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Not tough enough?

While governors nationwide slash their way out of crisis, Chafee plays Mr. Nice Guy
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  April 13, 2011

Chafee_c_main
KINDER, GENTLER is Chafee's approach.

Amid massive deficits and escalating pension problems, a certain tough guy chic has taken hold in State Houses across the country.

There are, of course, the high-profile Republicans: Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie have launched a sort of perpetual war on public employees.

But prominent Democrats like New York's Andrew Cuomo and California's Jerry Brown have cast themselves as truth-telling budget slashers, too. Indeed, it's the ubiquity of the approach that makes Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee's Mr. Nice Guy routine so stand out.

Chafee, an independent, used his inaugural address to preach tolerance for immigrants, gays, and lesbians. He is visiting state employees — office by office — to thank them for their service.

And the centerpiece of his first budget is not a sharp constriction of state government, but an expansion of Rhode Island's sales tax.

The reaction, 100 days into the governor's kinder, gentler administration, is less than enthusiastic. The business lobby has pilloried the sales tax proposal and the General Assembly's response hasn't been much warmer.

In a Brown University poll released last month, just 32 percent said Chafee was doing an "excellent" or "good" job, while 56 percent gave him marks of "only fair" or "poor."

Chafee, in fairness, hasn't slipped all that far since the election, when he won 36 percent of the vote in a four-way race. But, observers say, he hasn't done much to improve his lot.

"A major fiscal crisis is an opportunity to demonstrate leadership through bold actions," says Darrell West, a former Brown University political science professor now with the Brookings Institution in Washington. "And I think that's where people find him lacking — they haven't seen the boldness the moment calls for."


THE MUDDLED MESSAGE

Of course, anyone who was expecting something different hasn't been paying very close attention.

Chafee's low-key, measured approach goes back to his time as Warwick mayor. And he has been quite clear, since the early days of the campaign, about what he would do in the governor's chair: he announced his sales tax proposal on the day he declared his candidacy.

Chafee has built his political identity around notions of straightforwardness and honesty. And in a recent interview in his small, corner office, he seemed offended by an intellectual dishonesty he detects in the sales tax naysayers — singling out the Providence Journal, which has advertised and editorialized against his budget, for particular opprobrium.

"I haven't [seen], despite the gallons of ink spent in criticism, hardly a thimbleful worth of ink on constructive alternatives," he said.

But such are the burdens of leadership. And Chafee hasn't helped matters with his off-message musings.

The governor's focus, in the inaugural address, on tolerance and the importance of legalizing same-sex marriage, while noble, was not exactly consonant with the concerns of the average voter.

And Chafee's high-profile — and short-lived — ban on state officials appearing on talk radio proved a misguided distraction. "He had a pretty muddled first couple of months," said one observer of state politics.

Chafee, apprised of the critique, acknowledged there is some truth in it. But the governor and his aides suggested there is life beyond the public relations gaffes of the moment and the vogue for a muscular governance.

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