Governor's Race is Shaping Up

Considering the near-term situation facing Rhode Island and the circumstances the next governor is going to face, you might wonder why anyone would want the job in the first place. But then you look at the candidates pursuing the position – six total after a seventh pulled out recently – and you have your answer: politics abhors a vacuum and the lure of power is always a strong pull for the ambitious and connected.

Let’s take a quick look at the gubernatorial race at this point. As the race stands today, and with the withdrawal of Attorney General Patrick Lynch from the race, General Treasurer Frank Caprio will be the Democrat and former Warwick Mayor and former U.S. Senator Lincoln Chafee will be the independent candidate. Most of us should agree that it’s a healthy thing to have a third choice in the race. Entrepreneur Ken Block will represent the Moderate Party if he can get on the ballot. The only candidate to be decided is the GOP’s, and that’s coming down to former Carcieri aide John Robitaille and former legislator Victor Moffitt. Neither is well-known, but then again who knew who Don Carcieri was when he first ran?

After two Republican governors in a row, the conventional wisdom would side with a Democrat to win the governorship, especially against a lesser known Republican candidate. But voters here in Rhode Island have grown wary of Democrats, considering their shenanigans in the General Assembly, and they have shown that they like to add a check to Democratic control of both the legislative and executive branches. If Robitaille wins the closed Republican primary, he’ll have to become a convincing, indeed charismatic, candidate to win this time around. He could do it of course, if he can convince independents to back a dark horse. His lack of legislative and governmental experience, however, makes his chances of success problematic. Victor Moffitt, on the other hand, has legislative experience, and he’s an accountant – not a bad thing to be in a state where every penny has to be watched.

Frank Caprio is in a solid position: he has a strong organization and a big war chest to spend. However, as the democratic candidate, he’s not exactly the darling of the public employee labor unions. They understand full well that if elected he will push to reform the pension system. With Patrick Lynch gone from the race, the unions are beginning to do the unthinkable: embrace Lincoln Chafee, the independent. They like his position, such as it is at this point, on preserving the defined benefit pension system. And why wouldn’t they? As Ken Block stated candidly the other day: “If I had the choice of a 401k or a pension, I would take the pension any day of the week.” It’s hard to argue against that if you’re lucky enough to be a former or future state employee receiving one; the problem is, of course, as this column has pointed out repeatedly, that it’s killing the state financially and has to be reformed.

Considering the tough times we’re in, Lincoln Chafee could actually win this thing. He can be criticized, as he certainly has, for advocating for a broadening of the sales tax as a means to raise revenue, but at least he has expressed a firm viewpoint. Most politicians twist themselves into pretzels avoiding saying anything declarative, so we end up voting for candidates whose real positions on issues we don’t really know – and maybe they don’t really know where they stand themselves.

Rhode Islanders also know that Linc got thrown under the bus in his reelection campaign by his fellow Republicans at the national level, who preferred the fire-brand Steven Laffey, former mayor of Cranston. In an overwhelmingly Democratic state like Rhode Island, they also liked the independence he showed against the Bush Administration. Maybe it’s time to bring him back, could be the reasoning of many voters this year. After all, he’s experienced and, as a wealthy man, he can afford to be honest and squeaky clean.

That’s why he’s doing as well as he is in polling to date. But if the Democrats see this as their year to win the governship back, with or without full union support, Frank Caprio is going to be hard to beat. He has already straddled the divide between labor and business, such that business interests are more comfortable with him than they would be with, for example, Patrick Lynch. They see him as a candidate with, if not a Don Carcieri business view, than at least a candidate who understands business needs. And perhaps, after eight years of Governor Carcieri banging heads with the Democratic legislative leadership, Caprio is in the best position to get them to make the tough choices they’ve been avoiding to date.