What Chafee as a Democratic candidate means

May 29, 2013

What you think of Gov. Lincoln Chafee’s decision to become a Democrat probably depends on where you stand on his two and a half year record as the nation’s only independent governor and whether you believe he deserves a second term.

Those who think Chafee has been bailing out the sinking ship that was Republican Donald Carcieri’s last term as governor will applaud the decision. Chafee inherited a red-ink filled state budget, Rhode Island communities teetering on bankruptcy and the 38 Studios mess. Since assuming the governorship, Chafee has balanced the budget and modestly increased state support for education and aid to cities and towns. And he has reversed some of Carcieri’s Red State political views, particularly in obtaining General Assembly approval for same-sex marriage.

President Barack Obama, who was told by Chafee last week of his shift  in party affiliation, welcomed the onetime Republican U.S. senator into the Democratic Party, presidential spokesman Jay Carney said today. Chafee is also close with Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, the chairman of the national Democratic Governors Association.

On Thursday morning Chafee will put his spin on the decision. He will say, according to spokeswoman Christine Hunsinger,  that becoming a Democrat reflects his convictions and political philosophy. ``It doesn’t have anything to do with politics,’’ Hunsinger said in an interview. ``At his core he is about fighting for Rhode Islanders and the little guy.’’

Chafee was one of the earliest supporters of then-Illinois Sen. Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign.

Said,  Hunsinger, ``the governor is thrilled to be working with the president.’’

A generation ago, a move such as Chafee’s would have been unthinkable. New England was once the ancestral home of moderate Republicans and liberal Yankee Protestants like Chafee were the foundation of this tribe. But the national Republican Party has veered  far right and is now in the thrall to the Sunbelt and the states of the Old Confederacy; no Republicans now sit in the U.S. House from any New England state. Chafee now has no base in the 21st Century GOP. Whether he has one in Rhode Island’s Democratic Party is what voters will decide in September, 2014 in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. Chafee believes he lost his senate seat in 2006 because he ran as a Republican.

Being an independent sounds great; the biggest bloc of Rhode Island voters are independents, affiliated with neither the Democratic nor the Republican parties. Yet, governing as an independent at the Statehouse isn’t easy. One of Chafee’s problems has been his lack of a party organization to back decisions and lend him support when the going gets rough.

``I am excited by this; I think it ‘s great,’’ says Myrth York, the former Providence state senator who ran as the Democratic nominee for governor three times. ``For all of the failings of political parties…I think he has come to the realization that you need a team to be an effective governor.’’

Says Democratic stalwart York, ``I’m happy to have him in the Democratic Party.’’

Many voters will likely shrug their shoulders and conclude that Chafee has been governing as a Democrat so he may was well formally become  a member of the party. Notably, he has appointed many top Democratic Rhode Island names as aides, particularly state Administration Director Richard Licht and Labor Director Charles Fogarty, who are both former Democratic state senators and lieutenant governors. And on many social issues, including abortion rights and gay marriage, Chafee’s positions  are closer to the national Democratic Party platform than those of RI Statehouse leaders, such as Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, the Newport Democrat.

Chafee also gets along well with the Democrats who control the Rhode Island Congressional delegation, including Sen. Jack Reed, with whom he served in Washington, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, who beat him in 2006 and Reps. Jim Langevin and David Cicilline.

Then there are those who don’t believe that Chafee has been a particularly effective governor, who view him as more caretaker than change agent. They will see this move as a purely political maneuver to identify with the traditional majority party in Rhode Island a year before a reelection campaign that public opinion polls show he has scant chance of winning.

Providence Mayor Angel Taveras has made no secret of his plan to run for governor next year. Neither has General Treasurer Gina Raimondo. Both are Democrats and many observers thought the best way for Chafee to avoid becoming a one-term wonder was to let Raimondo and Taveras beat each other up in a primary and let Chafee pick up the pieces. Rhode Island politics is littered with bloody Democratic primaries that resulted in Republican governors, whether the 1984 Anthony Solomon-Joe Walsh tilt that gave the governorship to Edward DiPrete, the 1994 battle between York and incumbent Bruce Sundlun that ended up helping Lincoln Almond or the 2002 battle among Antonio Pires, Sheldon Whitehouse and York that gave Rhode Island Carcieri.

Taveras adherents may see Chafee’s new party affiliation as a cynical move to force the Providence mayor to the sidelines next year. They, and other Rhode Island political professionals, some of whom have worked with Chafee in the past,  believe that all Chafee does in a Democratic primary is split the traditional Democratic  base and hand the primary election to Raimondo. And Chafee’s becoming a Democrat isn’t going to hurt Raimondo, who has high job approval ratings in every public poll and is sitting on almost $2 million in campaign money.

Taveras supporters will likely view this as a desperate effort by Chafee to remain relevant in the face of plunging public approval numbers, somewhat akin to Pennsylvania U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter’s last-minute switch from the Republican to Democratic parties in hopes of keeping his seat. (He lost the Democratic primary).

Chafee was elected governor largely because he tapped into the same base in Providence as Taveras; affluent professionals on the East Side and working class Latinos on the South Side. Chafee won Providence with better than 50 percent of the vote, a much higher tally than he got in suburban Warwick, his home city and where he served as a popular mayor. The Chafee and Taveras bases overlap.

The irony is that Chafee and Taveras get along well; neither is close to or particularly trusts Raimondo. But political alliances and friendships have a way of melting away in the cauldron of political ambition. Case in point: The Whitehouse and Chafee families have been close for generations; their fathers were college roommates at Yale. Those ties didn’t stop an ambitious Whitehouse from challenging Chafee and beating him in 2006.

Another salvo sure to be launched against Chafee is that once, again, he appears as a flake, someone not sure who he is or what he believes. Since 2006, Chafee has  been a Republican, an independent and now a Democrat. Most politicians figure out which party they support after six decades on earth.

Then there are the political logistics. Chafee has no regional or ethnic base in the Democratic Party and many of the interest groups loyal to the party, particularly organized labor, are lukewarm on Chafee. Yet, if Taveras stays out, many party liberals could support Chafee. One element for sure is that Chafee is going to have to work diligently and spend generously to build a Democratic campaign.  (Do you really want to be Education Commissioner Deborah Gist seeking a three-year term with the governor courting teacher union support).

Campaign money shouldn’t be an issue; Chafee and his wife Stephanie Danforth Chafee have substantial personal resources. And it appears that he and his political advisors, particularly chief of staff George Zainyeh, have decided to roll the dice on a three way Democratic primary rather than take a chance that he can eke out another term as an independent. (Chafee won a 7-way contest in 2010 with the traditional loser’s share in a traditional two party race – 36 percent).

Then there is what Chafee can’t control: how fast the economy rebounds. Unemployment is coming down and Chafee has focused on economic growth, but there are elements he can’t do anything about in the short term, such as the federal sequester and budget cuts and a Rhode Island workforce that isn’t as well educated as its New England neighbors.

And then there is Chafee himself : Can he learn to stay on message and forcefully communicate his vision for a better Rhode Island? So far, that has not been his strongest suit.