CRANSTON, April 5 — He drives himself between campaign stops, does his own makeup before local TV appearances and has yet to receive any endorsements — Steve Laffey is unlike other Republican 2024 presidential hopefuls.
While Donald Trump is a previous US leader, and fellow candidate Nikki Haley an ex-ambassador to the UN, Laffey is the former mayor of Cranston, Rhode Island: Population 82,000.
“I really am the only outsider,” Laffey says of the primary race, which will likely also include Florida governor Ron DeSantis and former vice-president Mike Pence.
Laffey is an energetic 61-year-old former finance executive who talks at 100 mph, has six children, and lives on a farm in Colorado with cows and chickens.
He says he doesn’t watch major news channels (“I get the raw data from the Fed and tell you what’s going on,”) has no political advisor, and writes his own statements.
While Trump posts frequently to tens of millions of followers on social networks, Laffey’s online output is modest, and some of it is handled by Steve Laffey Jr., his 15-year-old son.
“It’s hard, really hard,” Laffey senior tells AFP of competing against better-known, better-resourced, and better-backed opponents.
He is seeking name recognition the old-fashioned way: On the ground, talking to voters.
A day campaigning in the small northeastern state of Rhode Island starts with three Laffey children and some old acquaintances parading placards with the slogan “Laffey 2024 - Fixing America” at a busy intersection.
The candidate holds a sign saying “I’m Laffey.”
“I had this made when I was running for mayor because no one knew who I was,” he explains, recalling his 2003-2007 two-term spell running his hometown of Cranston, outside Providence.
Laffey smiles and waves at passing traffic as several cars sound their horns in support.
“If only the first primary was in Rhode Island we’d be set!” he says.
Laffey is renting an apartment in the key early primary state of New Hampshire for the summer, as he seeks a breakthrough that will elevate him to the national stage.
“If I can get in one debate, life will change for a lot of people,” says Laffey, who is at 0 per cent in the polls currently.
“Nobody would want to debate what I have to say,” he adds, touting what he calls his financial expertise and ability to talk in “complete ideas.”
Laffey is running on fiscal responsibility, reform of social security, and a bold pledge to close the public school system, which he says is broken.
Raised in a lower middle-class family, Laffey attended Harvard business school before becoming a successful investor.
His eldest brother died of AIDS and two other siblings have suffered from schizophrenia. Laffey home-schooled his three youngest children after an elder daughter was diagnosed with cancer.
“I’m much more relatable” than other candidates, he says.
After the sign-waving, Laffey jumps into his pickup truck and drives to a cafe where he is interviewed by the local student paper.
“You know, he’s just a good man. And he’s a good American story,” says 62-year-old Ed Curran, a friend of Laffey’s from school who turned out to show his support.
After a quick stop at the studios of NBC 10 for an interview, Laffey heads to a restaurant where around 40 people hear him riff for an hour on subjects ranging from federal debt (too high) to the cost of prescription drugs (also too high).
He pledges to halt all trade with China and force Mexico to stop fentanyl smuggling into the United States.
“It’s not every day someone from Rhode Island runs for president,” says 19-year-old Anthony D’Ellena, adding: “His answers were good. I really hope he goes far.”
Anyone can run for president if they are a natural-born citizen, at least 35 years old, and a resident of America for at least 14 years.
Laffey ran unsuccessfully in primaries for the Senate in 2006 and the House of Representatives in 2014, hoping victory in either would have acted as a springboard to the White House.
“I think it’s the only time I can make an imprint between now and when I go to heaven,” he says of his 2024 longshot bid.
Laffey is realistic about his chances but thinks he can emulate another former mayor of a small city who started as a longshot candidate before influencing the 2020 Democratic race: Pete Buttigieg.
“If you hear someone you know say within six months, ‘That guy Laffey is right,’ then I won,” he says. — AFP