[Sidebar] September 7 - 14, 2000

[Features]

Mortal combat

Lincoln Chafee is the main beneficiary of the bruising Senate primary fight between Democrats Richard Licht and Robert Weygand

by Ian Donnis

[Richard Licht and Robert Weygand] Emerging from the studios of WSBE-TV after a recent Senate primary debate, Richard Licht launches into a stump speech for a few dozen supporters. Rival Democrat Robert Weygand walks out a few minutes later with a smaller number of backers and Casey, his chocolate Labrador, draped in a campaign T-shirt. Coming face-to-face, the two crews start chanting to see which side can shout their candidate's name the loudest. Against the backdrop of Weygand and Licht's intensely bitter primary campaign, this spontaneous pep contest is almost quaint by comparison, like a rivalry between two high school football teams.

But the shouting match is also an apt metaphor for a contest whose acrimony has torched the candidates' friendship, surprised political veterans and strengthened Republican Lincoln Chafee's prospects for keeping the Senate seat he inherited from his venerable father. And this was true even before the most recent round of attack advertising, in which Weygand, the two-term congressman, is dubbed "a special interest hypocrite," and Licht, a former lieutenant governor, is again pilloried for "politics as usual -- at its worst."

The campaign's negative tone was suggested only briefly during the August 29 debate on WSBE, the state-owned public television station. Although Licht is pro-choice and Weygand opposes abortion in most instances, the candidates' views are similar on a number of issues. Both, for example, support stricter gun control, a ban on soft money, and expanded early childhood education. When it comes to the poisonous tenor of the air war -- the television commercials where the de facto fight for public opinion is being waged -- Weygand and Licht predictably blame each other.

This kind of rancor among the two men, both 52-year-old former lieutenant governors whose political lives first intersected at the State House in the mid-'80s, would have been unusual even a short time ago. Weygand, a landscape architect by occupation, helped to plot the grounds for Licht's home in Little Compton. And Licht helped to spring a surprise 25th wedding anniversary party a few years ago for Weygand and his wife, Fran.

But if politics makes strange bedfellows, it can also burn friendships, particularly when two former allies are fighting each other for their political lives. The competition is all that more intense in the high-stakes battle for the Senate, where a handful of men -- John Chafee, John O. Pastore, Claiborne Pell, Theodore F. Green and Jack Reed -- have represented Rhode Island for the last 50 years.

The primary fight has tightened after months of campaigning by Licht, who's trying to barnstorm his way back in after a 12-year absence from elective politics. Benefiting from his status as an incumbent in Washington, Weygand has been equally combative, and according to a Providence Journal/Brown University poll, held a 12-point lead, with a 6-point margin of error, nine days before the election. But as indicated by the poll's finding that 30 percent of likely primary voters remain undecided, anything could still happen in the September 12 primary.

The candidates have been relatively close in fund-raising, although Weygand had $1.1 million on hand as of the June 30 reporting period, compared to $750,000 for Licht, according to the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, DC. Most of the money has gone into campaign commercials, an area where neither candidate has covered himself in glory.

The real winner here, of course, is Lincoln Chafee, who has steadily traveled around the state, delivering word of federal grants and accepting a panoply of posthumous honors for his father, since being appointed to the Senate last November. Although the Democrats will attempt to link Chafee in the fall campaign with conservative Republicans like Trent Lott, the rookie senator has remained above the fray while Licht and Weygand keep hurling stink bombs at each other. He might lack the gravitas of his father, but Chafee is a moderate Republican in the same mold, and the perception that the November race is his to lose has only strengthened in recent months.

State Senator Paul Kelly (D-North Smithfield), a Licht supporter and the Senate majority leader, is among those who fears the Democratic candidate will be damaged on arrival. "When it's all over, it's like the Humpty-Dumpty story," Kelly says. "It's tough to get back together again."

A POLITICAL junkie who relishes the minutiae of campaigns, Licht practically gushes with pride in describing how, as a six-year-old, he served as a "human sound truck" by putting bumper stickers in his bicycle spokes for his uncle Frank's state Senate bid. It was the same Frank Licht who upset John Chafee, the three-term governor, in 1968 -- an experience that left his nephew, recently graduated from Harvard, with the belief "that politics is the art of the impossible. The impossible can happen."

Licht, 52, who amassed a small fortune during his hiatus from politics as managing director of one of the state's largest law firms, Tillinghast, Licht and Semonoff, is nonetheless accustomed to being an underdog, and he imbues his campaign narratives with a mix of unabashed sentimentality and old-school Democratic themes.

Speaking during a recent University Club fund-raiser in Providence, for example, Licht briefly touches on his private sector role in helping to assist the expansion of T.F. Green Airport in the early '90s. But although his audience is made up of suits -- mostly lawyers and a sprinkling of legislators -- Licht's stump speech focuses on helping the less fortunate. He decries the paradox in which America has the best health care and the worst system for delivering it. In closing, Licht repeats a favorite story about his late grandfather Jacob, came to the US as a penniless Russian immigrant and retired as a prosperous businessman.

It was this success in a real estate and restaurant supply business that made the Lichts a well-known family on Providence's East Side. After graduating from Harvard Law School, Licht was elected in 1974 to the first of five terms in the state Senate, where he developed a reputation as a reform-minded independent during the tenure of "Rocco's robots" -- lawmakers who marched in lockstep with then-majority leader Rocco Quattrocchi. Although Licht says Alan Dershowitz told him that he wouldn't win, he successfully challenged a redistricting scheme when the leadership put hit him in the same district as Lila Sapinsley, then the Senate minority leader.

Licht went on to win two terms as lieutenant governor, where he sponsored progressive legislation on family leave, day care and open space preservation. But his rising political prospects hit a wall when his 1988 challenge for John Chafee's Senate seat came up short. Away from politics, Licht bided his time with his law practice and by serving as a member and chairman of the Board of Governors for Higher Education.

Now, despite the bitter tone of his fight with Weygand, Licht clearly enjoys being back in the game. Touting his leadership skills and progressive credentials, he's getting enthusiastic support from allies like US Representative Patrick Kennedy and Lieutenant Governor Charles Fogarty. Like any good challenger, Licht has his spin down pat, saying, "We're just where we want to be at this point." But Licht's aspiration to jump-start his political career certainly won't be helped if he loses this time around.

AS WEYGAND and his wife, Fran, recently shake hands and chat with seniors in a packed cafeteria at Fogarty Manor, a high-rise apartment building in Pawtucket, the defining scene of his political career is visible in the distance: City Hall, where he wore an FBI wire while recording then-mayor Brian Sarault's attempt to solicit a bribe from him for a landscaping contract in 1991. His role in the sting helped Weygand, a little-known state representative from East Providence who was planning not to seek re-election, to transform his political prospects, starting with a successful 1992 campaign for lieutenant governor.

The episode also relates to a sharp split in views toward Weygand: some people, particularly Democratic insiders, see him as a sanctimonious opportunist. Certainly, there's no love lost between Weygand and fellow House member Patrick Kennedy, once twitted by the outspoken Fran Weygand as not being up to the job, although Weygand says the strained relationship hasn't precluded them from working together. But judging by the big margins run up by Weygand during two victories in the Second Congressional District, the 52-year-old North Kingstown resident is linked in the minds of many voters with integrity and forthrightness.

In 1996, for example, although Joseph Paolino was backed by Kennedy and many of the state's other most prominent Democrats, the former Providence mayor was soundly defeated by Weygand, who has maintained strong support from the AFL-CIO and other unions. (Interestingly, Senator Jack Reed, who backed Paolino in 1996, is remaining neutral in this race, a development for which Weygand expresses his considerable appreciation.) In the same way, although the state Democratic Party backed Licht in April, Weygand cites his backing from a number of city and town Democratic committees as an indication of broader support.

In recalling the Sarault case, Weygand says some of his critics still insinuate that he turned state's evidence because of wrongdoing. Growing indignant, Weygand describes how he was the first civilian to receive the FBI's national distinguished public service award, adding, "They wouldn't give that to me if there's anything wrong in my background." Indeed, during debates, campaign stops and other appearances, Weygand's dominant campaign message consists of the oft-repeated statement that, "I really do believe honesty is the best policy."

In contrast to Licht, Weygand grew up in a working-class section of Pawtucket, struggled financially after graduating from the University of Rhode Island, and got into politics virtually by accident, when his wife suggested he run for a state rep's seat in 1984. But the personal stakes in this Senate race are also high for Weygand, who has compiled a record as a moderate Democrat in Congress. He decided to run for the seat after John Chafee announced in March 1999 that he wouldn't seek re-election. Publicly at least, Weygand never reconsidered his decision, even when Chafee died unexpectedly and Lincoln Chafee was elevated to fill the remainder of his father's term.

Although Weygand strikes a philosophical tone in discussing the possibility of losing his gamble for the Senate seat, he's been just as driven as Licht in seeking an advantage in the primary victory. Clearly ravenous after a long day of campaigning, Weygand caps his visit with the seniors at Fogarty Manor by stepping outside with me and tearing into a grilled hamburger and his Democratic opponent with similar gusto.

AS SEEN BY H. Philip West, executive director of Common Cause of Rhode Island, voters are fortunate to have two bright and capable Democrats to choose from. "It's not often that the voters in a state like Rhode Island can really help to shape the destiny of the nation," West says. "But in our brilliant constitutional system that gives big and small states equality in two seats each, the chance to elect a senator is a vital opportunity. The danger," he adds, "is if people don't pay enough attention and make impressions based on superficial impressions."

West's fear is highly justified, given the acrid campaign that's embroiled Licht and Weygand -- and no doubt reinforced voter frustration about the negative character of politics -- in the closing weeks before the primary on Tuesday, September 12.

Looking to gain traction after his long absence, Licht started airing commercials in June, touting his plan to expand prescription drug coverage for seniors -- a large and vital voting bloc in Rhode Island -- and rapping Weygand for repeated congressional votes to restrict the access of women to abortion. The Weygand campaign responded by deriding Licht as a one-issue candidate and downplaying the significance of Weygand's pro-life stand. Weygand himself says that he wouldn't support a constitutional amendment to overturn Roe v. Wade.

But although Weygand can pull a lot of votes from pro-life Democrats, the abortion issue still looms over the Senate election -- as evidenced by plans by Dr. Pablo Rodriguez, a Democratic stalwart and the medical director of Planned Parenthood of Rhode Island, to hold a fund-raiser for Linc Chafee if Weygand wins the primary. And while the political profiles of Licht and Weygand aren't all that different, the choice issue divides the support of liberal Democrats and pro-lifers.

Licht also went after Weygand for votes supporting research into a costly and unproven national missile defense system, but got caught off-guard when Weygand informed him during a WHJJ-AM appearance that one of the defense appropriation votes contained a bevy of benefits for seniors and veterans in Rhode Island.

On prescription drug coverage, Weygand favors a plan backed by the Democratic leadership to offer it as a Medicare benefit. Licht has a more ambitious proposal with "no co-pays, no deductibles, no caps," -- dismissed by Weygand as unfeasible -- that would cover its costs by closing corporate tax loopholes and tax shelters, using part of the federal surplus, and having recipients pay a monthly premium of about $40.

Although Licht and Weygand cite other subjects on the stump and during interviews -- such as the need to expand early childhood education -- few issues beyond their differences on abortion and prescription drug coverage have been discussed during the campaign. It's a surprising situation, considering the influence the Senate will have on tax cuts, campaign finance reform and other major issues.

"I think voters grow bewildered and ticked off," says Darrell West, a political science professor at Brown University, "because they would like to see a higher level of discourse about important subjects." Meanwhile, West says, Licht and Weygand are equally culpable for the negative tone of the air war. "Each has reciprocated when the other has gone on the attack," he says. "It's basically become a nuclear arms race and no one in that race is in favor of disarmament."

As an underdog, Licht will enjoy a perceptual bump if he wins the primary. But another nuclear analogy seems more appropriate in looking ahead to the November election: the Democrats' doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction will probably leave Linc Chafee the last man standing.

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis@phx.com.

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