Eminentoes

Ocean State Anointed

Meet Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee: Former Republican, current Independent, future Democrat?

By From the February 2013 issue

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In late December, Rhode Island’s six Republican state representatives (out of a total chamber of 75 members—no, that’s not a typo) announced an intriguing initiative. The state’s house minority leader declared that in the new year, his party would pursue an audacious plan to eliminate the Ocean State’s sales tax, which stands at 7 percent, among the nation’s highest. The elimination of the sales tax had been suggested by the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity, the state’s premier (well, just about only) free-market think tank. The moral case for eliminating the levy is clear: Sales taxes are deeply regressive and punish citizens for the simple act of basic consumption. The economic benefits of such a move are obvious too; any Rhode Island native can attest to the numerous trips he’s made to Attleboro or Seekonk, Massachusetts, just over the border from East Providence, to stock up on booze, home goods, and big-ticket items like televisions. (Amazingly, “Taxachusetts” has a lower sales tax rate than Rhode Island!) The Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity, for its part, has predicted that eliminating the tax will create about 20,000 new private-sector jobs.

The plan, alas, faces some very high hurdles: powerful public employee unions and an entrenched mindset among the state’s leaders that privileges “revenue” over all other considerations, not to mention the fact that Democrats outnumber Republicans in the general assembly 69 to six. But perhaps no obstacle is greater than Rhode Island’s governor, “Independent” Lincoln “Linc” Chafee.

Indeed, Lincoln Davenport Chafee, scion of the Chafee political dynasty, governor of Rhode Island since January 2011, and former United States senator, mayor, and farrier (he made horseshoes before entering politics), has shown an unusual affection for the sales tax. Far from wanting to curtail the levy, Chafee even suggests expanding it by slapping taxes on currently exempt items like medicine, groceries, and clothes. He also wants to raise the extant sales tax on services like restaurant meals—this despite the fact that some 80 percent of the public opposes such a move. 

But then Chafee’s career in the “family business” has been characterized by a certain indifference (if not outright disdain) for the concerns of the masses. This surely has something to with his upbringing; “Linc” is a bona fide blue blood. Now almost 60, Lincoln (he was named after Abraham) is the son of Rhode Island’s late longtime senator and governor John Chafee, who was in turn the great-nephew of Henry F. Lippitt, a U.S. senator representing Rhode Island in the 1910s. (Lippitt’s father, by the way, was governor of Rhode Island. His brother was too!) The Chafees are a classic Boston Brahmin clan; they were one of the first families to settle Hingham, Massachusetts, in the early 17th century, before moving south to Rhode Island.

Linc was reared in gilded circumstances: His father was elected governor of Rhode Island when he was just 10. He attended the ultra-elite Phillips Academy before taking a degree in classics at Brown. While his father, John, interrupted his undergraduate education in 1940 in order to join the Marines and serve in World War II in the Pacific theater, the younger Chafee took a different path. After graduating in 1975, he decided to pursue a vocation as a farrier, and for the next seven years crafted horseshoes at racetracks in Kentucky, Florida, and Canada.

In the mid-1980s, Chafee returned to Rhode Island. He was elected in 1985 to the Rhode Island Constitutional Convention and in 1986 to the city council of Warwick, Rhode Island’s second city. Then in 1992, he was elected to the first of four two-year terms as mayor. His connection to the by then legendary John Chafee surely didn’t hurt. Indeed, when being sworn in as mayor, Linc took the oath of office from his father.

JOHN CHAFEE DIED while still serving in the Senate in 1999, and the sitting governor appointed Lincoln to fill out the remainder of his father’s term. In a sign of the Chafee family’s position atop Rhode Island society, this seemed a perfectly natural course of action. This was—to coin a phrase (and with apologies to David Gergen)­—the “Chafee seat.” And so nary a hackle was raised when John’s office was simply passed on to Linc. A little more than a year later, the younger Chafee was elected to a full six years against a feckless Democratic opponent.

Following in his father’s footsteps, Chafee entered the Senate as a Republican. But he clashed with his party from the day he was sworn in. He was the first Republican senator to call for Trent Lott’s resignation from leadership following the majority leader’s ill-considered praise of Strom Thurmond. The only Republican senator to vote against the Iraq War, Chafee also flirted with hardcore isolationism. For example, according to a Brown alumni magazine profile, in a discussion of  World War II he asserted that “a bad peace is better than a good war,” (a particularly startling statement given that John Chafee had not only fought in Guadalcanal and Okinawa, but had also been secretary of the Navy). That article goes on to say that Chafee hung a photo of himself “shaking hands with Fidel Castro” in his office. In 2004, he announced he would write in George H.W. Bush for president rather than vote for George W.

But none of these blue state bona fides were enough to save Chafee’s hide. Opting for the Democratic candidate who actually called himself a Democrat, Rhode Islanders elected Sheldon Whitehouse (another patrician from a long line of political figures) as their senator in November 2006. Whitehouse defeated Chafee 54 percent to 46 percent.

In the wake of that election, Chafee wrote an op-ed for the New York Times: “Despite my having voted against the Iraq war resolution, my reputation for independence, the editorial endorsement of virtually every newspaper in my state, and a job approval rating of 63 percent, I did not win. Why?” (It turns out it was Bush’s fault.)

Ultimately, in 2007, Chafee very publicly left the Republican Party in an interview with the Providence Journal, the state’s newspaper of record, saying that “his party” had left him. He cited the GOP’s abandonment of fiscal responsibility, in particular, in motivating his departure. But it’s plain that he was never in the right crowd to begin with. Chafee, after all, supports abortion rights, federal funding for stem-cell research, gay marriage, hate-crimes legislation, and gun control. As a senator, he opposed drilling in ANWR and funding charter schools. Oh, and he also voted against the confirmations of John Bolton and Samuel Alito.

Say what you will about any of these positions, but they certainly don’t accord with anybody’s understanding of the Republican Party as it’s been constituted for the last 50 years. Indeed, it might be true that the GOP has moved to the right over the past decade or so, but Chafee’s views would never have placed him in the Republican Party.

Make no mistake: Chafee is no Charlie Crist. Unlike the slippery Florida governor, he hasn’t changed his positions. One can only conclude that Chafee operated under the assumption that party identity was an inheritance, like a last name or red hair. His family was Republican, so he was a Republican. Or, less charitably, one can deduce that Chafee retained his Republican Party membership to bolster his personal “brand” as a brave teller of hard truths. He even penned a self-congratulatory memoir about his supposed courageousness, with the portentous title Against the Tide. (By the way, used copies of that magnum opus are now available through Amazon starting at $2.11.) In 2006, Ann Coulter offered another theory, writing that, “the only reason that Chafee calls himself a Republican is that he believes that everyone above a certain income level is required by law to do so.”

IN ANY EVENT, there’s a name for people who hold Chafee’s views: Democrats. But even after leaving the Senate, Chafee resisted embracing his natural party. (This despite the fact that he co-chaired Obama’s campaign in Rhode Island in 2008, endorsed the president again in 2012, and even spoke at the recent Democratic National Convention last year.) Instead, he declared himself an “Independent,” and in 2010, announced his intention to run for governor of Rhode Island, against both a Republican and a Democratic nominee. Chafee in many ways ran as the most left-wing of all the candidates. (In a rather ominous sign, Michael Bloomberg, another “Republican” turned Independent, traveled to Rhode Island to campaign on his behalf.) The race was close, but in the end, Chafee squeaked into office with a plurality of 36 percent of the vote.

Rhode Island was in dire straits when the new governor took the helm, with an unemployment rate of 11.4 percent, a population base bleeding the young and educated, and falling wages. In 2009, the New York Times declared, “Rhode Island is arguably the most economically hobbled state after Michigan.” Four separate business climate rankings placed Rhode Island in the bottom 10 out of all 50 states in competitiveness.

Yet Chafee’s economic development plans amounted to providing incentives for certain areas of the state and specific industries. (Think of it as Solyndranomics on a smaller scale.) In sum, as governor, Chafee has elected to take a top-down approach to the economic challenges facing Rhode Island. We could also call this “twenty-first- century liberalism.”

But even the governor’s supporters must concede that Chafee’s liberalism is of the explicitly anti-populist variety. He opposes, for example, E-Verify, despite illegal labor’s effect on blue-collar wages (his Democratic opponent in the 2010 gubernatorial race was a strong E-Verify supporter). Indeed, one of Chafee’s first actions as governor—announced in his inaugural address, in fact—was to revoke the state police’s authority to enforce immigration laws, a measure that had been implemented by his predecessor in the governor’s office, Republican Don Carcieri. “My view is that Rhode Island can grow economically by being a tolerant place to do business,” Chafee said at the time, according to the Boston Globe. Alas, some two years into his term, the unemployment rate remains at 10.4 percent, still the second highest in the country.

On education policy as well, Chafee has displayed a “let them eat cake” attitude. Rhode Island has one of the lowest high school graduation rates in the Northeast. In urban school districts like Pawtucket and Central Falls, the dropout rate approaches a scandalous 40 percent. Last year’s New England Common Assessment Program found that only a third of Rhode Island 11th grade students were proficient in math.

Prior to Chafee’s election as governor, the state’s nascent education reform movement—particularly its charter school movement—was gaining steam. Nonetheless, Chafee began his term by removing three pro-reform members (including the chairman) of the state’s board of regents, and calling for a “thoughtful pause” (read: indefinite moratorium) in the development of charter schools. “These decisions were the direct result of strong support his campaign received from the teacher unions,” said Angus Davis, one of the removed regents.

Chafee has long been a strident opponent of charter schools, and has argued that traditional public schools are performing just swimmingly. Substituting rhetoric for data—or even argument, for that matter—on taking office, Chafee blustered:

This notion of all these failing schools, if this were true, how did America get to be at the status where we are in the world if it were that bad? So I don’t buy into the trashing of our public school system. Somehow Brown University and University of Rhode Island and Bryant University, Providence College are full of public school students that are doing very, very well and leading America in many fields. Yes, there’s room for improvement. I don’t deny that and I want to be part of the improvement. But the notion that our public school systems are in disarray and failing, I don’t buy that.

Perhaps Chafee’s own education—at private schools, incidentally—lacked a lesson on the difference between anecdote and evidence. (Davis does say he sees signs of Chafee moderating his positions, however, noting that the state has begun competing for “Race to the Top” funding.)

Still, any changes to Chafee’s policies at this point may be too little too late. “To the extent that he’s implemented an education policy,” says Justin Katz of the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity, “it has been to impede any motion toward reforms based on parental choice and accountability.” Chafee’s education stance has come under fire from even some left-leaning groups. The Rhode Island branch of Democrats for Education Reform, for example, has called on Chafee to “abandon” his opposition to charter schools, which could jeopardize federal funds. Several Rhode Island mayors, Democrats all, have also called on Chafee to back charter schools.

Chafee is certain to face a tough reelection fight come November 2014. Not only has a recent poll pegged his approval rating at 29 percent, but the governor also lacks the party machinery, fundraising infrastructure, and even simple group loyalty that Republican or Democratic party membership would provide. Last December, he candidly admitted that he might decide to run for reelection as a Democrat. “There is no independent governors association throwing money around,” he told the Associated Press. But Chafee has earned a reputation for being supercilious and aloof, almost like that other Boston Brahmin John Kerry. He thinks of himself as above the fray. Whether this stems from his upbringing, his education, or simply his last name, it’s a serious obstacle to his ever joining the Democrats.

Then again, maybe he’ll leave the Independents, and simply claim that the Independents left him.

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About the Author

Ethan Epstein is an editorial assistant at the Weekly Standard.