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Governor Chafee and the politics of crime

August 23, 2011

When Lincoln Chafee (narrowly) won election last November, it was easy to suspect that time was on his side; surely Rhode Island’s economy would rebound by the time of the state’s next gubernatorial race in 2014. Now, though, all bets are off when it comes to the question of just when the state and national economy will be in better shape.

That long road back lends fresh urgency to elected officials’ efforts to buck up a grumpy public. Chafee will take part in one such effort this afternoon when he unveils his picks for the I-195 Redevelopment District Commission. It’s not every day, after all, that 20 acres become available for development near the core of a capital city.

But the mood for investing in Rhode Island remains less than robust. And one has to wonder if Chafee will pay a political cost for his fight against the death penalty in the case of accused killer Jason Pleau.

Chafee’s stance is pure Linc; most politicians would run from anything resembling the defense of an unsavory criminal. (Not for nothing, but Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox likes to cite how pols focus on the three Rs — revenge, retribution, and retaliation, because they lead to the fourth R — reelection.)

Instead, Chafee invokes a higher principle of opposing capital punishment (which happens to coincide with his self-description as a fiscal conservative).

Published critiques of Chafee’s stance in defending Pleau have been rare. Still, the sheer number of prominent ProJo stories about the transit of the case have made some impression on the public. And it may not help the governor when stories about accused killer’s criminal history go national on the wire.

Rhode Island’s economy — and efforts to revive it — will almost certainly be a far greater factor in the run-up to our next statewide election.

Back in 1988, George H.W. Bush’s presidential campaign hung an association with a criminal named Willie Horton around Democrat Michael Dukakis. But Dukakis lost the race because he ran an awful campaign until it was too late to make a difference.

The danger for Chafee is if he’s perceived in being more robust on issues like the Pleau case (and raising beach fees) than on creating jobs in the Ocean State.

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