Governor Lincoln Chafee, who rose to public attention as the son of an iconic moderate Republican and left the GOP amid the rightward movement of George W. Bush's presidency, on Thursday became a Democrat.
The change from being an unaffiliated voter in his native Warwick took place with little fanfare, beyond the gaggle of reporters, photographers and cameramen camped out in the Board of Canvassers office at City Hall. Chafee was warmly received by workers in the city where he was once mayor, including clerk Dotty McCarthy, who gave the governor a hug before helping him to fill out change of affiliation papers.
Speaking to reporters at his former desk in the second-floor city council chambers, Chafee said he would leave it to the pundits and the press to analyze the strategy of his move. He mostly dodged questions about why he was making the change, although he characterized it as a logical evolution, toward a party whose values he shares.
“There’s going to be a lot made about what I’m doing here, changing my political affiliation, but nothing has changed in how I have faced doing my job as a public servant. Nothing has changed since the day I sat at this desk.”
Chafee also said President Barack Obama, with whom he met last week, was a big part of his change.
“He’s a big reason that I have become a Democrat. As I looked at leaving my former party and where I would go, certainly seeing President Obama come in and doing the things he’s doing for the country, that’s a big reason I’m enthusiastically joining the Democratic Party.”
He was non-committal when asked whether the president will endorse him, but said they've had good conversation. Obama hailed Chafee's move in a statement, saying he was delighted by the governor's change.
Chafee, who had been the nation's only independent governor, concedes -- as he's said before -- that he was isolated:
“I do want to have a home. Even when I left the Republican Party, I was always looking for a political home. Seeing the Democratic governors work on the important issues of the day, it’s just what I want to be doing.”
Chafee is expected to square off next year in a sharp Democratic primary with the two best-liked elected officials in the state, Providence Mayor Angel Taveras and state Treasurer Gina Raimondo.
Asked what his late father, John Chafee, who died in 1999, would think of his move to become a Democrat, Lincoln Chafee said his father would have stood with him for his meeting with reporters. Asked about his residence and making the party switch in Warwick, Chafee said he moved back to the city from Exeter a few years ago.
Chafee seemed relaxed during his impromptu news conference. He started by retracing his career as the mayor of Warwick and then as the only Senate Republican to vote against the war in Iraq and against the Bush tax cuts. Chafee said he has stood for providing government services efficiently and as a taxpayer advocate. He was also upbeat in describing the downward march of Rhode Island's unemployment rate.
Rhode Island has yet to come close, however, to replacing the jobs it lost in the recession, and the issue of economic stewardship promises to play prominently in the governor's race next year. Chafee's self-description as a taxpayers' advocate will also wrinkle the noses of critics, who might cite his past attempts to broaden the sales tax in Rhode Island.
This post has been updated.