October 18, 2005,
Steve Laffey wants to become the Pat Toomey of 2006, with one important difference.
Whereas former congressman Toomey failed in his bid to unseat liberal Republican senator Arlen Specter in last year’s Pennsylvania GOP primary, Laffey hopes to upset liberal Republican Senator Lincoln Chafee in next September’s Rhode Island GOP primary. “Our nation is not in good financial shape,” says Laffey. “I want to give the smallest state the strongest voice in the Senate.”
The National Republican Senatorial Committee is so concerned about Laffey that it’s already running a negative-ad campaign against him on television and spending scads of money to protect the incumbency of a GOP senator who has talked openly about quitting the party and who also refused to vote for President Bush last year in what he called a “symbolic protest.” In fact, it’s a virtual certainty that the NRSC is right now committing more of its resources to beating Laffey than it is to beating any single Democrat.
Laffey is the mayor of Cranston, a city of about 80,000. He was first elected in 2002, and then reelected last year, in this overwhelmingly Democratic municipality. He doesn’t call himself a conservative “I’ll let others come up with the labels” but consider: He’s pro-life, supports the Bush tax cuts and the war in Iraq, and says he would have voted to approve the Central American Free Trade Agreement. “We need to simplify the tax code and get rid of corporate welfare,” he says. As a critic of Bush’s Social Security proposals, a foe of oil drilling in the Arctic, and an enthusiastic supporter of solar panels, Laffey wouldn’t be the most conservative member of the Senate. But it’s not as though Chafee, whose lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union is a pathetic 41, is competing for that honor.
Earlier this year, before Laffey was a declared candidate for the Senate, national Republicans encouraged him not to run against Chafee. GOP chairman Ken Mehlman called. So did one of Karl Rove’s operatives. “They claimed that they weren’t interested in defending Lincoln Chafee,” says Laffey. “But they talked about party building and suggested that I run for lieutenant governor. In Rhode Island, the job of lieutenant governor is to ride a bicycle around the state and wait for the governor to die. I wasn’t persuaded. And now these ‘party builders’ are spending thousands to defeat me, a Republican.”
Chafee may need the help. He has more than twice as much cash in the bank as Laffey, but Laffey raised almost $100,000 more than the senator during the third quarter of this year. No matter who wins the fundraising war, Laffey is virtually certain to get out his message because Rhode Island has only one media market. Ad rates on Providence television are cheap, which makes the state suited to a Laffey-style insurgency. Yet they also guarantee that Chafee will have plenty of resources to hit back early and often, either on his own or with the help of the NRSC.
A central theme of the NRSC’s anti-Laffey campaign is that the mayor is a tax-and-spend liberal. To be sure, Laffey has raised taxes. But he insists he had no choice. “When I returned to my hometown of Cranston, after being away for so long, I picked up a newspaper and saw that the city was broke,” he says. “I went down to city hall and asked for recent financial audits. They were missing. So I decided to run for mayor on a platform of fiscal responsibility.”
The city certainly needed some financial discipline. Cranston’s bond rating was worthless the lowest in the country and years of union-contract giveaways had taken a severe toll. “We were paying unionized crossing guards the equivalent of $129 per hour,” he says. To balance the books, Laffey hiked taxes, cut the budget, and took on the unions. “We had to do all these things,” he says. “There was really no other option except bankruptcy.”
Laffey can expect to spend plenty of time explaining to Rhode Island Republicans why tax increases were a necessary part of the mix. At least he’ll be able to cite Chafee’s record of voting to rescind the Bush tax cuts. He’ll also point out that Cranston’s bond rating has been restored to investment grade and its unions have finally encountered a negotiator who isn’t beholden to them.
Yet the unions still seem to have a few friends. The NRSC’s latest attack on Laffey actually takes their side in a dispute. “Laffey spent thousands on spy cameras to spy on employees,” says the ad, suggesting that Laffey is some kind of sinister control freak. What the NRSC doesn’t bother to explain is that Laffey’s tactics caught members of the Teamsters, Local 251, literally napping on the job. This Cranston controversy, properly understood, isn’t about the act of taping snoozers but rather the inactivity of sleeping workers.
Laffey’s supporters are convinced that they can defeat Chafee in the GOP primary. They’re less certain about the general election, as the Democrats appear to have a couple of potentially strong candidates in former attorney general Sheldon Whitehouse (what a political name!) and secretary of state Matt Brown. As one Rhode Island blogger puts it, “If Laffey does defeat Chafee in the primary, the Democrats don't have to waste any money developing new ads. They can just go on the NRSC's site and use theirs.”
John J. Miller is national political reporter for National Review and the co-author, most recently, of Our Oldest Enemy: A History of America's Disastrous Relationship with France.