Independent RI gov. turns to public for support

May 7, 2011 - 11:45 AM

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — Lincoln Chafee offered voters something new when he took office this year as the nation's only sitting independent governor. But the former Republican is learning that while it may resonate with voters, independence can be lonely.

Chafee, who left the GOP after he lost his U.S. Senate seat in 2006, has no party apparatus to put out favorable press releases. No built-in legislative support. Chafee says being independent makes him his own man, but it also means he has to fight harder to win support for his agenda.

Two of Chafee's priorities — gay marriage legislation and a state sales tax expansion — appear dead in the General Assembly. Rebuffed by lawmakers, Chafee is now taking his sales pitch to voters through a YouTube video, radio appearances and almost daily visits to chambers of commerce around the state.

The public relations blitz aims to build support for Chafee's sales tax plan. But it's also a campaign to stay relevant six months after Chafee, 58, won election with just 36 percent of the vote in a four-way race.

"This is what I do every day," Chafee said of his campaign to make his case to the public. "YouTube is just another way of communicating. We knew this was going to be a tough year, the answers are hard. But I'm going to tackle it."

About a third of American voters are registered as unaffiliated with one of the two major parties. Even in left-leaning Rhode Island, unaffiliated voters outnumber Democrats, who nonetheless continue to enjoy overwhelming majorities in the General Assembly.

His election bucked a Republican sweep of statehouses in last year's election, when voters put the GOP in charge of 25 legislatures and 29 governors' offices.

While independence may be attractive to voters turned off by party infighting, it can lead to political paralysis in state legislatures, which run on compromise, coalitions and partisan leadership. Former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura was elected to great fanfare in 1998 as a Reform Party candidate, but left after a single term that saw lawmakers from the major parties unite to override many of his vetoes.

"You have no automatic friends or enemies, just skeptics," said Angus King, an independent who was Maine's governor from 1995 to 2003. "You have to deal with the public directly. You go to Rotary Clubs, chambers of commerce, the call-in shows. You get your message out."

Chafee, who has called King a model for independent governors, appears to be learning that lesson, though it may be too late for his tax proposal.

The plan he pitched to lawmakers would lower the sales tax rate but impose it on dry cleaning, car repairs, manufacturing equipment and many other goods and services now tax-free. The $165 million in new revenue would help eliminate a $331 million deficit. Chafee likens his plan to cod liver oil: It doesn't taste great, but it's good for you.

The proposal landed like a dud. Business groups protested. The House Speaker declared it wouldn't pass in its current form.

Only then did Chafee take his message on the road.

"If you want the status quo, let's just keep doing what we're doing," Chafee told Newport business leaders. "I want to invest in education. I want to invest in roads and bridges. I want to look to the future. I know there are challenges ahead in the General Assembly but I hope they'll agree with me the status quo is unacceptable."

In a homemade-looking YouTube video, Chafee speaks to citizens directly from the Statehouse. Addressing fiscal problems now will save money later while investing in education, reducing debt and confronting rising pension costs. Chafee's soft-spoken message is almost lost amid the Statehouse echoes. As of Saturday the clip had been viewed more than 2,800 times.

Wendy Schiller, a political science professor at Brown University, said Chafee must sell his plan to the public if he has any hope of resurrecting it in the General Assembly. Amateurish YouTube videos could actually help, she said, by reminding citizens of what they saw in Chafee to begin with.

"The system is not built to reward independents; it's built to reward party loyalists," Schiller said. "That means Chafee has to directly engage the voters. He's not particularly slick, but his whole appeal is that he's genuine. He has to get out and tell Rhode Islanders why this is the right thing to do."

Voters interviewed by The Associated Press say they're hearing Chafee — though not all of them like what he's saying.

"It doesn't sound like he's got a good idea," said Kevin Webster of Cranston. Webster didn't vote for Chafee. "Families are struggling right now. The state has to cut spending, not raise taxes even more."

But Barbara Kalil said new revenue would allow Rhode Island to avoid devastating cuts to education and other services. Kalil, a Providence homeless advocate who voted for Chafee, said he's just speaking the truth.

"He's not afraid to speak his mind even if it's not popular," she said.

Roberto Torres voted for Chafee because he offered a fresh approach. But the Providence man said he's disappointed.

"I liked that he wouldn't play politics, that he would pull people together," Torres said. "But it's not working so far."

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Online:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1yaOucWhQe0