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Parsing the latest Brown political poll

March 29, 2011

The big story  from the recent Brown University public opinion survey is the scraping-the-bottom approval ratings of newly minted first district Congressman David Cicilline. Cicilline claims not to know why he is at a dismal 17 percent approval rating in the statewide poll but one doesn’t have to be a political science genius to figure this one out.

It is clear that the financial mess in Providence has followed Cicilline, the former capital city mayor, to Washington,, D.C.

The poll shows that 77 percent of respondents blame Cicilline for the city’s huge budget deficits. And why not – he was mayor for 8 years and new Mayor Angel Taveras has been in office for not quite three months.

This is the oldest political story line in a democracy: If you let events (or opponents) define you, watch out.

Cicilline’s biggest mistake appears to be trying to put Providence in his rear-view mirror way too quickly. It is not surprising that he didn’t talk much about the Providence mess while he was running for House. But after he won he should have yelled from the top of City Hall about the red ink, blamed then-Gov. Don Carcieri and the General Assembly, appointed a commission, gotten together with Taveras and offered to help sort this stuff out.

Cicilline neglected to do even the cosmetic stuff voters expect, such as warning about the financial hole, immediately freezing hiring and travel and speaking of the coming austerity.

“At this point it is hard for him to change the narrative,’’ says Brown pollster and political scientist Marion Orr. “It appears the Providence situation is going to be front and center for several more months.’’

One hurdle for Cicilline is that he is about as low on the Washington Congressional  ladder as one can be: He’s a freshman liberal Democratic lawmaker in a sharply partisan House governed by a conservative Republican majority.

Unlike his predecessor, Patrick Kennedy, Cicilline has neither the clout nor the pivotal committee assignments Kennedy commanded. As a member of the powerful Appropriations Committee, Kennedy steered millions in federal money and pork to the first district; Cicilline is in  no position to do any such thing.

So far, Cicilline is desperately trying to change the conversation and issuing a blizzard of  news releases on subjects far removed from the problems in his home city. He is trying to jump-start manufacturing with federal legislation, but that isn’t likely to happen in any meaningful way before the 2012 election cycle begins. The Brown poll, which was of 425 voters statewide, carries an error margin of  about 5 percent, which means Cicilline’s rating could be as low as 12 or as high as 23 percent. It is true that the poll covered the entire state, including second district voters who have never voted for Cicilline, which may explain why a third of voters have no opinion of him.

Among the other findings:

CHAFEE: Chafee’s approval rating was at 32 percent, which isn’t bad for someone who has dominated the headlines lately with a proposal to raise a slew of sales taxes. Chafee emerged from the 2010 multi-candidate governor scrum with 36 percent, so, taking the error margin into consideration, he is right about where he was on election night in November.

That said, his tax plan has received mixed reviews. Voters seem to make a distinction between his plan for increasing sales levies on luxuries and necessities. For example, majorities support taxes on dry cleaners, movies and concert tickets. But they don’t like more taxes on such items as heating oil, water bills and textbooks.

Chafee was politically astute in putting some of these taxes in his proposal for more revenue because this gives Democratic General Assembly members the opportunity to knock out the heating oil levy, for example, and do the usual State House grandstanding and credit-claiming. (Is there any institution in Rhode Island politics that issues more frivolous  news releases than the General Assembly? They even out-Gist Deborah Gist. Last week new Pawtucket Sen. Donna Nesselbush touted introducing the St. Ray’s basketball team to the Senate).

WHITEHOUSE: The freshman senator’s approval rating of about 39 percent isn’t great for a politician who faces reelection in 2012. But it isn’t that bad either in an era when voters are very cynical about pols in general.

So far, Whitehouse seems to understand that he has work to do. He has been very visible in Rhode Island and has started raising money in earnest. His staff is superb and if his campaign is any where near as strong as it was in his 2006 upset of Chafee, he will be difficult to beat.

So far what he has going for him is the lack of  serious opposition. “You can’t beat somebody with nobody’’ is the hoariest of campaign clichés, but that doesn’t make it any less valid.

Former Republican Gov. Don Carcieri hasn’t been seen much in the state much since his departure in January. He is reportedly mulling over his future at his vacation home in  sunny Florida. The field will be frozen – except for unknown Barry Hinckley of Newport- until Carcieri decides what he wants to do.

On the plus side, Carcieri is a known quantity in Republican circles and can probably raise the $4 to $5 million it will take to unseat Whitehouse. And he has a hard base in the social conservative and anti-tax crowd.

Yet, as is the case with many pols, his beauty is his bane. The anti-abortion, anti-immigration and anti-gay rights crew isn’t big enough to carry the day in Rhode Island, particularly in a presidential year when Democratic voter turnout in our state generally surges far above the off-year vote. Carcieri has never won an election in a presidential year. And his anemic 2006 victory for reelection – before the economy tanked- showed his weaknesses.

Some well-placed Democrats welcome a Carcieri candidacy, believing he would have a tough time crafting a credible message at a time of high unemployment. He ran as the jobs governor but Rhode Island lost 40,000 jobs on his watch. His second term was lackluster. At a time when the state had one of the nation’s highest unemployment rates, Carcieri , left the crucial job of state economic development director vacant for more than a year. He seemed not to figure out what was wrong with the state economic development efforts until 7 years into his tenure. And he was a divisive figure, spending his time blathering on talk radio, speaking to his base and bashing unions, as the state economy imploded. Democrats do not think he will be able to sell a campaign theme of going to Washington, D.C. to bring jobs and economic activity back home.

TAVERAS:

The new Providence mayor gets very high marks in the Brown poll. What this means so far is unclear because he has a long way to go and a steep challenge in trying to fix the finances of  the state’s largest city.

But in his short time as mayor, Taveras has impressed the  political community with his humility and candor. If he shows that he has an iron fist inside the velvet glove, he may have a serious future in electoral politics.  But the Providence mayoralty has chewed up the ambitions of many other pols, so Taveras isn’t going to have an easy ride, particularly if he continues to fight with such Democratic foundation groups as the teachers’ union.

ORGANIZED LABOR: Despite the clamor of the talk show shouters and loud elements on the right, voters are in no mood in Rhode Island for such radical Wisconsin-style measures as eliminating collective bargaining rights for public employee unions. Fifty-four percent are opposed to getting rid of such bargaining rights, a figure higher than the approval ratings for any statewide political official.

Yet, when asked what should be cut to help balance the state budget, the only item to win more than 60 percent approval is cutting public employee pensions.

REED: Sen. Jack Reed, who is not up in 2012, is once again the most respected statewide elected official. Reed’s approval rating is 51 percent. His last reelection harvested more than 70 percent of the vote and Reed probably keeps his reputation as the Irish John Pastore, a politician who can keep his seat as long as he wants it. He first won election to the U.S. House in 1990, moved up to the Senate in 1996 (when Claiborne Pell retired) and shows no signs of slowing down. He is married now and has a four-year old daughter but Reed still keeps up a frenetic pace, returning often to the state.

ODDS & ENDS: The most glaring omission in the Brown survey was not testing the same-sex marriage issue, which is simmering at the State House. And while Rhode Islanders, like all New Englanders, love to grouse about the weather, the state’s once much-maligned snow removal efforts have gotten much better in the eyes of the public. When asked whether they thought their town did a good job with snow removal, more than 60 percent in the poll said they believed their snow removal folks did a good job. The politicians can only wish for such a glowing review.

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