Former U.S. senator looks to head RI state government

Providence, R.I. – Last January, Lincoln Chafee was barely 12 minutes into his gubernatorial announcement when he touched upon one of the third rails of American politics - taxes.

"We have to make choices if we're going to be the master of our economic destiny in this state," Chafee said. "Rather than forcing our property taxes across Rhode Island, we should carefully examine a two-tier sales tax. Other states have this system and it is working."

Chafee proposed a 1 percent sales tax for the many items currently exempt from Rhode Island's 7 percent sales tax. Not surprisingly, the very suggestion of a tax hike sparked a crossfire of criticism from Democrats and Republicans alike.

"I mean, when you come out and announce your campaign and talk about raising taxes on food and medicine, you're clearly establishing your ground," said GOP State Chairman Giovanni Cicione, just one of many state leaders opposed to the proposal.

And a Web site created by the Democratic Governors Association attacks Chafee for what it calls his "shocking" plan to raise taxes on vulnerable citizens.

But Chafee has a well-established reputation for candor unusual among politicians. And the Republican-turned-Independent responds to critics by pointing out he's not among those who caused Rhode Island's economic woes.

"But the next governor is going to inherit that, and I'm just being honest and having the courage to tell people these are some of the tough stances we have to take," Chafee said.

Chafee says that, in contrast to his Democratic rival, Frank Caprio, he offers specifics on how to narrow a state budget deficit that is expected to grow worse next year, when the federal stimulus money runs out.

"Of course, we're going to have to continue to cut spending, but at the same time we have to get some revenue to close that gap," he said. "I'm also not going to pass it down to the cities and towns, and that's what's happened - taking the car tax and putting it back on the cities and towns, and taking away the state aid from the cities and towns. I'm going to stand up for the property taxpayer. That's the hardest tax to pay."

Recent polls suggest that Chafee and Caprio are the frontrunners in the race to succeed Governor Don Carcieri - who can't run a third time because of term limits.

Dozens of volunteers turned out for a recent training session in Chafee's campaign headquarters on the side of the airport plaza strip mall in Warwick. The humble setting and refreshments - pizza and sods - are somewhat at odds with the decorations illuminating Chafee's political career. One photo shows him looking askance at George W. Bush during a White House meeting. Other photos show Chafee with former presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush.

J.R. Pagliarini, Chafee's campaign manager, says that the modest headquarters have worked for him in the past.

"He's run four of his campaigns out of Airport Plaza and all four have been victorious campaigns, so we're hoping this becomes number five," said Pagliarini. "He won three campaigns for mayor and the campaign for senate in this complex."

Chafee was introduced to politics through his father, John Chafee, who served three terms as governor in the 1960s. Former Providence Journal political columnist M. Charles Bakst says John Chafee enhanced the image of the governor's office.

"His father was legendary and campaigned on the theme of Chafee, the man you can trust," explained Bakst. "He was an excellent, superb public servant - ingrained in the consciousness of Rhode Islanders, and Lincoln has built upon that. He's also a very pleasant fellow who showed during his time as mayor of Warwick that he could work with labor and other people."

After graduating from Brown University, Lincoln Chafee worked for seven year shoeing horses at racetracks in the U.S. and in Canada. He later found his path in politics and as a popular mayor in his hometown of Warwick, the state's second-largest city.

State Republicans like Cicione take a more critical view of Chafee's mayoral tenure.

"He continually year after year padded the union contracts in order to keep the peace with the unions, sold out the taxpayers by basically mortgaging the future of the taxpayers of Warwick," Cicione said.

Chafee says the fact that he won reelection three times shows that voters thought he was doing a good job. And he says the experience he gained as mayor of Warwick will serve him well as governor.

"That is getting a motivated workforce, so you can have an efficient government; negotiating fair contracts with the unions; and working with the city council - in my case that was the other party - that's critical to the success of Rhode Island," Chafee said of his time leading Warwick.

As a then Republican mayor he worked with a Democratic City Council, and he says that the ability to work across party lines will be a welcome change on Smith Hill.

"We haven't really seen that dynamic of a governor and the General Assembly, particularly the leaders of the General Assembly, working with together recently, Chafee said. "I'm not going to talk about it. I can say I did it. You can look at my record. That's the biggest difference with Frank Caprio and the other candidates."

After John Chafee died in 1999, Lincoln Chafee was appointed to fill the remainder of his father's US Senate term. Chafee then won the seat on his own in 2000. He made his mark in the Senate as the only Republican to vote against the Bush tax cut and against the war in Iraq. During a 2003 Senate hearing, he debated Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz about the motivation for the war.

"Now, wait a second," he told Wolfowitz. "You were saying we were seeing it in the light of September 11. That's just not true. You've been advocating for regime change all through the late 90s."

But in a sad irony for him, Chafee lost his Senate seat to Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse in 2006 - thanks in large part to Rhode Island's disenchantment with President Bush. Chafee later left the Republican Party and endorsed Barack Obama in 2008. That was the year when he made a characteristically blunt assessment of Sarah Palin, calling her a "cocky wacko."

Like other candidates for governor, Chafee is focused now on jobs and the economy.

"First, we have to balance the budget," he said. "No companies are going to want to come here with a chronic budget deficit and problems with keeping our finances solid."

When it comes to growing the economy, Chafee points to the opportunities made possible by the relocation of Interstate 195 "and opening up the real estate in Providence, and then, of course, connecting our airport to the commuter rail station here in the heart of the state, Warwick, and then adding the freight rail and the highway into Quonset."

"Those are a billion dollars' worth of projects," he added. "Now we have to have the leadership to go out there and maximize our potential."

At this point, it appears that Chafee's biggest challenge will come from Democrat Frank Caprio. Unlike 2000, when the two Democratic opponents wiped each other out during a bitter primary, Caprio doesn't have a primary opponent ever since Patrick Lynch abandoned his campaign for governor.

And the hard-charging Caprio has set the fundraising pace in the governor's race, with a warchest over $1 million. So a big question is whether Chafee will tap his family's considerable personal wealth.

"I'm not going to lose this campaign for lack of money," he said.

When asked directly if he'd draw on his personal wealth, Chafee responded, "I'll work hard to fundraise - that's my goal, to be competitive, as I always have been in any of my 12 political races."

Back in 1968, John Chafee lost his last campaign for governor when he told Rhode Islanders that the state needed to adopt an income tax. After he took office, the Democratic victor in the race, Frank Licht, went on to impose that tax.

Now John Chafee's son, Lincoln, is hoping this time around that voters will reward him for his penchant for candor in November.