Chafee's departure

Sep 4, 2013

In a Rhode Island political career spanning nearly 30 years, Lincoln Davenport  Chafee has marched, Thoreau-like, to his own drummer. This afternoon, the state’s 74th governor, a man who tried to do his best in the worst of times, showed the state once again that he follows his own compass, announcing  he will not seek reelection in 2014 to the governorship he won narrowly in 2010.

The 60-year scion of a storied New England Yankee family, Chafee bowed to the realities of a struggling state economy, foundering job approval numbers,  an uncertain political landscape and the likelihood that he would face a steep climb to reelection.

The governor’s decision came after a month of reflection and a recent meeting with his top political aides, Jonathan  Stevens, a confidante since boyhood, George Zainyeh, his chief of staff, and Tad Devine, the political consultant who was the shepherd of Chafee’s 2010 victory.

Chafee was told in stark terms what it would take to win: millions in campaign money, which he has, and the stomach for a relentlessly negative campaign, which in the end he didn’t. His political team told him he would have to run the type of campaign that then-Massachusetts U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy waged against Republican challenger Mitt Romney during the 1994 senate campaign. Kennedy’s campaign hammered Romney’s business record with an unremitting series of televised spots asserting that Romney could not be trusted because his made his venture capital millions buying companies, then closing factories and  laying off workers.

An unassuming man who wheels his own basket through the supermarket, grocery list from his wife, Stephanie Danforth Chafee, in his hand, Chafee did not want to wage a scorched earth campaign in an attempt to keep an office he might lose anyway.

``It was a privilege and a pleasure to work for him,’’ said Devine. ``I’ve had the privilege to work on a national and international level with many candidates and Governor Chafee has a unique integrity and the ability to get the big things right.’’

History, says Devine, will be kind to Chafee. ``People are going to look back and say he did a very good job in trying times.’’

Chafee left the Republican Party after his loss of a U.S. Senate seat on the GOP ticket in 2006. He was elected an independent with 36 percent of the vote in a general election in 2010 that resembled a big primary; there were seven candidates in the field, four of them serious.  Chafe switched parties again five months ago, becoming a Democrat. But he never was able to gain traction with a skeptical public that viewed him as aloof and not up to the job in a poor economy.

His departure sets up a potential Democratic gubernatorial primary between two relative newcomers to state politics: Providence Mayor Angel Taveras and General Treasurer Gina Raimondo. Also considering making the race is Allan Fung, the popular Republican mayor of Cranston.

Chafee was sworn into office under a sun-splashed winter chill on the south steps at the Statehouse in January, 2011. He inherited from Republican Donald Carcieri an economic mess and a state government adrift. Unemployment was 12 percent, the worst since the Great Depression. Carcieri, whose experience had been in the private sector, ran as the ``businessman’’ governor. But after 8 years at the Statehouse,  Rhode Island had about 40,000 fewer jobs than the day he took over. To top it all off, in the waning days of his administration, Carcieri pushed the disastrous  38 Studios deal, which risked $75 million in taxpayer-backed bonds on a video game company run by retired Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling. The company went bankrupt shortly after Chafee took office. Rhode Island government was once again a national laughingstock. Some even blamed Chafee, even though he was the most vocal critic of the Schilling deal.

Chafee hired some high-profile Democrats as top members of his administration, including former Democratic lieutenant  governors Richard Licht, as administration director and Charles Fogarty, as director of labor and training.

In an era when ``it’s the economy stupid’’ rules the political zeitgeist, Chafee established some templates for job growth. Unemployment dipped, but the state’s economy is far from recovering the jobs lost in the recession. As governor, Chafee made investments in education and infrastructure, advocating for the long-stalled runway improvements at T.F. Green Airport and pushing tax breaks for restoring historic buildings. He also was a major proponent of rebranding Providence’s old Jewelry District into a 21st Century innovation district to capitalize on the city’s universities, the Brown medical school and hospital. Chafee also steered more state money to the state’s beleaguered cities and towns, which had witnessed cutbacks under Carcieri.

Chafee also reversed the social policies of Carcieri, who was a steadfast opponent of same gender marriage and abortion rights. Under Chafee, Rhode Island granted same sex couples marriage equality, which has been one of his campaign promises. Chafee has also been a big advocate of the state health exchange in the Affordable Care Act, appointing Christine Ferguson, a national health care expert and former top aide to his father, to run the exchange.

Government agencies were better run under Chafee than was the case with recent governors; this year for the first time in modern memory, the General Assembly did not have to appropriate extra money in the middle of the fiscal year to cover overspending by the state bureaucracy. Unlike too many other Rhode Island politicians over the years, there was never a stench of scandal in any office he ever held.

But neither Chafee, nor anyone else who was governor for about three years, could alter the decades-long problems with Rhode Island’s economy, including the loss of thousands of manufacturing jobs to the global marketplace and a workforce that is not as well educated as those in neighboring New England states. And the federal sequester, an element that a state governor has no control over, has pinched the state’s economy recently.

Never a polished politician, Chafee’s style won’t be confused with the oratory of a John Pastore or the poll-tested slogans of today’s permanent campaigns. His path to power was both alien to Rhode Island politics and yoked to it; after graduation from Brown, he spent his formative years as a farrier at racetracks in Canada and the American West. Most of our state’s pols spent their post-college years in law school, then running for city council or state rep, schmoozing their way up the ladder.

A son of a revered Rhode Island political figure, John H. Chafee, who served as both   governor and U.S. senator, Linc Chafee’s surname opened doors. It definitely helped him win appointment to the U.S. Senate in 1999, when his father died in office and then-Gov. Lincoln Almond, like both Chafees a moderate Republican, appointed Linc Chafee to the senate.

Yet, Chafee was old-school in the way he approached politics and public service. He never saw governor or the senate as an entry-level job. He worked his way up from delegate to the state Constitutional Convention in the mid-1980s, to planting the lawn signs that win elections to city council and then ascended to mayor of Warwick, a Republican mayor in a city dominated by Democrats.

Chafee was a fine local politician, becoming a popular mayor of his home city of Warwick. After his appointment to the Senate, he won reelection in 2000 against Democratic congressman Bob Weygand. After beating back a primary challenge from Cranston Mayor Steven Laffey, a conservative gadfly, Chafee lost the Senate seat in 2006 as a Republican to Democrat  Sheldon Whitehouse over public disgust with President George W. Bush and the ill-fated Iraq War.

Throughout his career, Chafee has been known for his candor. After his defeat in 2006, Chafee became a visiting professor at Brown, his alma mater. He wrote a book that was tough on both President George W. Bush and the Democratic senators who enabled Bush’s ill-fated war in Iraq.

The most startling thing about the book: Chafee was likely the only U.S. senator in history to say his defeat was the result of voters acting logically. ``The system works best when power remains in the hands of voters,`` wrote Chafee. ``I was a casualty of the system working in 2006, and while defeat is never easy, I give the voters credit: They made the connection between electing even popular Republicans at the cost of leaving the Senate in the hands of a leadership they had learned to mistrust.’’

Chafee was the lone Senate Republican to vote against the Bush tax cuts for wealthy taxpayers and the Iraq War.

``Linc Chafee has always wanted to do the right thing,’’ says Devine. ``For someone in high political office, he has a remarkable lack of ego. It has never been about him…he always wanted to do what was right for Rhode Island.’’