Politics as Usual by Jim Baron
They say a political campaign, especially for an underdog, is a lot like surfing. You have to choose the right wave and catch it at precisely the right moment, otherwise you just go splat and end up all wet.
Well, Bob Healey is up on his surfboard, he’s hangin’ ten, and he has caught the electoral wave right at its sweetest spot.
“Peaking at the right time,” is what the political pros call it, and Healey, founder of the Cool Moose Party, is doing just that right now with a week and a day left in this race for lieutenant governor.
Incumbent Democrat Elizabeth Roberts until recently wasn’t acting like she understood she might be in re-election trouble, but in the homestretch she has put out some ads taking on Healey. She seemed to realize that ignoring Healey as an eccentric irritant wasn’t working this time.
The latest Channel 10 poll had Healey catching right up to Roberts, within the margin of error even. The problem with that poll is it didn’t include Independent candidate Robert Venturini. Venturini hasn’t been polling all that high — he scored 7.4 in the last Brown University poll — but you have to figure any numbers he gets come more from Healey’s pile than they do Roberts’. There should be a Channel 12 poll out any day now that will likely give us a clearer picture of the race.
By running for the office with the stated intention of trying to abolish it — for those of you who have been living in a cave for the last eight years or so, Healey pledges that, if elected, he will take no salary, hire no staff and work to get the office eliminated to make government smaller and save approximately $1 million a year — he has managed to focus more attention on the lieutenant governor’s race than it ever got before he started his quirky crusade.
It seems that this year, voters have started to look beyond his trademark hair and beard and are listening to what he has to say (something I said they should have done back when he was running for governor).
His argument that the office, with no real constitutional duties, is a waste of manpower and money is resonating with the populace in this year of tea parties, tax revolts and small-government chic. After several election cycles in which he has tried to hammer it home, people are starting to buy Healey’s argument that it doesn’t make sense to maintain a $1 million a year bureaucracy to support an officer whose lone constitutional duty is to wait for the governor to die or become incapacitated (or, this being Rhode Island, get indicted and/or jailed).
The Republican Party has bought in, with GOP Chairman Gio Cicione giving his blessing to the switcheroo where, after winning the Republican primary, Heidi Rogers dropped out to give Healey a better chance of competing with Roberts.
That move alienated a lot of people. It ticked off a lot of Republicans at their party (and Cicione, who has had a lot of problems with the hard-right GOP-ers) and it made Healey look a lot more like a traditional, wheeling-dealing politician than the outsider image he tries to promote, but he looks like he is getting past it.
An important part of electoral success is framing the debate, and Healey has done that in spades. This year, the election is not about who should be the lieutenant governor, it is about whether there should be a lieutenant governor. Healey is offering himself up as the “no” vote.
The thing is, while Healey has a real chance of winning the election — I’m not saying he’s going to, just that he has a legitimate shot at it — he has no real chance of accomplishing his end goal, which is abolishing the office.
To do that, he has to go through the General Assembly, which is a much tougher nut to crack than merely winning an election. The General Assembly is like the old Soviet Union. It does precisely what its top leaders want to do; no more, no less. It isn’t too terribly impressed, much less swayed, by public opinion. The General Assembly will agree to put a constitutional amendment to abolish the lieutenant governor’s office on the ballot the year I am elected Pope.
Lincoln Chafee is faced with a similar situation. Much of this governor’s race has been fought on the turf of Chafee’s proposal for a 1 percent sales tax on items now exempt from the 7 percent sales tax. But Chafee could get elected with 101 percent of the vote, and the General Assembly still isn’t going to put a 1 percent sales tax on groceries and clothes and prescriptions. It ain’t gonna happen.
And neither is abolishing the Office of Lieutenant Governor, for precisely the same reasons Healey wants to get rid of it. It’s an office that — with one brief blip when then-Gov. Lincoln Almond outsmarted the legislature and snuck Bernard Jackvony in there for a couple of years by appointment — has been in Democratic hands for as long as anyone can remember. It is a cushy, high-profile, spot to park an up-and-coming Democrat waiting to become governor, and it has $1 million a year in plum patronage jobs with which to reward loyal Democratic soldiers.
You will take that office away when you pry it from the Democrats’ cold, dead fingers.
I’ll tell you one thing, I would not want to be a governor from any party while Healey is lieutenant governor, firing off press releases on issue after issue, challenging the status quo and asking the kind of questions that governors, and legislative leaders as well, don’t want asked out loud, let alone answered.
Ironically, Healey could prove the worth of the lieutenant governor’s office by playing the role of provocateur, providing a check and balance on the other offices of government with his own inimitable brand of publicized mischief, shining a spotlight on what is venal, corrupt, or just silly in state government.
That way, after one, or perhaps two, terms of Bob Healey as lieutenant governor, the governor and legislature at that time might just be ready to get rid of the office.