TGIF: 11 Things to Know About RI Politics + Media (Chafee Switch Edition)

May 31, 2013

While Lincoln Chafee's move to become a Democrat might be utterly unsurprising to some, the governor's move nonetheless scrambled the landscape for what already looked like a riveting election fight next year. That's why Chafee leads my weekly column. Thanks for stopping by. Feel free to drop me a line at idonnis (at) ripr (and) org  and to follow me on Twitter. Let's go:

1. In speaking to reporters Thursday at Warwick City Hall, Chafee sounded as if he was explaining a decision to leave the Republican Party. That was curious, considering how he left the GOP back in 2007. Yet Chafee went on amplify his critique in a national interview with Chris Matthews, asserting the GOP isn't "coming back" from a rightward lurch over recent decades. There's a stealthy slyness to Chafee's rap on Republicans; in 2006, Chafee was personally well-liked by voters, yet they replaced him with Sheldon Whitehouse in the Senate because of the D next to Whitehouse's name. Similarly, David Cicilline overcame abysmal Chafee-like approval ratings last year in large part because he's a Democrat and since Brendan Doherty is a Republican. Yes, most Rhode Island voters are unaffiliated -- just like Chafee had been until Thursday -- yet they overwhelmingly favor the policies and practices of the national Democratic Party. It's this kind of thinking and encouragement from President Obama that propelled Chafee's move to become a Democrat. While Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report believes Chafee still faces a bleak outlook for re-election, the governor is betting that being a D gives him the best shot in 2014.

2. It's already an article of faith among some observers that Obama will place a call to Providence Mayor Angel Taveras, encouraging him to bow out of the 2014 race for governor. Yet recent experience shows how the political sledding at City Hall becomes only more hazardous in a second term. Taveras' campaign finance guy, Peter Baptista, says, "The mayor has previously stated that he will make a decision towards the end of the year and this [Chafee change] does not change that timeline." Still, one has to wonder whether Taveras preempts the speculation about a change of course with an earlier-than-expected announcement for governor?

3. State Treasurer Gina Raimondo reacted more sharply than Taveras to word of Chafee's change of affiliation, saying in part, "The governor’s decision to change parties for a second time has not changed my thinking.” To some, that line suggests Raimondo is disinclined to change her status as a Democrat, which she emphasized during her 2010 campaign. Yet it's worth remembering how Raimondo, during an interview last December, declined to rule out the idea of changing her party affiliation.

4. Will Chafee's move to become a Democrat spark a fight over who gets to pick the next chairman of the state Democratic Party? Thanks to the selection of state committee members through voting in House districts, the speaker of the House has traditionally been the decider. The Democratic Party's acting chair, state Representative Grace Diaz, in a phone interview from Texas (attending a graduation ceremony for one of her kids) says she believes the speaker has the choice "because in the past that's the way it was done." Robert Walsh, executive director of the National Education Association Rhode Island, however, can actually remember when there was a Democratic governor (before this week). In that scenario, Walsh says, "Deference is always given to the governor." Yet Fox spokesman Larry Berman (using his personal email) says, "nothing has changed with Governor Chafee's announcement this week," since Chafee was elected as an independent, not a Democrat. There was no immediate comment from the governor's office on whether Chafee, now that he's a Democrat, has the lead role in picking a successor as state chairman to Edwin Pacheco, who is running for secretary of state.

5. Speaking of Fox, Representative J. Patrick O'Neill said during a visit to RIPR's Political Roundtable this week that he expects Fox to seek re-election as speaker. We asked for comment on that from Fox and got this statement: "As I've done in the past, I've never disclosed my political plans so early. I'm only five months into the two-year term. Now is the time to govern, and there will be plenty of time to talk about politics down the road. I have no plans of going away."

6. Meanwhile, the matter of choosing a new state Democratic chair hasn't gotten any simpler with Chafee joining the Donkey Party. The issue was was already rife since Speaker Fox, although close to Angel Taveras, doesn't want to be seen as favoring either the Providence mayor or Gina Raimondo. The party endorsement and ensuing help on the ground loom as significant factors in the Democratic primary to come. About all that's certain is how David Caprio, previously mentioned as a candidate for chairman, isn't going to get it with his brother, Frank Caprio, running for treasurer.

7. In 2000, Lincoln Chafee (as a Republican) was the beneficiary when Bob Weygand and Richard Licht carved each other up during a bruising Democratic primary for US Senate. So the thinking is that Cranston Mayor Allan Fung stands to benefit if he has the GOP field to himself. (It's a bit ironic considering how Fung was rebuffed, during his early days in politics, when he tried finding a home among Cranston Democrats.) Yet now there's a sharp distinction between Fung -- the only expected gubernatorial candidate who opposed same-sex marriage -- and Chafee, who championed the marriage equality bill and signed it into law.

8. Even if some Republicans beg to differ, Moderate Ken Block says he wasn't a spoiler in 2010. Yet with the 2014 gubernatorial race shifting from four to three candidates (Democrat/Republican/Moderate), Block's slice of the pie becomes even more important.

9. Congrats to Edward Achorn, fellow baseball nut and the newly announced editorial page editor of the Providence Journal. I've always considered Ed an elegant writer and look forward to seeing his efforts.

10. Some inside baseball on the RI House of Representatives with J. Patrick O'Neill, a former member of the leadership-turned-dissident. Listen to our Bonus Q+A with the Pawtucket Democrat.

11. The Fix, the superb political blog at the Washington Post, was kind enough to name yours truly and my colleague Scott MacKay among its best state-based political reporters, along with our excellent pals from Channel 12, Ted Nesi and Tim White. Thanks, Fix!