Cranston Mayor Steve Laffey '84 is shaking up his old hometown
Steve Laffey '84 has been called a lot of things since he became the Mayor of Cranston, Rhode Island, in November of 2002. His friends and supporters have described him as high-energy, down-to-earth, laser-focused, a workaholic, a tornado, a maverick, a Don Quixote and a folk hero. His opponents and detractors have called him a brash, reckless troublemaker, a self-serving media whore, a bull in a china shop, and crazy. And as he sets about cleaning up (literally and figuratively) his old hometown, it seems there may be a bit of truth to all of these contradictory characterizations.
Mayor Laffey, casually dressed in jeans and a yellow sports shirt, hops out of the backseat of his big blue SUV and hustles across the street to join a public works crew replacing a graffiti-covered stop sign in Cranston's Eden Park neighborhood. The sign replacement program is part of Laffey's Fight Blight program, and every time a TV news crew or a newspaper photographer arrives, the young, energetic mayor enthusiastically jumps up on the public works truck and tightens a bolt or two for the cameras. Yes, he courts media attention - but he also gets things done.
A self-described "populist" in the mold of former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Steve Laffey sees himself as a man-of-the-people, a can-do politician savvy enough to know that quality of life issues like vandalism, traffic safety and clean public parks touch people where they live.
"I'm Steve Laffey, your neighbor," the mayor announces as he shakes hands with an old man puttering in his garage. When the elderly gentleman complains about curbstones left on a nearby lawn, Laffey directs his street crew to move them. When a group of mothers pushing strollers complain about heavy traffic on their quiet residential side street, Laffey hails his public works director and tells him to make the street one-way. Got a problem? Steve Laffey has a solution.
But Cranston's biggest problems are not cosmetic but financial - the result, says the mayor, of "twenty years of massive mismanagement." When Laffey took over two years ago, Rhode Island's third largest city (pop. 79,000) was near bankruptcy, close to defaulting on debt payments, dealing with the lowest junk bond rating in the country, and facing state takeover. No problem! Steve Laffey, financial services professional, to the rescue! Of course, in the process of putting Cranston's fiscal house in order, "Hizzoner" managed to alienate a lot of powerful people in town, among them the city council, the school committee, the firefighters' union, and, most significantly and symbolically, Cranston's crossing guards (about which more in a moment). Despite all the toes Mayor Laffey has stepped on, however, his campaign manager and former high school economics teacher Paul Zisserson fully expects Laffey to be re-elected in November. "Steve is a reformer," explains Zisserson. "He really is an agent of change, and change can be unnerving. But he's a down-to-earth guy with a real populist bent."
Stephen P. Laffey was born in nearby Warwick, Rhode Island, in 1962, but his family moved to Cranston when he was four. His father, John "Doc" Laffey, was a toolmaker and union steward at Armbrust Chain Company. His mother Mary worked as a night nurse. As Laffey cruises by the house on Shaw Avenue in the Edgewater neighborhood where he grew up, he describes a "Leave It to Beaver" childhood, playing baseball and basketball from dawn 'til dusk down at Beachmont Field. But the reality of his home life was somewhat more harsh.
Born between two older brothers and younger twin sisters, Steve Laffey was the family survivor. He often had to rope his bedroom door closed to keep his disturbed oldest brother from getting at him. That brother, a gay man and a drug user, ultimately died of AIDS. His other brother had to be committed to a mental institution, and one of his sisters also suffers from schizophrenia. Because his troubled siblings required so much of his parents' attention, young Steve was often on his own or at the homes of friends. Adversity, however, only drove him to excel.
At Cranston East High School, Laffey was an assertive and aggressive student, co-captain of the basketball team and president of the student council. No one in his family had ever gone to college, but when history teacher Dave Andrew, a 1964 graduate of Bowdoin College, suggested he consider Bowdoin, Laffey applied for early decision, drove himself to Brunswick for the interview, and was accepted with a full scholarship.
"Steve had an insatiable desire to learn," says Dave Andrew. "I know that sounds like a cliché, but it's true. I thought because Bowdoin is a small school, he'd have a chance to really add his dimension."
According to Tom Marcelle '84, Laffey's Bowdoin roommate, best friend, and now a prominent attorney in Albany, New York, "Laf" wasted no time in doing just that. "We lived in Appleton Hall," Tom Marcelle recalls. "Tom Rand and I played football, so we arrived a week earlier than Steve. When Steve arrived he was a like a tornado. High energy does not describe him. He was more like a supernova. He knew more people in seven hours than we knew in seven days. He really is very charismatic. He has a very special way about him. When he meets people, he connects with them on a very sincere, human level."
At Bowdoin, Laffey excelled in the study of economics, a field he had been inspired to enter after his high school teacher Zisserson had him read Milton Friedman's Free to Choose. When not hitting the books at his favorite study retreat, the third floor of Adams Hall where he knew he'd be left alone, Laffey says he was something of a merry prankster (blasting a tape of F-15 jets taking off out his dorm window to startle people on the Quad, having squirt gun fights with colored ink in the days before paint ball). He and Tom Marcelle also hosted "The Joe Show" on WBOR. And in a more serious vein, Laffey founded the conservative Bowdoin Patriot and got himself elected president of the student government.
"No one ever showed up at student council meetings until Steve became president," says Tom Marcelle. "Then they were packed. Steve just has a way of tweaking his opponents."
Laffey also has a way of getting what he wants. When Laffey decided he wanted to get an MBA at Harvard Business School, Bowdoin provided him with the George and Mary Knox Scholarship to do so. When he decided his goal was "to be president of a firm by the time I was 40," Morgan Keegan, a small financial services company based in Memphis, Tennessee, provided him the opportunity.
"I had nine great years at Morgan Keegan," says Laffey, who rose through the ranks so swiftly - director of research, head of equity trading, head of institutional sales, chair of two venture capital funds - that he achieved his goal two years ahead of schedule. In 2000, at the age of 38, Laffey was named President and Chief Operating Officer of Morgan Keegan, by then a $500 million brokerage firm with 2,000 employees.
In 2001, Laffey oversaw the sale of Morgan Keegan to Regions Financial and then headed to Vermont for a few months of soul-searching. That summer, he attended a retreat at Camp of the Woods, a Christian conference center in the Adirondacks, with a few of his Harvard Business School classmates. It was there that he felt the call of Cranston.
"When I was asked where I was from, I said I was from Cranston, Rhode Island," Laffey recalls. "Why did I say I was from Cranston? I'd been away for 20 years. But I felt I was supposed to go back to Cranston, Rhode Island, even though I didn't know why."
Laffey, who grew up in the Catholic Church but now attends the evangelical Cranston Christian Fellowship, discerned something of a divine calling in his return to Cranston. But he was also reminded of something his high school principal Joe Ventetuolo had said to him shortly before he graduated from Cranston East in 1980.
"The biggest problem Rhode Island has is that it loses its best and brightest," the principal had told his star pupil. "You're going to go off to college and you'll never come back."
But Steve Laffey did come back, and he brought wife Kelly, son Samuel, and daughter Sarah Grace with him. And since returning to Cranston, the Laffey family has been joined by Steve's son Peter from a previous marriage and baby daughter Audrey Elizabeth.
Why Laffey had been called home to Cranston became clear to him a month after he returned. It was then that it was revealed that Cranston's rainy day fund had been depleted and that the city was headed for bankruptcy.
"This is not a dying city," says Laffey's campaign manager Paul Zisserson, "so it really bothered Steve that it was going to hell."
After looking into Cranston's fiscal crisis, Laffey enlisted old friends and teachers (including his former principal) in a very spirited run for mayor. One of the key people he enlisted in the campaign was Norman Orodenker, a well-known local attorney who had been a surrogate father to him growing up. Because Orodenker is prominent in the Democratic Party, Laffey and his supporters took to calling Norman Orodenker "Mr. X."
"He may be a Republican in his fiscal policies," says Norman Orodenker, who stepped down from the executive committee of a Democratic gubernatorial candidate to advise Laffey, "but he certainly is a Democrat in terms of his social polices. He's very big-hearted and sensitive to minorities, the young, the poor and the elderly."
To gain name recognition in a city he hadn't lived in for 20 years, Laffey stood on Cranston street corners waving a sign that read, "I'm Laffey." He knocked on thousands of doors from one end of the city to another and handed out 75,000 pieces of "Laffey Taffy." In defeating a well-known Democrat, 14,688 to 13,359, Laffey spent $270,000 of his own money on the mayoral race. His campaign pledge - "Responsible to all, obligated to none" - clearly resonated with voters in a city that, in Laffey's words, "was run on favors and who you made contributions to."
Indeed, the political history of Rhode Island is filled with rogues and rascals, graft and bribes, patronage and kickbacks. In recent years, mayors in all three of the state's major cities - Providence, Pawtucket and Cranston - have been convicted of crimes while in office.
"This state, regrettably, has a long history of corruption," says Paul Zisserson, "and it is a very, very powerful union state."
Which is one of the reasons why there were audible gasps in the auditorium of Bain Middle School a few months after Steve Laffey took office in 2003. Laffey was presenting his analysis of Cranston's problems to 1,000 local citizens and a lot of those problems, according to the mayor, could be traced to excesses in public employee union contracts. In Rhode Island, you buck the unions at your peril.
"Reagan had the air traffic controllers," says Laffey. "I had the Cranston crossing guards. The Cranston crossing guards sum up what went wrong in Rhode Island."
What Mayor Laffey revealed to the astonished citizens was that crossings guards in Cranston, who work one hour a day 40 weeks a year, not only earned $45 an hour, they also received free health insurance, pensions, sick leave, paid holidays and summer unemployment. According to Laffey, these excesses were the result of a patronage system set up by a former mayor to reward key supporters.
"Thirty-nine people," says Laffey, "were costing the city $800,000."
Laffey sought to privatize the crossing guard service and thus incurred the wrath of the Laborers' International Union that not only took the city to court but also targeted Laffey for defeat in 2004. The union fielded its own Republican candidate (the husband of the crossing guard union's shop steward) and urged members to drop Democratic Party affiliations in order to vote against Laffey in the September mayoral primary.
And Steve Laffey's war against the public employee unions didn't stop with the crossing guards. He also hired private investigators to videotape public works employees asleep on the job. He then pressured the city council to do away with a local "bidder's ordinance" that required any company bidding on municipal contracts of $100,000 or more to maintain an apprenticeship program.
"Only big unions have apprenticeship programs," he says.
And Laffey has also taken on Local 1363 of the International Association of Firefighters, commissioning an independent audit that concluded that Cranston pays 233 percent more for its fire department than the average city with a population between 50,000 and 100,000. In what the Providence Journal called a "Festival of featherbedding," the audit suggested that Cranston, which has 202 firefighters, only needed 111. The firefighters' union, too, has targeted Laffey for defeat in 2004.
"When you're dealing with the Cranston firefighter's union," says Laffey, "you are not dealing with reasonable people. No one has ever told them 'No.'"
Laffey, of course, has. He pressured the Cranston city council to reform a local ordinance that gave retired firemen an automatic 5% increase on top of their annual cost-of-living raises when they turned 55, thus saving the city $3 million a year.
Laffey has also said "No" to the local school system, albeit with somewhat more reluctance. Framed newspaper clippings hanging in Laffey's city hall office show Cranston East student president Steve Laffey campaigning for increased aid to education during his student days, but when the Cranston school committee asked for a substantial school budget increase Mayor Steve Laffey said, "No."
"The schools ran revenue deficits and hid them in the audits just like the city did," says Laffey.
When the school department took the city to court seeking additional funding, Mayor Laffey countered by going to court for a writ of mandamus to instruct the school department that it must balance its budget. The school department then sought to pressure the mayor and the council by proposing to cut athletics and extracurricular activities. But when 150 high school students chanting "No sports! No school!" marched on Cranston City Hall to protest the proposed cuts, Mayor Laffey, waving his old green Cranston East varsity jacket, met them with a bullhorn, explained that the decision to eliminate sports was not his, and sent them next door to picket the superintendent of schools instead.
Whether shouting through a bullhorn, button-holing citizens on the street, garnering newspaper headlines and TV news coverage, writing guest editorials, or appearing on (and frequently hosting) local radio talk shows, Mayor Steve Laffey seems to have the public's attention. Naturally, his critics accuse him of grandstanding, playing to the media in order to further his own political ambitions. And there is a great deal of speculation these days that, whether he serves a second term as mayor or not, Laffey will be a candidate for governor or the U.S. Senate in 2006.
"I think he's got a grand vision, and he needs a different stage to play it out on," says Laffey's old Bowdoin roommate Tom Marcelle. "As governor of Rhode Island, he could take the burden off the backs of taxpayers laid on by corrupt politicians for far too long."
Laffey's great friend and advisor Norman Orodenker also sees a bright political future for Laffey.
"He's made a lot of enemies among people in power," says Orodenker, "but he's also made a lot of friends among the Joe Does of Rhode Island. I think the people in general really love him and understand him. He will do well."
But Steve Laffey himself is uncharacteristically guarded when it comes to his political ambitions.
"Right now," he says, "we're just running for mayor. I'm taking time out of my career. I owe Cranston a big debt, so when I came home it just seemed obvious that, with my financial background, I should run. But I don't need the money and I don't need the job."
And with that, Steve Laffey is off and running - to meet with his campaign director, to host a talk show, to attend a concert at an elder center, maybe catch the tail end of a softball game an aide's daughter is playing in, then home to family, only to get up at the crack of dawn and start running all over again.
In September, Steve Laffey ran in a hotly contested primary against Republican Gary Reilly. He won the primary with 75% of the vote, and will run for a second term as mayor of Cranston in the November election.