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Executive Vacancy

Who wants to be governor of Rhode Island?

By 4.10.09

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Who wants to be governor of Rhode Island?

The gig pays $117,118 a year, and while Rhode Island may be our smallest state the winner still gets to be one of only 50 governors in the nation. All of which should make the job an inviting target for ambitious pols.

But the 2010 Ocean State governor's race is so far missing big-name Democratic and Republican candidates, with only B-team prospects filling the void.

To be sure, governing Rhode Island would seem an unenviable task. Tiny "rhodie," as it's known in the rest of New England, has long stood in the shadow of its prominent northern neighbor, Massachusetts, and its far wealthier western rival Connecticut.

Sure, the Vanderbilts and other wealthy families once summered at Newport. Yet much of Rhode Island is mostly a string of aging industrial towns where the economic bottom has fallen out. Unemployment in Rhode Island is second-highest in the nation, at 10.5 percent in February, behind only Michigan.

And like much of the rest of the country, big drops in Ocean State housing prices make it tougher for homeowners to borrow and spend. Tax revenue has plummeted, prompting Republican Gov. Don Carcieri to propose big cuts in state spending for cities and towns.

Despite the state's tough times, the chance to be governor should be tough to turn down. But that's exactly what prominent Rhode Island politicians are doing.

Carcieri is being forced from office by term limits after serving for eight years. The first potential replacement to demur was Providence Mayor David N. Cicilline, who at 48 is considered a Democratic rising star. He's one of the first openly gay big city mayors and his decision to run for re-election instead of statewide office caught many by surprise.

Republicans experienced their own disappointment when former investment banker and Cranston Mayor Stephen Laffey decided against running. Laffey earned considerable national exposure -- and the enduring enmity of many Republicans -- when in 2006 he challenged then-Sen. Lincoln Chafee in the Republican primary.

Laffey ran to the right of Chafee on social and economic issues, and his criticism of the incumbent took its toll. Laffey lost the primary but softened up incumbent Chafee enough to damage him in the general election.

Chafee lost his re-election bid to Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse, ending a Senate career that had only begun in October 1999 when the previous Republican governor appointed him to fill the final 15 months of the term left open by the death of his father John Chafee, a revered former governor and fixture in Washington for nearly a quarter-century.

The lone Republican now in the governor's race is state Rep. Joseph Trillo, hardly a household political name. The Republican mayor of Warwick, Scott Avedisian is a possible candidate, but he hasn't tossed his hat in the ring. Either would seem to have an uphill task in overwhelmingly Democratic Rhode Island, but Republicans have held the governor's mansion since 1995 and can't be counted out.

The only Democrat to declare his candidacy is state Treasurer Frank Caprio. Former Congressman Robert Wygand -- who lost a Senate bid against Chafee in 2000 -- is also considering making a run. So are Attorney General Patrick Lynch and Lieutenant Gov. Elizabeth Roberts. Former Lt. Gov. Charles Fogarty, who narrowly lost to incumbent Carcieri as the 2006 Democratic challenger, is mulling a bid. Yet each has been slow to jump into what would seem an eminently winnable race.

That leaves Chafee, the former Warwick mayor and former senator who left the Republican Party after his 2006 defeat to become an independent. scion of an establishment Rhode Island family, Chafee's seven-plus years in the Senate are notable for his break from party leaders. He was the only Senate Republican to vote against the Iraq war and often teamed up with Democrats on issues such as abortion and gay rights. Since leaving Capitol Hill, Chafee has been a visiting fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University.

In a different political environment Chafee might be considered a has-been who couldn't hold on to the Senate seat bequeathed to him by his political icon father. But if Chafee chooses to throw his hat in the ring, his friend Avedisian is likely to sit the election out. That means Chafee may now have a ticket back to the political big leagues as the governor's race remains largely open. After all, somebody's got to take the job.

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About the Author
David Mark is author of Going Dirty: The Art of Negative Campaigning.