Saturday, September 10, 2005

White House adviser Karl Rove and Senate Republican campaign chairwoman Elizabeth Dole tried to discourage the mayor of Cranston, R.I., from running against the party’s liberal Sen. Lincoln Chafee next year, but to no avail.

Now Stephen Laffey, a former investment banker who announced his candidacy Thursday, is the target of a National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) broadside that accuses him of sharply raising property taxes on his city’s residents.

According to Republican officials, both Mr. Rove and Mrs. Dole, of North Carolina, who have been deeply involved in recruiting candidates for next year’s elections, wanted Mr. Laffey to run for lieutenant governor and then seek the governor’s office. But the mayor flatly rejected their appeals, deciding to challenge Mr. Chafee in the party primary next September.

Both Mr. Rove, who is President Bush’s chief political adviser, and Mrs. Dole fear that a successful primary challenge by the more conservative Mr. Laffey could endanger Republicans’ chances of holding onto the Senate seat in a state that is overwhelmingly liberal.

Mr. Chafee, one the Republicans’ most vulnerable incumbents, won his Senate seat in 2000 by appealing to Democrats and independents, but party officials say he would be vulnerable to an upset in a party primary that will be dominated by more conservative voters who do not like his liberal positions.

Mr. Laffey is appealing to those voters with a tax-cutting, pro-business agenda that likely will win the support of tax-reform groups such as the Club for Growth, though the president of that organization, former Rep. Pat Toomey, says it has not yet reached a decision on the race. Still, he hinted Friday that he disagrees that Mr. Laffey’s candidacy poses any threat to keeping the seat in Republican hands.

“I’m not convinced that Chafee is the only Republican alive who can hold that seat,” Mr. Toomey said.

Meanwhile, Republican strategists have compiled a report showing that the mayor has raised property taxes substantially in his city. While the senator opposed Mr. Bush’s tax cuts, Republican officials say Mr. Laffey’s hands are not clean on the tax issue, either.

In a still-undisclosed research report titled, “The Laffey Tax Machine,” the NRSC says that “one of the first official duties as mayor was to raise taxes 12.8 percent, approximately $490 for a home valued at $150,000.”

Mr. Laffey sought the tax increases one month after being sworn in as mayor in January 2003, saying that the city of Cranston needed to “bite the bullet” to put its budget in balance.

The NRSC report, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Times, said the Laffey “tax hike was on top of an 11.5 percent increase property owners had already seen that year.”

“Adding in Laffey’s supplemental tax, Cranston homeowners’ taxes were 25.8 percent higher than the year before.”

But Mr. Laffey defended his actions Friday, saying the city had “the lowest bond rating in the United States.”

“We had 27 days before we defaulted on $18 million of debt. We did indeed put in a supplemental tax so that we could right the ship structurally.”

Voters rewarded his actions by re-electing Mr. Laffey last year with 65 percent of the vote in a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 2-to-1.

Mr. Chafee made it clear last week that he is going to make Mr. Laffey’s property-tax increases a major issue in the campaign.

“The sole reason for the change in Cranston’s financial fortunes is Laffey’s unprecedented tax hikes. Some Cranston taxpayers have seen their tax bills double due to Laffey’s stewardship,” Mr. Chafee said.

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