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What makes Steve Laffey run?
The controversial Cranston mayor hopes to build support while keeping his opponents on the outs

IT’S A RECENT MONDAY evening, and Cranston Mayor Stephen P. Laffey, his family, a few city council candidates, and a small entourage of supporters are barnstorming their way through a comfortable residential neighborhood east of Garden City. Although this sort of mini-blitz – in which Laffey asks unaffiliated voters and registered Republicans to support him during a September primary – is hardly limited to Cranston, there’s a distinctive feeling in the air, the manufactured crackle of a happening. Whether it’s because of impatience, calculation, or a mix of the two, campaign chairman Paul Zisserson races ahead to knock on more doors, beckoning the candidate forward with urgent shouts of "Mayor!" when someone answers. Laffey, however, whose ease and seemingly intuitive empathy make him an ace at retail politics, refuses to be rushed, locking on his potential supporters with relaxed, yet laser-like attention.

This self-propelled sense of a crusade offers an apt metaphor for how Laffey has emerged from relative obscurity since winning election in 2002, shaking Cranston’s status quo to its roots, making flocks of friends and foes in the process, and eclipsing Providence Mayor David N. Cicilline as the most visible local official in the state. To some, the maximum leader of Rhode Island’s third-largest city is a folk hero, the real deal, a public servant who has restored Cranston’s financial footing, and the kind of person needed to challenge the boondoggles of grasping public-employee unions. Others see Laffey, 42, as a shrewdly aggressive headline-grabber who has sown division with his penchant for publicity and is mostly concerned with building his own political career.

For now, both the peripatetic mayor and his enemies are focusing on Cranston’s September 14 Republican primary, when Garry Reilly, a former School Committee member who last sought public office in 1996, and who enjoys considerable backing from local unions, hopes to knock Laffey out of office. The incumbent, who eschewed calls from some supporters to run as an independent, appears neither worried or as if he is taking anything for granted. Backed by a formidable war chest and the ardent support of talk-radio nation (Laffey has guest-hosted in recent weeks for both WHJJ-AM’s John DePetro, a childhood chum, and WPRO-AM’s Dan Yorke), the ubiquitous mayor delights in mentioning how Reilly, the owner of a real estate appraisal company, is the husband of – that new Ocean State bugaboo – a crossing guard.

To hear Laffey tell it, he could take or leave politics, but felt a sense of civic obligation when his native Cranston tottered on the brink of bankruptcy. In a much-noted element of his biography, he described feeling a divine inspiration before returning in September 2001 to run for mayor. The city’s dire financial straits made the timing right for such an outsider candidate, a Harvard Business School graduate who climbed the ladder at a private investment firm with $500 million in assets in Memphis, Tennessee, and since Laffey gained office, the city’s bond rating has climbed three notches and the city has run consecutive budget surpluses. "I am the union rep for 80,000 people in Cranston," he says in a typical rhetorical flourish. Other politicians are scared, because, "They’re not going to get reelected without the unions’ support. Me, I don’t care." If he were to lose the election, "I’ve got a whole mess of other things I would like to do," including running an investment bank, writing a novel based on his youth, or perhaps gunning for the dream job -- becoming president of his alma mater, Bowdoin College.

Such statements don’t begin to hint at the steady constant stream of conflict and controversy that have become Laffey’s calling card. After previous tempests involved a holiday display at City Hall and the use of hidden cameras to catch dozing municipal workers, it seems rare for a new week to dawn in Cranston without some fresh scrap or intrigue.

The mayor’s greatest fight has been with Cranston’s now-famous crossing guards, who -- because they receive $45 for an hour of work and free family health insurance coverage -- have become emblematic of the quintessential Rhode Island sweetheart deal. Although the mayor likens his dismissal of the 39 guards to Ronald Reagan’s firing of striking air traffic controllers in the early ’80s (a move, he says, that attracted notice in the Kremlin), they have returned to the job and the case remains before the state Supreme Court. Critics cite the matter as evidence of Laffey’s unproductive tendency toward bulldozing the opposition. All in all, says Reilly, "People are just tired of the negativism going on in the city."

Meanwhile, a successful $1000-a-plate fundraiser several months ago fueled speculation that Laffey has plans to challenge US Senator Lincoln Chafee in 2006 or make some other run for higher office. Even if he sits tight for a few years, most observers would be shocked if the mayor walks away from politics. As Darrell West, a political science professor at Brown University, puts it, "He is a rising young star who has captured the imagination for voters, and I think voters like the fact that he is trying to bring change, although some people don’t like the style."

Back in the neighborhood near Garden City where Laffey campaigns on Monday, July 12, Aida Pogacar seems slightly overwhelmed as the mayor materializes on her doorstep and launches into his effusive banter. Later, after the campaign party moves on, she tells me that although she believes Laffey is doing a good job, "I think that he’s a little bit aggressive, and he could get better results if he goes a little bit slower." For the most part, though, even though a number of the residents in this prosperous neighborhood were unaware of the upcoming primary, they seem receptive to Laffey and his message. When one older male resident offers a few words of encouragement – "We’re not going to let them do to you what they want to" – the mayor is pleased enough to repeat the phrase for my benefit.

As suggested by this echo of the native son’s populist mantra, the September 14 primary is about far more than just who’s going to rule Cranston. It’s about the extent to which a willfully polarizing figure like Laffey can keep the public on his side and his detractors at bay.


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Issue Date: July 23 - 29, 2004
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