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Higher Ed

Chafee ’75 P’14 delays agenda, loses confidence

Senior Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 15, 2011

When the word “plantations” was spelled incorrectly in the inaugural program for Gov. Lincoln Chafee ’75 P’14,  state workers had to come in early to reprint it. The morning after his inauguration, Chafee stopped by to thank them.

While Chafee’s action spoke volumes, he has been inconsistent in articulating an agenda as governor. His public relations track record has been spotty, even as Rhode Island struggles with a gaping budget deficit and a simmering controversy over the state’s education policy.

“Chafee’s biggest problem is he’s not a great communicator — it’s never been part of his skill set,” said Jennifer Duffy, a Rhode Island native and a senior editor for the Cook Political Report.

He has to act decisively “if he’s not going to be the oratorical master,” she said, citing his thank-you visit to the state Department of Health, where the printing error was corrected. “Sometimes actions mean just as much.”

But defining his priorities as governor is crucial, said Wendy Schiller, associate professor of political science. The newly inaugurated governor ran his campaign on a “Trust Chafee” slogan. Every day he delays in outlining his agenda, “he loses a little bit of that confidence,” she said.


No talk until a budget

The governor requested a delay in releasing his proposed budget — a common practice for new administrations — until March 10.

“The governor is holding several budget meetings a week with members of his cabinet and senior staff to address various opportunities, as well as to examine the revenue side of the equation,” said Mike Trainor, Chafee’s spokesman.

“No governor has it easy right now,” Duffy said, pointing to Illinois Governor Pat Quinn’s recent decision to raise the state’s income tax about 60 percent. “Everybody has a deficit. Some are bigger than others.”

Rhode Island is facing a deficit of nearly $300 million next fiscal year — a dire financial situation the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council is projecting will continue to deteriorate.

“My proposal is to have a two-tier sales tax that other states also have,” Chafee told The Herald in an Oct. 2010 interview. “The lower rate on the exempt items in my proposal is 1 percent, and that would generate $100 million.”

The governor is currently working with officials to move forward on the issue of the tiered-tax system, Trainor said. Chafee is planning to give a combined State of the State and budget address at around the same time the budget is filed.  

Although Chafee’s proposed sales tax drew criticism during the campaign, Schiller said Rhode Islanders knew Chafee and the tax were a package deal when they elected him.

“The budget’s going to set the tone,” Duffy said. “My question is — how does he sell it?”

Betty Galligan, the director of Newberry Public Relations and Marketing, said she was particularly put off by Chafee’s decision to bar all state officials from appearing on talk radio.

Chafee’s administration announced the policy Jan. 10. Following a statewide uproar, the governor’s office issued a statement clarifying that the policy will not apply in emergency situations.

Though she said she understands Chafee’s concerns that talk radio is more entertaining than informative, Galligan said she still thinks it is a “bonehead policy.”

In the public relations world, “There must be a flow of information” to the press, which Chafee’s decision prevented, she said.

Chafee “threw an opportunity away,” Duffy said. Talk radio is “a vehicle to get your message out — it is a vehicle to listen to voters and what they have to say.”

According to Trainor, the media regulations are a temporary measure.

“Once the budget is prepared and filed, he will begin to ease off the talk show regulations,” he said. For now, “he wants to keep everyone focused.”


Controversy over education

Chafee’s recent nominations to the Rhode Island Board of Regents also spotlighted public relations shortcomings.

Two of the four regents who were not reappointed, Anna Cano-Morales and Angus Davis, were not notified of the decision prior to Chafee’s Feb. 1 press conference announcing new board appointments. Both learned of their dismissal from the board by reading it in the Providence Journal.

Cano-Morales and Davis did not respond to requests for comment. Although Trainor said Chafee took note of the oversight, he said he did not know if any formal apology had been extended to the pair.

According to Schiller, the majority of Rhode Islanders do not care about Chafee’s failure to notify the board members.

“He ran with the support of the teachers’ union,” she said. “Most voters are waiting to see how independent the governor will be.”

Andrew Moffit, an education consultant who was nominated to the board by former governor Donald Carcieri ’65 and is married to General Treasurer Gina Raimondo, withdrew his name from consideration for a board nomination after meeting with Chafee.   

According to Trainor, Moffit — who was never confirmed by the Senate after Carcieri nominated him — approached Chafee to be renominated. The day before the nominations were announced, he “withdrew on sudden notice,” Trainor said.

Moffit did not return requests for comment.

Lawrence Purtill, president of the National Education Association Rhode Island, one of the state’s two largest teachers’ unions and a key Chafee supporter during his campaign, said he was pleased with Chafee’s additions to the board. Most important, he added, is for the new board to take the time to really listen to students, parents and educators from the community.

Though there are a great number of issues to be addressed within the budget, Purtill said he is hopeful Chafee will continue to view education as a top priority.

“You can’t spend time with him for very long without realizing he cares,” he said. “Education is the most important thing to spend money on right now.”

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