Scott MacKay Commentary: Another Chafee Campaign For Governor? Nyet

Jun 16, 2017

Former Gov. and U.S. Senator Lincoln Chafee is back on the scene with a series of media appearances. Chafee is thinking about running for governor again, but RIPR Political Analyst Scott MacKay wonders why. 

Lincoln Chafee has given his opinion on an array of topics to just about every media outlet that will listen, including this one. He’s talked about Russian diplomacy and the Rhode Island economy. The former governor’s thought patterns don’t line up consistently –one minute he sounds like Bernie Sanders, the next like President Donald Trump.

Which isn’t surprising. Chafee has long marched stubbornly to his own drummer. Over a long, distinguished run in Rhode Island politics, this has often served him well. As a U.S. senator, he was the lone Republican to vote against the Iraq War under President George W. Bush. True to his moderate Republican New England roots, he also denounced and voted against Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy.

When he lost his Senate seat in 2006 to Sheldon Whitehouse, Chafee became a visiting scholar at Brown University and wrote a candid political memoir. He is the only senator anyone can remember who said his defeat was the result of voters acting logically.

After leaving the Republican Party, he ran for governor as an independent, winning a multi-candidate campaign with less than 40 percent of the vote.

As governor, he ushered in same-sex marriage and started the lawsuits that clawed back more than $50 million of the taxpayers money from the 38 Studios fiasco he inherited from his predecessor, Republican Donald Carcieri. Chafee’s budgets were balanced and there were no scandals of note in his administration.

Yet, he never seemed able to expand his support beyond those who voted for him. He was not good at marshalling support for big priorities, such as overhauling the state’s antiquated sales tax system. On the largest public policy issue of his administration –cutting state pension benefits—he took a back seat to then-General Treasurer Gina Raimondo, who mustered crucial support from lawmakers and the public.

By the end of his administration, Chafee had one of the lowest job-approval ratings of any governor in the nation.  He became a regular piñata on talk radio, Rhode Island’s fraternity of the miserable. Undaunted, he made an aborted  run for the Democratic presidential nomination. That became the butt of more jokes on late-night television than any tangible support.

Now, with stinging criticism of Raimondo and occasional forays into foreign policy –he doesn’t believe Russia influenced the presidential election –Chafee says he is mulling another run for the Statehouse.

Scion of a storied Yankee family who married into another old-money clan, Chafee has the luxury of considering a campaign for statewide office without worrying about fund-raising. He says his spouse, former First Lady Stephanie Danforth Chafee, is supportive of a return to politics.

He won’t say whether he will challenge Raimondo in a primary as a Democrat or run as an independent. It’s difficult to see how he does anything more to Raimondo except make her life difficult and cost her money better spent on a general election challenge from a Republican.

One of Chafee’s biggest anti-Raimondo talking points is that she is spending too much state money on “corporate welfare” incentives to lure companies to the Ocean State. In rebuttal, Raimondo will simply point to a state unemployment rate that is at its lowest since 2001 and an economy that keeps chugging along.

Chafee is against the governor’s truck toll program and criticizes her oversight of government, saying she is poor administrator who is not doing much to control state spending.”All she wants is cranes in the air and she doesn’t care what it costs,” he said.

And he's against the current iteration of the Pawtucket Red Sox deal.

It often appears that Chafee is motivated more by dislike of Raimondo than any new ideas he has for fixing what ails Rhode Island. There is no chasm on social issues between he and the governor. So far, Chafee has not laid out a strategy of positive ideas for the state.

At 64, one wonders why he wants back into our state’s contact sport of electoral politics. Electioneering is more about tomorrow than yesterday.

There are many other paths such a decent, thoughtful and compassionate fellow could walk that would make life better in our small corner of New England.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:45 and 8:45 and on All Things Considered at 5:44. You can also follow his political analysis and reporting at our “On Politics” blog at RIPR.org