Politics 2005Week of March 14

Someday in Rhode Island

“I am now convinced that he will be governor someday,” political columnist Joseph Alsop wrote a friend in 1952 about his younger brother, Connecticut politician John Alsop, adding the caveat “if there is a someday.” That caveat is almost inevitable in discussing prospective political superstars; for all their potential and ability, the timing and circumstances have to be right for them to win. (As it turned out, John D. Alsop had his “someday”–almost. In 1962, Nutmeg State Republicans nominated the insurance company president and former state legislator for governor on the eighth ballot, after a marathon 10-hour nomination battle at the state convention. But in November he was narrowly defeated by incumbent Gov. John Dempsey, a genial son of Tipperary, Ireland. “In Connecticut politics,” concluded another pundit-brother, Stewart Alsop, “us [sic] Yankees are washed up.”

The great future prophesied for John Alsop by brother Joseph has long been predicted for Steve Laffey, Republican mayor of Cranston, R.I., by friends and admirers. A graduate of Harvard Business School, Cranston native Laffey moved to Tennessee to become president of the Morgan Keegan investment firm. He made millions and, following a merger of his firm, moved back to Cranston. Elected mayor three years ago, Laffey took a city that was bankrupt and put it back into solvency. The mayor regularly wages war against local union bosses and, like Rudy Giuliani and other popular big-city mayors, has started a weekly call-in radio program. Much like Little Rhody’s Republican Gov. Donald Carcieri, Laffey has demonstrated that being strongly pro-life is no barrier to success on this historically Democratic turf.

Given Laffey’s conservative reputation and record as mayor, Providence Republican City Chairman Dave Talan told me, “there is little doubt that he would defeat [liberal Republican Sen.] Lincoln Chafee in a Republican primary. Only about 40,000 people would vote in a statewide GOP primary, and they tend to be conservative.” Chafee (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 41%), son of and successor to late Republican Sen. (1976-99) John Chafee, has carried on his father’s cranky liberal tradition in the increasingly conservative Republican Party. The first Senate Republican to come out against the Bush tax cut in 2003, Chafee voted for the statist McCain-Feingold campaign-finance “reform,” opposed the administration on creation of the Department of Homeland Security, on drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and on banning aid to international organizations that provide abortion counseling.

When the Senate was almost evenly divided, the 51-year-old Chafee was widely mentioned as a possible “switcheroo” to the Democrats, but he continually maintains he will remain a Republican because “I’m named after Abraham Lincoln.”

Mayor Laffey is poised to challenge Chafee for renomination next year and will soon take a poll to confirm that he can beat the incumbent. But even if it looks as though he can win the primary, Laffey, say sources close to the mayor, will not run unless the poll shows he has a chance in November against the likely Democratic nominee, Rep. Jim Langevin. Last month, a Brown University poll showed four-termer Langevin trouncing Chafee 41% to 27% statewide and beating Laffey 43% to 22%. Interestingly, the same poll showed Chafee leading Langevin among Republicans by only 43% to 30%.

Pro-Aborts Say No To Quadriplegic

The 40-year-old Langevin (lifetime ACU rating: 18%) is already a national figure among Democrats. As the first quadriplegic elected to Congress, the onetime Rhode Island state legislator and secretary of state is a liaison with disability groups for the Democratic Party and was a featured speaker at the Democratic National Convention in Boston last year.

Because of the childhood accident that left him paralyzed, Langevin says, according to the Almanac of American Politics, “I became aware of how precious life is…. I’m pro-life.”

It is because of that one particular belief of his–albeit that he supports stem-cell research–that Langevin is vigorously opposed by many national Democrats. Led by Victoria Hopper (the wife of actor Dennis Hopper), 17 major Hollywood donors to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee recently wrote the DSCC to vow that they would not support Langevin if he became the Democratic nominee against Chafee. Hopper, along with former Democratic National Chairman David Wilhelm and former Sen. (1991-94) Harris Wofford (D.-Pa.), is on the national finance committee for Langevin’s primary rival, Secretary of State Matt Brown.

Should Laffey opt against challenging Chafee for renomination, betting is strong that he would run for the 2nd District (western Rhode Island) U.S. House seat expected to be vacated by Langevin. The only other Republican mentioned for that seat is Scott Avedisian, who succeeded fellow liberal GOPer Chafee as mayor of Warwick in 1999. The almost certain Democratic nominee is Lt. Gov. Charles Fogarty, whose uncle John Fogarty was the district’s Democratic House member from 1940 until his death in 1967.

Tillie Fowler, R.I.P.

To detractors, former Florida GOP Rep. (1992-2000) Tillie Fowler was “Slick Tillie,” a canny politician who took advantage of situations to advance from local politics in Jacksonville to Congress. To admirers, she was “Steel Magnolia,” a true-to-life Southern belle whose charm was a major asset in advancing her political agenda.

But when she died February 28 after a brain hemorrhage, Tillie Kidd Fowler, 62, was almost universally mourned as a person of accomplishment whose life and achievements made a difference.

The daughter of veteran Democratic state legislator Culver Kidd of Milledgeville, Ga., Tillie was urged to pursue a profession by her father, who said he had seen many women who were unemployed and on relief after their husbands died. So she got undergraduate and law degrees from Emory University. Turned down for jobs in the major Atlanta law firms, young Tillie went to Washington to work for Rep. Robert Stephens (D.-Ga.) in 1967. She then worked in the Nixon White House as counsel to Consumer Affairs adviser Virginia Knauer. It was there that she developed a close friendship with a fellow lawyer from the South–Elizabeth Hanford, now Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R.-N.C.), for whom she named the second of her two daughters.

With husband Buck Fowler, Tillie moved to Jacksonville in the early 1970s and became president of the local Junior League. With the contacts she made there, Fowler was elected to the city council in 1985. As council president, she made headlines by ordering police to remove three black council members who, she said, were disrupting the order of business.

In 1992, Fowler won the Jacksonville-area U.S. House seat that had been held for the previous 44 years by retiring Democratic Rep. Charles Bennett. As a member of the House Armed Services Committee, she became a vigorous supporter of defense spending and warned that while the Clinton Administration had increased U.S. commitments around the globe, it was also severely gutting the Pentagon budget. Fowler (lifetime ACU rating: 85%) also served as a deputy Republican whip and as vice chairwoman of the House GOP Conference, making her the highest woman in the Republican hierarchy in the House.

A champion of term limits for officials since her days on the Jacksonville City Council, Fowler had campaigned for both council and Congress on the slogan “Eight is Enough”–that eight years was the maximum an official should serve. In both offices, she lived up to her promise to retire after eight years.

After leaving Congress, Fowler finally got the job that had eluded her after law school, as she was hired by Holland and Knight, a major firm based in Atlanta.

Blackwell to Harvard Dems: No Thanks!

Possibly the most unusual invitation issued to a political speaker this year came to Virginia Republican National Committeeman Morton C. Blackwell February 18, when David Burd and Mike Thakur, co-chairmen of the Harvard Law School Democrats, invited Blackwell–a conservative activist and organizer since the early 1960s–to address a conference they are hosting in April on “Re-building the Democratic Party and the Left.”

“Given your work training conservative candidates and future leaders,” said the invitation, “we were hoping you could speak on a panel about building a farm system.”

Given his decades of mobilizing young people to work in campaigns for conservatives, Blackwell wrote and politely declined the invitation, citing his preference for “two generally conservative parties contesting over who could best implement conservative principles.” Conceding that such a development is unlikely, Blackwell nonetheless wrote that “the Democrats’ deliberately backing away from the left on the gun issue over the last couple of election cycles and on the abortion issue more recently” were hopeful signs.