Elizabeth Roberts leaves political Siberia

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Rhode Island lieutenant governor Elizabeth Roberts has been in political Siberia for much of the past four years. Now, a new governor is bringing her intro the State House fold.

The profile of Democrat Roberts that emerged in her first term was one of a female Rodney Dangerfield : she didn't get much respect from Republican Governor Don Carcieri or the mostly male cast that prevailed in the Democratic Party until the November election.

The conservative Carcieri and the liberal Roberts didn't agree on all that much. So Carcieri shut her out of most serious policy discussions.

The most famous diss came two years ago during the fateful December snowstorm that snarled traffic and held Providence schoolchildren hostage for hours on school buses.

Carcieri had gone to Iraq to inspect the Rhode Island National Guard troops deployed there. But he didn't tell Roberts. His staff didn't call her either. So Roberts wasn't too happy when she was blamed for the state's poor response to the storm.

But she took it with humor and a steely resolve. There was her famous spoof ad in the Providence Newspaper Guild Follies program that depicted Roberts sitting by the telephone, looking like a jilted girlfriend. The caption over her photo read ``He never calls.''

When Roberts ran for reelection, she faced a primary from Boston Red Sox executive Jeremy Kapstein. Frank Caprio, her party's candidate for governor didn't endorse her even though she endorsed him. Roberts crushed Kapstein in the primary and received 55 percent of the vote in her general election while Caprio finished third in the governor contest.

Now, independent Governor-elect Lincoln Chafee has decided it's time for a thaw in the relationship between governor and lieutenant governor. Roberts says she is pleased that Chafee is seeking her counsel on health care, which she views as one of the most important issues facing the state.

``I'm excited to have a significant role in this new administration on the health care issue,'' says Roberts. She has been involved in state health care policy since she worked as a policy aide in the Sundlun administration 20 years ago.

Assuming President Obama's health care plan holds up in the courts, Roberts says the state must figure out how to control costs while extending care to the uninsured, which isn't going to be easy. She says that Rhode Islanders are going to have to seek alternatives to such expensive options as nursing homes in favor of keeping the elderly in their homes and making more use of hospice treatment for end of life care.

Besides health care, Roberts has some other issues on her mind, including the powers of her office. ``I want to begin a conversation on how we want to structure the office,'' says Roberts.

She is even willing to entertain the suggestion of her general election opponent, Robert Healey, that the office be abolished. Other ideas would include having candidates for governor and lieutenant governor running together as a team, which would end the inevitable split that occurs when voters fill these two offices with politicians of different parties and philosophies.

Roberts is term-limited, so she can't run for lieutenant governor again.

``I have no vested personal interest at this point, so I think I can be part of a serious discussion about how we should move forward,'' says Roberts.

She talks freely on what she hopes to do in her second term, but there is one issue she won't discuss - who did she vote for in the governor election? ``There is almost nothing in my life that is private in my life, except my vote and that's going to stay private,'' she says.

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