The correlation and the irony were hard to escape.
Seemingly a cause and effect, a Brown University poll was released last month showing the governor’s approval rating had sunk to a dismal 27 percent and three days later Lincoln Chafee names the man who came within 1,800 votes of beating him for the mayor of Warwick in 1996 as his chief of staff.
The selection of George A. Zainyeh, a seasoned political operative, has some of those who can be considered the governor’s closest allies both applauding and cringing. Forgetting the battles of the past is difficult for some and as one source that asked to remain anonymous observed, it’s a good thing that the late Edmund Sarno is on the other side of the pearly gates. Sarno was among a handful of Warwick people who engineered his successful bid for mayor when he won a three-way contest in 1992 where incumbent Democrat Charles Donovan ran as an independent rather than face a primary with Michael Brophy. Chafee ran as a Republican and won with about 40 percent of the vote.
Putting aside past differences is an attribute in the opinion of John R. Paglarini. Paglarini, who goes by “JR,” worked for Chafee when he was mayor from 1993 to 1998 and again from 2003 to 2007 when Chafee was a U.S. Senator. Paglarini is now chief of staff for Providence Mayor Angel Taveras.
Paglarini called Zainyeh a “formidable” candidate, hard working, and said that during those contests for mayor in 1996 and 1998 both sides “gained an appreciation of each other.” He called Zainyeh’s appointment “a very good move. He’s very skilled and has a sharp political mind with experience at both the federal and state levels.”
It was what Zainyeh was doing on his first day on the job last Tuesday that gives him such contrast from Patrick Rogers, who he succeeded, and was the man behind the scenes. It was the opening day for this year’s session of the General Assembly and Zainyeh was greeted like the prodigal son by legislators who clapped him on the back and traded stories as if he were still a member of the House. Zainyeh served three terms in the House, leaving in 1996 to challenge Chafee.
“He understands how to work the building,” said Paglarini.
Is it enough to help steer his agenda through the General Assembly and perhaps turn around public opinion?
“I don’t think one person can make all the changes,” says Paglarini.
If Zainyeh feels under the gun, he didn’t show it in an interview Friday.
First off, he dispels the assumption that his appointment is connected to the polls. He said Chafee opened a dialogue about joining his team prior to the Brown poll. At the time, Zainyeh, who worked for Congressman Patrick Kennedy up until Kennedy left office in 2010, was Chief Strategy Officer with Family Service of Rhode Island.
Zainyeh says Rogers put together a good team and that he’s excited about his job.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity,” he said.
But he is also frustrated by what he sees as the media’s attention to Chafee’s style and frankness that is frequently portrayed as folksy and quirky. The latest Chafeeism to hit the news media was the designation of the State House tree as the “holiday tree.”
“What he did and said is no different than other governors,” said Zainyeh. Yet the absence of Christmas tree from the governor’s press release set off a debate that played nationally.
Concurrently, General Treasurer Gina Raimondo was gaining accolades from across the country for engineering and pushing through pension reforms that are projected to reduce unfunded liabilities by $3 billion in 20 years. Chafee was a partner to the plans, as was the leadership in the House and Senate.
He didn’t come across that way.
What mention Chafee gets for pension reform were his efforts to have legislation encompass municipalities, a measure that Raimondo resisted, although she believes reforms on the local level are needed. Chafee was cast as the possible deal spoiler, rather than one of the team behind reform.
That hasn’t deterred Chafee from looking to help cities and towns and the property taxpayer.
Last Thursday he brought town and city mayors and administrators together in a closed meeting to identify areas where, through legislation, the state could reduce financial pressures on municipalities. This could be legislation enabling pension cost reductions as well as the elimination of state mandates. Chafee plans to hold similar round table discussions with the unions and businesses.
“You know,” says Zainyeh, “he’s not about getting credit. He’s about getting things done.”
It would appear that way. Although as mayor he advanced the concept of linking the railroad and Green Airport and with help from his father John Chafee, who was then Senator, secured federal funding to start the process, he has remained in the shadows. When the City Council approved the Warwick Station District Master Plan last month, one might have thought he would have testified in favor of it. Apparently, it was felt his presence would have “politicized” the issue. Similarly, his office has remained silent on improvements at the Department of Motor Vehicles that have dramatically reduced lines and waits.
Zainyeh is not likely to change that.
More likely, his role will be to get leaders wherever they are – in business, the unions, education, municipalities or in the State House – to listen and team up with the governor.
Zainyeh says Chafee has assembled “the strongest cabinet in recent memory” and is anxious to leave a legacy of improving service to the people of Rhode Island. To do it, Zainyeh says, Chafee is open to hear what others have to say.
Zainyeh will be there to facilitate that.