In Rhode Island, a Republican Governor in Democratic Territory

We conclude our series on governors of states where the opposing party dominates state politics. In Rhode Island, Republican Don Carcieri is facing off against Democrats and the state's powerful unions.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

In recent months on MORNING EDITION, we visited states where governors are working across party lines. Their stories sometimes defy the idea of a divided nation. This morning, NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams ends the series in Rhode Island. There, the state's Republican governor is not extending a hand to Democrats. Even though registered Democrats outnumber Republicans three-to-one, the Republican governor is on the attack.

JUAN WILLIAMS reporting:

Don Carcieri has a reputation for being able to work a crowd one person at a time.

Governor DON CARCIERI (Republican, Rhode Island): Don Carcieri, governor of Rhode Island. I like your tie there. You've got whales on that one. Yeah. OK, the Ocean State. He's wearing his whale tie.

Unidentified Man: There we go.

WILLIAMS: We met Governor Carcieri in a grand old house overlooking Narragansett Bay in Newport. President Eisenhower once spent his summer vacations in this house. Across the road, John Kennedy and Jaqueline Bouvier held their wedding reception. Newport is this small state's pocket of wealth. The rest of the state, the governor says, isn't faring too well and bears too heavy a tax burden. And Don Carcieri, a former business executive who never held office before he became governor, thinks he knows why.

Gov. CARCIERI: What I'm saying is that we've got a problem, sort of a mini Social Security problem, more urgent actually because the single biggest line item increase in the whole budget was pension costs this year.

WILLIAMS: Governor Carcieri has staked his administration on fixing his state's pension system. He wants to raise the retirement age, increase employee contributions to the pension plan and cut benefits. He says state workers get far more generous retirement benefits than people in the private sector. Carcieri's plan has drawn sharp criticism from the Democratic majority in Rhode Island's Legislature. Bill Lynch is chair of the state Democratic Party.

Mr. BILL LYNCH (Democrat, Rhode Island): You have a governor who's a multimillionaire who comes out of private industry, who retired with a multimillion-dollar pension, lecturing to people who are trying to put bread on the table who have worked their whole lives trying to plan for their children and their family, who rely on these pensions.

WILLIAMS: The governor's plan for pension reform means taking on state workers and the unions that represent them.

Gov. CARCIERI: They've been attacking me, just as they're doing with Governor Schwarzenegger, OK. I went through this. What he's going through now, I went through the last election cycle, because they've formed something called Working Rhode Island. All the unions pooled their money, raised a million dollars. They ran TV, radio, newspaper and direct mail against me, and I wasn't even on the ballot.

WILLIAMS: I asked the governor if Rhode Island's unions, the backbone of the Democratic Party here, are stronger than in most other states.

Gov. CARCIERI: Yeah, clearly. Clearly. I understand that nobody wants to give up something if they don't have to, but I sit back and say, `Look, this isn't fair. The people that are paying the bills, OK, the vast majority of the taxpayers that are paying the bills don't have this kind of health-care coverage. They don't have these kind of pension plans. And so, you know, from the standpoint of fairness, you know, make some adjustments here. They're not life-threatening, earth-shattering, OK? It's going on everywhere, but because I'm going down that path, the unions have come after me very strongly.

WILLIAMS: The governor's opponents are running ads against his pension reform plan.

(Soundbite from political ad)

Unidentified Announcer: Sometimes it's hard to discuss complicated financial issues. It's even harder when politicians distort the truth. Governor Carcieri has proposed changing the state pension system, but he hasn't told you all the facts.

WILLIAMS: This ad was paid for by the National Education Association of Rhode Island. Robert Walsh is the group's executive director.

Mr. ROBERT WALSH (Executive Director, National Education Association of Rhode Island): He didn't run on a very conservative agenda, but he has a very conservative agenda. The top of that conservative agenda is anti-labor, and pensions, as a subset of the public sector labor, is part of it.

WILLIAMS: Labor leaders, including Robert Walsh, have teamed to create an alliance of unions, called Working Rhode Island. They say Governor Carcieri is blaming schoolteachers and other state workers for Rhode Island's tax burden. They say it's a strategy aimed at the state's large bloc of independent voters. So far, the governor's having some success with that strategy. His approval ratings hover near 60 percent. Maureen Moakley is a professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island.

Professor MAUREEN MOAKLEY (University of Rhode Island): It drives regular voters crazy to think that state workers have these cushy benefits, and they do. And there is a system that needs to be reformed, and he plays on that.

WILLIAMS: Governor Carcieri has won the support of some Democrats, including Jean Napolitano. She's the vice chair of the Newport City Council. I spoke to her at one of the town hall meetings the governor is holding around the state to rally voters behind his pension reform plan.

Ms. JEAN NAPOLITANO (Chairperson, Newport City Council): I love the governor.

WILLIAMS: Why?

Ms. NAPOLITANO: I think he truly wants to do what's right for Rhode Island. That includes pension reform, health reform. You know, he's gone at issues that nobody would dare touch before.

WILLIAMS: Still, the governor's ratings have slipped lately. That may be because he's picked too many fights. The governor hasn't budged in negotiations with the Narraganset Indians who want to build a casino in Rhode Island. And two years ago, he had another run-in with the tribe. The Indians had set up a tax-free cigarette and tobacco shop. The governor sent state police to shut it down.

Mr. MATTHEW THOMAS (Chief Sachem, Narraganset Indians): I think in positions of leadership, you've got to know how to play, and I think he's still--you know, he's on the learning curve on that one.

WILLIAMS: That's the tribe's chief sachem, Matthew Thomas. I spoke to him in the cab of his blue Durango. He says the 2,700-member tribe is still furious with the governor.

Mr. THOMAS: I'm not going to vote for anybody that's going to send a bunch of police down for, you know, selling tax-free cigarettes, which is a misdemeanor. You send down 30 state troopers and have a SWAT team down the road, there's no way in hell I'll vote for you again.

WILLIAMS: The governor faults himself for listening to advisers who persuaded him to raid the smoke shop. The raid turned violent.

Gov. CARCIERI: Nobody wanted that to happen, Juan. It's one of these things. Sometimes you'd get in the heat of it, and it got a little bit out of control. But at the end of the day, the state was correct, and, you know, so we'll see where that plays out.

WILLIAMS: The question now is whether the governor plans to continue his confrontation with Rhode Island's unions over pensions or negotiate a compromise. State Democratic Party Chair Bill Lynch.

Mr. LYNCH: You can't come into government and dictate to people what you're going to do. It has to be a negotiated process. If you're going to accomplish anything in Rhode Island, you have to include the labor community. You have to include Democrats in the Senate and the House.

WILLIAMS: But the governor thinks he can go straight to the people and shake some more hands to build political support.

Gov. CARCIERI: I am out a lot, because you wind up having to carry the message and communicate with the people. We don't have a voter initiative in this state. You know, Arnold Schwarzenegger's got voter initiative. He can put something on the ballot. I can't. So I've got to keep talking to the public and making them understand what it is we're trying to do, what the issues that I see, and I'm a very straight person.

WILLIAMS: Rhode Island voters get the last word. The election for governor will be held next year. Juan Williams, NPR News.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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