling findings: Chafee’s job approval rating is 29 percent, a number dwarfed by the 43 percent of voters who think he is doing a poor job. More voters strongly favor same-sex marriage, 34 percent, than believe Chafee is doing an excellent or good job. Remarkably, as many voters disapprove of the way Chafee has handled 38 Studios and those who approve.

The governor doesn’t appear to have many friends or defenders among the state’s business and political hierarchy. Chafee’s failure to cultivate these people leaves him hanging out by himself on way too many issues.

This situation is compounded by being a Republican-turned-independent. Being independent sounds great to voters, but not having a Democratic or Republican Party apparatus means Chafee is on his own lonely path when the going gets tough. He doesn’t seem to have a viable political operation at all.  In his dealings with the Assembly, Chafee resembles the quarterback of a team picked by his opponents.

And he has had some bad luck too. The media overhype of his 18-year old son (and Brown student) Caleb’s ill-fated beer party generated gobs of bad press.

Yet, the governor has made progress. You don’t have to take a day off from work anymore to get a license renewal at the DMV. State employee morale is up a bit from the Carcieri years. Rhode Islanders don’t have to worry about this governor ending his career with a plea bargain; he is a decent man who doesn’t even know how to steal or line the payroll with patronage. He was vocally against the 38 Studios deal and doesn’t think crony-capitalism or silver bullet deals will get us out of the economic doldrums.

If Rhode Island still had two-year terms for governor, it would be foolish to think Chafee could be reelected. Governor Lincoln Almond, a Republican elected in 1994, had a rocky first year but rebounded with economic growth that gave the state Fidelity Investments, the Providence Place Mall and expansion of financial services companies. Almond also learned to get along with the Assembly and forged a productive relationship with then-Democratic House Speaker John Harwood. Almond was comfortably reelected in 1998.

Chafee has time to turn things around, but the clock is running.  Two more years of economic drift won’t cut it. If he can’t right the ship of state, Lincoln Chafee will probably be a one-term wonder.

Scott MacKay’s political commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:40 and 8:40. You can also follow his political analysis and commentary at our `On Politics’ blog at