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EXCLUSIVE: Steve Laffey Considering Run for President

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


Former Cranston mayor and GOP Senate candidate Steve Laffey is considering a run for U.S. President in 2012, GoLocalProv has confirmed through three separate sources.


Speculation that Laffey—who earned his political stripes battling unions and once was compared to Dirty Harry—might be seeking higher office has been fueled by the announcement last spring that he would be producing a documentary, “Fixing America.”

“One could easily infer from that that one way of fixing America is running for President,” said Will Ricci, a state GOP activist and past Laffey supporter. “We kind of assumed that one of the reasons he was running around the country doing that was to gin up name recognition for some sort of a federal office.”

In the film, Laffey traverses the country interviewing everyone from stone-cutters to businessmen about the problems facing the country. Yesterday, Laffey told GoLocalProv that he detected the same hopelessness among those Americans that he met that he saw among Cranston voters in 2002, when he ran for Mayor. In Cranston, Laffey said he devoted four years of his life fixing a city that once had the lowest bond rating in the country and was teetering towards bankruptcy.

Which begs the question: Is America next?

Asked if his documentary could be a springboard for a presidential run, Laffey responded: “I always tell people, if I have anything to say about that, I’ll have a press conference.” He declined to elaborate.

Were he actually to run, Laffey would be elbowing his way into a GOP presidential field already choked with candidates. The race for the nomination is drawing three viable frontrunners—former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, and, most recently, Texas Governor Rick Perry. That leaves at least a half dozen other second and third-tier candidates and does not take into account a potential wild-card entry by Sarah Palin.

One source told said that Laffey, who moved to Colorado a year ago, would run as a write-in.

Political experts: A publicity stunt

“It makes no sense for Laffey or anyone else to run as a write-in presidential candidate. Either you run or don’t run. Seeking write-in votes sounds like a publicity stunt more than a serious political move,” said Darrell West, a former Brown University political scientist and current vice president at the Brookings Institution. “Given his lack of success in Rhode Island and his move to a new state, he has no political base for a presidential campaign. This is folly on his part.”

A presidential run—as audacious as it might seem for someone who has not attained an office higher than mayor—might not be out of character for Laffey, said political scientist Victor Profughi. “Certainly Steve Laffey has a history of being flamboyant, colorful, and being willing to take on challenges,” Profughi said. “His probable lack of significant name recognition and limited funding would make it very difficult for him to mount any credible national candidacy.”

Laffey does not shy away from contests with David-and-Goliath odds. In his book, Primary Mistake, he boasts that in the 2006 Senate primary he took on not only incumbent Lincoln Chafee, but, in some sense, the entire GOP establishment, which spent $2 million on attack ads trying to snuff out his candidacy.

“Laffey has certainly shown that he is a man of conviction and might very well do something as extraordinary as putting his name out there for the presidency,” Profughi added. “I wouldn’t say that is inconceivable.”

Of course, running for president is often about more than just winning, said Brown University political scientist Wendy Schiller. Republican candidates in recently election cycles have tossed their hats into the ring out of all sorts of other motives, such as gaining national prominence or making money, Schiller said. Mike Huckabee parlayed his 2008 run into a Fox News show. Sarah Palin cashed in with a book deal and a reality TV show.

Then there is the Joe Biden model: Run for president to audition for the Number 2 spot on the ticket.

“I think for Laffey it’s not about the money. It’s about his views and also becoming a player in the party,” Schiller said. “I think this is a ploy to get attention and a louder voice in the national Republican Party.”

Laffey shuns both parties

However, it’s not clear that Laffey is even still a Republican. In a wide-ranging interview yesterday, Laffey sounded less like a conservative firebrand and increasingly like a third-party populist. “The financial elites were supposed to know what they were doing and they didn’t,” he said. “And the political elites were supposed to rein them in and they didn’t.”

Describing his film, he said: “We’ve got to get out to the American people a story told by the American people—and it’s not Republican or Democratic or Right or Left.”

Asked if he was still a Republican, Laffey said: “I don’t know what to say to that. I am of this second.”

He is a registered Republican in his current residence, Fort Collins, Colorado. But that could change, Laffey added, after watching the Iowa GOP presidential debate last week. He said he was shocked when every single candidate on stage said they would not agree to ten dollars in federal budget cuts if it meant raising one more dollar in revenue. “There’s a lot to cut, but to think we don’t need to raise revenue is totally bizarre,” Laffey said.

Past supporter—‘Like asking if I believe in Santa Claus’

News that Laffey was weighing a run for the presidency met with varied reactions among past supporters. One, a past adviser, outright dismissed the idea. “The idea of Steve Laffey running for President is like asking me if I believe Santa Claus exists,” the supporter said. “It would be highly irrational for him to run for President. … He would not be considered a serious candidate by any stretch of the imagination.”

But Ricci said Laffey would not enter on a lark. “I don’t see him doing something unless he thinks he could do it,” Ricci said. “Everything he does has a purpose. He’s not a stupid person.”

While Laffey would face an uphill battle in GOP presidential primary, he is up to the task, said Mike Napolitano, a past supporter. “I think he’s a smart man—certainly capable.”

He said reaction to a Laffey presidential candidacy would be mixed among Rhode Island Republicans. “He’s got fans. He’s got foes,” said Napolitano, a Lincoln town chair and spokesman for John Loughlin. Most party faithful, Napolitano added, have already lined up behind a presidential candidate.

Laffey 2012: A Draft Platform?

One big clue that Laffey is in a presidential mode of thought: his association with Boston University economist Laurence Kotlikoff. Laffey interviewed Kotlikoff, who is known for his work on the Fair Tax, for his documentary. Since then, the two men say they have become friends. “Steve and I have become buddies and we’re talking—we’re talking on policy,” Kotlikoff said.

After being interviewed, Kotlikoff said he launched a series of Web sites with innovative policy plans on taxes, energy, Social Security, and health care. The plans, he said, were drafted with input from Laffey, and, to some extent, represent their shared views on a number of issues.

He said the set of Web sites was coordinated with the movie. “We kind of worked together to put out a set of reforms that ‘fix’ the country,” Kotlikoff said.

The Web addresses for the all the sites are prefaced with the word purple—thepurpletaxplan.org, the purplehealthplan.org. Kotlikoff said the ideas are meant to get beyond the Red State-Blue State divide and appeal to the common convictions and values of all Americans. (Click here to link to the sites.)

“The U.S. politicians aren’t getting it done. … aren’t talking to each other,” Kotlikoff said. “They aren’t looking at the magnitude of the problem and they’re not coming up with novel solutions.” (Kotlikoff declined to comment on Laffey's presidential prospects.)

The tax plan, for example, has elements that would appeal to liberals and conservatives alike. It would eliminate the corporate income tax and the personal income—a fiscal conservative fantasy. In their place, the cap on how much income is subject to the FICA tax would be eliminated—something that would play to political progressives. The plan also calls for taxing consumption at an effective rate of 15 percent. As an alternative, taxpayers could also pay a 15 percent tax on their income or wealth at the start of each year.

For now, Laffey says he is focused on finishing production on his movie by September. After that, he said he will shop it around to film festivals as well as major distribution companies with documentary divisions.

“I’m trying to find a way to help the country,” he said.

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