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The last of the liberal Republicans?

It is hard to imagine two politicians less similar than Steve Laffey and the man whose job he’s trying to take, Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island. Laffey and Chafee both carry the Republican label. The similarity ends there.  By Tom Curry.
Lincoln Chafee
Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., greets his supporters on a campaign trip earlier this summer.Stew Milne / AP file

It is hard to imagine two politicians less similar than Steve Laffey and the man whose job he’s trying to take, Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island. Laffey and Chafee both carry the Republican label. The similarity ends there.

Laffey, the mayor of Cranston, R.I., and the challenger in the Sept. 12 Republican primary, is a hyperkinetic, fast-talking son of the working class.

“My father was a tool maker, he never went to college. I’m the only Laffey in the history of Laffeys who ever went to college,” he said. He graduated from Bowdoin College and Harvard Business School, before launching a career which led to serving as president of the Morgan Keegan investment firm in Memphis.

“I grew up with no money. I watched my dad lose his job in the 1970s when foreign imports were taking jobs away,” Laffey said.

Growing up in Cranston, when the family would run short of money, his mother, a nurse who worked the late shift, would feed the kids on mayonnaise and ketchup sandwiches on day-old white bread.

Laffey is a Reagan-loving populist, but also idolizes Bobby Kennedy for his combativeness –- he cites the moment he saw film footage of Kennedy interrogating Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa before a Senate investigating committee.

Last Saturday Laffey went out for a hot day of sprinting from one house to another along Flint Corn Road and Dorothy Avenue in suburban Portsmouth, R.I.

Laffey’s fired-up advance team included pals such as Eddie Curran, his former junior high school classmate. “He’s knocked on 30,000 doors,” Laffey said.

Also fanning out to drum up support for Laffey were his wife Kelly and four of his five children. 

Laffey tends towards the fleshy and after 20 minutes of campaigning, his shirt was drenched in sweat.

If perspiration were the measure of who’ll come out on top in this race, Laffey will win easily.

He offers a platform of spending cuts, tax cuts, school vouchers, and a crash program to develop solar power, domestic oil, and nuclear power.

“We’ve got to get off foreign oil. We’ve got to have a program like putting man on the moon,” Laffey told Republican Mike Kane on his doorstep in Portsmouth. “We have to permanently drive oil down to $15 a barrel and let Iran deal with its own people.”

Laffey assailed Chafee for voting against tax cuts in 2001 and 2003. “He wants to raise taxes on everybody including the middle class,” Laffey said.

A few minutes later, Laffey got an earful from Pete McIntyre, a retired Navy man and defense industry worker and Republican member of the Portsmouth town council. “The one thing that concerns me more than anything else is can you beat Whitehouse?” McIntyre told Laffey, referring to Democratic candidate Sheldon Whitehouse, who is well funded for the fall election.

If Laffey beats Chafee in the primary, “You don’t know where the Chafee Democrats will go. And the moderate-to-liberal Republicans, where are they going to go? Are they going to stay home (in November)? Will they go with Whitehouse?” worried McIntyre, who admires Laffey, calling him “an excellent man in what he promised to do for the state.”

Chafee in contrast
Hours later, as Chafee campaigned at a fundraising barbeque for the Village Improvement Society in Little Compton, he offered a contrast with his rival.

Chafee was quiet, shy, and hesitant when he met the barbeque eaters, almost apologetic for intruding on their free time.

Patrician in pedigree, lean in physique, and detached in manner, Chafee says, “the most significant difference besides the issues is personalities … My opponent is more a bull in a china shop. He enjoys the antagonistic approach.”

Chafee’s father, John Chafee, represented Rhode Island in the Senate for 22 years and was Rhode Island’s governor before that.

The elder Chafee personified the old-fashioned upper-crust, socially liberal Republican politician that once was so common in the Northeast.

In 1999, after John Chafee died in office, Rhode Island’s Republican governor appointed Lincoln Chafee to take his dad’s seat.

There’s no other Republican senator quite like Lincoln Chafee.

The one "no" vote
During votes on the Senate floor Chafee is often an isolated figure on the Republican side of the aisle. He stands a bit tentatively, not joining in the backslapping and exuberant chumminess of the other male Republican senators.

On the high-profile votes when 54 out of the 55 Republicans vote “yes” and one Republican votes “no,” the one “no” is almost always Chafee.

Last January, when 54 Republicans voted to confirm President Bush’s nomination of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court, Chafee was the sole Republican dissenter. Likewise on the 2002 resolution authorizing Bush to use military force in Iraq.

Just last week it was Chafee again voting “no” on a package to cut the estate tax and raise the minimum wage.

Only Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio joined Chafee in opposition, while 53 Republicans voted for the measure.

Call Chafee eccentric, or call him a man of principle.

But what exactly is the principle?

Philosophy and the numbers
Chafee explained his fiscal philosophy this way as he campaigned in Little Compton: “Those tax cuts (in 2001 and 2003) were too deep… Once we cut our revenue and didn’t do anything about spending and, in fact put the subsidies back into the farm bill, put another benefit on to Medicare, and got ourselves into an expensive war, we have deficits and we’re not cutting our spending. I ‘m also concerned about the growing disparity of wealth. Without a doubt most of these tax cuts help the wealthy and the middle class is finding it harder.”

In part Chafee’s stances might be a matter of survival: in Rhode Island, which voted for Democratic candidate John Kerry with nearly 60 percent of the vote in 2004, conventional wisdom holds that only a liberal-to-moderate Republican such as Chafee can win.

Laffey disagrees. “This state voted for (Republican) Don Carcieri with 65 percent; he’s a pro-life governor,” he said. Laffey favors restrictions on abortions. Chafee was one of only three Republican senators to vote against the 2003 bill banning the procedure known as partial-birth abortion, which even liberal Democrats such as Sen. Pat Leahy of Vermont voted for. Laffey said he’d have voted for the ban.

The Laffey-Chafee contest bears a resemblance to the Connecticut battle between Democrats Sen. Joe Lieberman and Ned Lamont. Republicans and independents say they admire Lieberman and many will vote for him if he’s on the ballot in November; in Rhode Island it is often Democrats who are most articulate in their support of the Republican Chafee.

A Democrat, Carolyn James, walked up to Chafee at the Little Compton barbeque, telling him, “I think you’re a good man. I do agree with your positions 90 percent of the time, but even when I don’t, I respect it.”

“I’ll take 90,” Chafee replied.

“You vote with your conscience and that’s very rare,” James told him.

“There’s more support for Laffey than many of us anticipated,” she said later.

She voted for Chafee in 2000 and is inclined to do so again. She called Laffey “a dangerous guy, an extremist, not a compromiser.”

Independents can vote in the Republican primary, but Democrats can’t.

Retired banker Charles Rice, an independent, said he’ll vote for Chaffee. “He’s his own man, he isn’t necessarily a Republican, he votes his conscience, he reflects a lot of the good things of his father.”