Providence Journal-Bulletin

Almond Outruns Polls, Cruises To 2nd Term As Governor

The governor says he'll keep his promises on child care, health care, the needs of senior citizens, affordable colleges and a new arena for URI.


With staff reports from Tom Mooney

Journal State House Bureau

Nov. 4, 1998

PROVIDENCE -- Proving once again that it is tough to beat an incumbent in good economic times, Gov. Lincoln C. Almond beat back Myrth York's promises of new ideas and vision to win a second, four-year term yesterday.

The 62-year-old Republican defeated Democrat York in a replay of their 1994 contest.

With 98 percent of the polls in, Almond had 50.9 percent of the vote; York had 41.8 percent; Cool Moose Party Candidate Robert J. Healey Jr. had 6.6 percent; and Reform Party candidate John Patrick Devine had .8 percent, according to unofficial Journal returns.

"Make no mistake about it. Rhode Island is on the move," said a beaming Almond, as he took centerstage at the Marriott Hotel ballroom, amid supporters shouting "four more years."

With his family and staff crammed onto the podium with him, Almond promised to keep the issues that had dominated the campaign high on his second-term agenda: child care, health care, the needs of senior citizens, and "affordable colleges."

And, "we will have a new gym for that basketball team," said the University of Rhode Island alumnus, in his biggest applause line.

"I can assure you we will never ever do anything to let you down, and we will continue to give Rhode Islanders honest, open government," he said.

York took Providence, but with no mayoral race, turnout was very low. Almond won big in vote-heavy communities like Cranston, Warwick, Woonsocket. York took Pawtucket, but not by enough to soak up Almond's huge margins in the suburbs. In all, York won in only five communities.

York called Almond to concede the race at around 10:20 p.m., and to tell him she "would like to assist him in any way she can."

"It's better to win but it does matter how you play the game," a thankful York told a loyal crowd of Democrats crammed into the Biltmore ballroom. "And it does matter how you define success."

York said her campaign had managed to strengthen the Democratic Party and raise important issues such as education and health care.

And saying she wanted to set the record staight for "some people," York emphasized: "I do love Rhode Island. I care passionately . . . I care about its future. "

The crying started outside York's suite before the final numbers were in.

"I just knew it was going to be very close, but I thought that we would pull it out in the end. When will Rhode Island wake up?" lamented volunteer Connie Cathers.

"I've got to believe Rhode Island just isn't ready for a woman governor," said York campaign operative Jack McConnell. "It's sad, because I have two daughters. But I have no other explanation for this," he said.

Though York had an uphill run against Almond in 1994, the slope was even steeper this time.

York started strong. But she had to make a convincing case for ousting a governor who had presided over a healthy economy, low unemployment and a record $128 million state surplus without any major scandals.

She couldn't do it.

While he sought credit for "an historic turnaround," she argued that Rhode Island was under-performing the rest of the nation and that she had the "vision, energy and leadership" to make it do better.

While she tried to tap into middle-class discontent, he got to boast: "24,000 more working." His claim was based on the jump, from 1995-1997, in the number of Rhode Islanders working anywhere -- including Connecticut's Foxwoods casino -- in both public and private-sector jobs.

Job growth in Rhode Island alone was nowhere near that big.

No matter. He had an argument that was tough to beat.

With no deep ideologic gulfs between them, she whacked him for Rhode Island's below-par high school test scores; ridiculed him for spending $1 million in road money to "beautify" a short stretch of Route 95 in Cranston; questioned his judgment in giving 13.9 percent raises to state traffic court judges working three days-a-week, on average.

She scored a direct hit with her criticism of his administration's failure to take any action, over 17 months, to clean up known toxic waste violations at American Shipyard. Less than two weeks before the election, the state's environmental agency slapped the shipyard with $65,965 in fines.

But, York never convincingly explained her own vision in terms that could be easily grasped, lapsing into bureaucratic jargon or esoterica from her own campaign lexicon. She talked often, for example, about "Hope Scholarships," without stopping to explain that this was her name for the $500 college scholarships she was offering students, with "B" averages in high school.

York also had trouble escaping the liberal echoes of her Senate career.

As a senator in 1991-1994, she advocated the expansion of family welfare benefits while opposing then-Governor Sundlun's attempts to limit the once costly aid program known as General Public Assistance.

Welfare was a big issue in the 1994 race; a big unmentioned issue in the 1998 race. But Almond sought in his TV ads to subtly remind viewers that the "moderate" York they see in 1998 was far left-of-center the last time she held office: "Myrth York. A risk we just can't afford."

Nonetheless, a race that should have been a romp for Almond turned into a potential squeaker, with polls showing a neck-and-neck race until the very end.

Some said Almond waited too long to respond to the persistent drum-beat of York attack ads on his record. Other pundits attributed the closeness to the Almond style, which fans call "deliberative," and critics, "plodding."

Never an aggressive meet-and-greeter, Almond vowed when he came into office that he would not let the job consume his personal life -- and he didn't -- eschewing the usual round of wakes, retirement parties, fundraisers and the like.

Early in his administration, after Almond lost his first big battle with General Assembly leaders over his failed pension reform package, radio talk show curmudgeon John Hackett delivered a blunt assessment: "Governor . . . you got rolled by the Democratic lawmakers." The image stuck.

In recent months, Almond sent out mixed signals. While taking credit for every business-friendly move by the Democrat-controlled General Assembly, he unabashedly wooed organized labor.

Days after the September primary, he won a huge symbolic victory when the state AFL-CIO -- which had backed York in 1994 -- decided to remain neutral this year.

The decision did not foreclose individual unions from backing York, both financially and with get-out-the vote efforts. The National Education Association was among her key backers. She also had endorsements from a hospital workers' union, printers, steelworkers, carpenters and teamsters.

Still, the loss of the AFL-CIO endorsement was a major psychological blow to her, and boost to him. Crowed Almond: "It shows what can happen when you have communication instead of confrontation."

The former U.S. attorney also courted the endorsement of the Rhode Island arm of the Laborers International Union of North America -- and its general president, Arthur Coia -- despite highly publicized allegations of mob influence in the union.

"The vast majority of Rhode Islanders know Lincoln Almond, know his record," then-campaign manager Edward Morabito said.

But Almond's courtship of organized labor had its downside.

Weeks before the election, a group of 90 non-union construction companies went to court to try to block the Almond administration from requiring the use of union-only workers on an $18.6 million state project in Cranston.

In their suit, the contractors contended that new union-worker rule would stifle competition, and jack up the price for construction of a new Department of Labor & Training headquarters. They also accused the administration of ceding design of labor agreements, for the project, to the AFL-CIO.

The case is still pending, and Almond administration director Robert L. Carl Jr. has said the union-worker rule was aimed at averting potential clashes between union and non-union workers that have bedeviled other projects.

But the front-page news of the lawsuit had folks at the corner diner scratching their heads.

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