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Rhode Islandís great communicator
Carcieriís message mastery is a prime asset ó and a leading challenge for democrats ó in the 2006 campaign
BY IAN DONNIS

A Rhode Island Republican couldnít have asked for better timing. Four weeks ago, when Governor Donald L. Carcieri took the state out of a regional effort to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, the Providence Journalís front-page account was, for practical purposes, basically invisible. The top-billed story in the ProJo ó which remained an ongoing staple of talk-radio and local television news ó was Carcieriís effort to aid Madeline Walker, the 81-year-old woman who had been evicted from her South Providence home because of an unpaid sewer bill.

In the instant analysis of some observers, Walkerís plight was a particularly brazen instance of a routine and exploitative practice. In fact, as the Journalís Mark Arsenault reported, the elderly womanís eviction was a more complicated matter that involved liens for unpaid taxes and equity used for bail in criminal cases. Still, in the prelude to a legislative session in which a $60 million-plus deficit could spur sparks between Carcieri and the Democrat-controlled General Assembly over cuts in social programs, it hardly hurt the governor to be on the side of the angels ó a needy black woman in a poor part of the capital city. And although environmentalists and Attorney General Patrick C. Lynch criticized Carcieri for pulling out of the agreement to reduce carbon dioxide emissions ó something that affects every Rhode Islander through global warming ó the issue got a shred of attention by comparison.

Certainly, the timing in which the two stories hit the paper could have been coincidental. Asked whether there was a deliberate linkage by the governorís staff, Carcieri spokesman Jeff Neal says, "No, absolutely no." Then again, the image of the grandfatherly governor reaching out to lend a hand during the holiday season was quite in keeping with the administrationís self-scripted narrative. And although it seemed clear at the outset that Carcieri was going to project a more robust presence than the quietly effective Lincoln Almond, he has emerged, to the begrudging admiration of his partisan detractors, as Rhode Islandís version of the great communicator. Carcieriís message mastery and comfort in speaking is so natural, says one Democratic observer, "[That] you canít teach it. Thereís no speaking coach thatís going to create Don Carcieri, or the image of him. He comes across as very genuine, and if anyone is responsible for that, itís Don Carcieri."

Brown University political science professor Darrell West calls the 63-year-old former corporate CEO the most effective gubernatorial communicator he has seen at the State House. "He knows how to frame a message and to talk to people in a way that they understand," West says. "He understands that you need to boil down your message to a few simple points, and repeat those points over and over so they sink in with the voters."

Carcieriís superb communication skills bolster a Reaganesque affability that is the political equivalent of gold. This constitutes a very stiff challenge for Lieutenant Governor Charles J. Fogarty, the governorís expected Democratic challenger in the November election. The two-term lieutenant governor is not without considerable attributes, including a broad Democratic base, a very strong handle on a range of policy issues, and a better-than-perceived ability as a speaker, and he trailed Carcieri by only 11 points in a poll released by West in February 2005. And although the governor has made few conspicuous gaffes, the 10 months before an election can be a long time in politics.

Some Democrats are privately skeptical about their partyís gubernatorial hopes, however, and itís not hard to understand why. They hope to create a substantive debate around health-care, good-paying jobs, and other big needs. As one observer says, "Fogartyís challenge will be to talk about the greater policy issues affecting our state and whether weíve really made any headway ó is this guy [Carcieri] actually more flash than substance?" The effectiveness of this argument remains to be seen. But the tendency of more people to focus on a fleeting human-interest story ó like the eviction of Madeline Walker in South Providence ó rather than the important, but more abstract issue of global warming, could foreshadow the outcome.

VELVET GLOVE, IRON FIST

Fogarty could benefit from low expectations. For starters, the Democrat ó who is expected to make a formal campaign announcement in February ó enjoys the partyís unified support. He has twice won statewide election, something that the more liberal Myrth York could never do during three turns, in 1994, 1998, and 2002, as the Democratsí gubernatorial standard-bearer. Rhode Islandís union movement, which has little love for Carcieri, can also be expected to lend strong support to Fogarty.

Although Fogartyís large forehead and receding hairline make for a somewhat ungainly appearance, he is capable of effectively marshaling his political persona with a mix of substance and self-effacing humor. A case in point was his response to Mike Stantonís revelation in the ProJo that Robert Urciuoli, the recently indicted president of Roger Williams Medical Center, had, among other expense-account excesses, billed a trip to Arizona for what proved to be a non-existent health-care conference. Besides announcing plans to sponsor legislation requiring a stringent code of ethics for hospital leaders (while Carcieri saw no such need), Fogarty was pitch-perfect in telling M. Charles Bakst, "I find it hard to believe that you would schedule yourself to go to a conference and find out there wasnít a conference. I may be absent-minded myself, but I donít seem to have that problem."

Still, for all of Fogartyís policy expertise and regular guy credentials, his toughest hurdle ó in an age when citizens often judge officeholders by their public persona, rather than the impact of their policies ó lies in convincing voters to oust a genial seeming and generally well-liked incumbent.

Considering this, Carcieri has only strengthened his hand by exhibiting a willingness to go on the offensive at key moments. The best example is how the governor, rather than letting pass with subdued comment a Sunday morning advertorial viewed by a relative handful of people, forcefully skewered Guy Dufault after the Democratic consultant made his infamous unsubstantiated and unintentionally aired comattas allegations in November. (Carcieriís response was reminiscent of how he showed up at a news conference held by York during the 2002 campaign, effectively undercutting her attempt to portray him as an irresponsible captain of industry during his corporate career.)

Few could doubt the governorís sense of outrage, although the state room news conference in which he repudiated Dufault had the elements of political theater, including how chief of staff Ken McKay audibly waved reporters away from first lady Sue Carcieri, who sat at the side of the room. Whatís more, the aggressive response offered a nifty hat trick for the Republican governor: first, Carcieri destroyed at least the short-term prospects of Dufault, a leading political foe, who lost his most lucrative consulting clients, including the Narragansett Indian tribe, and will perhaps be on the sidelines for the 2006 campaign season; Second, his staff exposed Democratic doubts about Fogarty by replaying the videotape in which Dufault ran down the lieutenant governorís slow-starting campaign; Third, and more importantly in terms of the looming gubernatorial contest, the governor imprinted in the public consciousness an image of dirty partisan politics that could constrain Democratsí ability to mount effective attack ads.

The willingness to play hardball extends to Carcieriís support for the dissident Democrats challenging House Speaker William J. Murphy, a move that has diminished a bit of the might associated with the most powerful post in state government.

Some of the Democrats aligned with Murphy express frustration at Carcieriís ability to attract positive reviews, including year-end articles by myself in the Phoenix, Scott MacKay in Providence Journal, and Jim Baron in the Times of Pawtucket that cited the governorís increased traction on Smith Hill as a major local political story of 2005. "He takes credit for everything good, and everything bad, he goes after us," gripes one observer. "Thereís no happy medium. Heís good at it, and I give him credit for it . . . but yet nothing he can get accomplished on his resume would be done without the General Assembly."

Carcieri spokesman Jeff Neal disputes this view, saying, "The governor has given the legislature a lot of credit for ultimately seeing the value of pension reform and other proposals." Ultimately, Neal says, Carcieri deserves the credit for the coming to fruition of pension reform. "At the beginning of that debate, no one thought the governor had any chance of succeeding," he says. "But the important thing is that the governor identified an important issue to the citizens of Rhode Island, and managed by communicating it in a clear way to get the reform that Rhode Island needed."

 

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Issue Date: January 13 - 19, 2006
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