Chafee reflects on career in public office

Concluding term as R.I. governor, Chafee cites economic recovery, health exchange as successes

Staff Writer
Thursday, November 20, 2014

Gov. Lincoln Chafee ’75 P’14 P’17 has served as Warwick mayor, a U.S. senator and Rhode Island’s governor. He began his career as a Republican before becoming an Independent and, in 2013, joining the Democratic Party.

As evidenced by stacks of papers, file folders and empty spaces on walls that suggest recently removed wall decorations, Gov. Lincoln Chafee ’75 P’14 P’17 has been preparing for an imminent move out of his office in the Statehouse when his sole term as governor comes to an end this January. 

Chafee’s governorship is the most recent installment of a political career that has taken him from the city hall of Warwick to the U.S. Capitol, then back to the Ocean State as its chief executive.

Though he faces low approval ratings today and largely stayed on the sidelines during the 2014 campaign to elect his successor, Chafee leaves the governor’s office having served as a key player on Rhode Island’s political stage over the past couple decades.


Successes and setbacks

Chafee said he has some ideas of what he’ll do after leaving office, though he did not elaborate. “I want to make sure I don’t get distracted with thoughts other than finishing my term well,” he said, adding that this will entail “handing off the administration in the best possible shape that (he) can,” and addressing the outstanding costs in some state departments’ budgets.  He and Gov.-elect Gina Raimondo, a Democrat, have “pledged to be cooperative in every way,” to ease the transition to her new administration.

While he has no intention of interfering with the next administration, Chafee said he hopes to see policies, including the gateway beautification initiative — a project to make the points of entry into the state more aesthetically appealing — and the implementation of the state’s health care exchange, HealthSource R.I., continued.

Wendy Schiller, associate professor of political science and public policy, praised Chafee’s handling of health exchange implementation under the Affordable Care Act.

“Rhode Island’s health care exchange under Obamacare … is actually one of the best functioning in the country,” Schiller said, pointing to Christine Ferguson, Chafee’s appointee to be director of HealthSource RI, as a strong choice.

Chafee said he was particularly pleased with the revitalization of the state’s economy that took place under his administration, adding that when he took office, the economy was in “shambles.” He recalled an environment of “deep cuts to cities and towns, deep cuts to higher education (and) labor unrest,” and said addressing these issues involved steady, methodical work and “reprioritization from the previous administration.”

Chafee emphasized his commitment to invest in what he called “the building blocks of a good economy: education, infrastructure and workforce development.” He added that he was pleased to see his successor emphasizing the importance of investing in the same sectors throughout her campaign.

Chafee dealt with a budget deficit for several consecutive years and managed to work with the General Assembly to make cuts that minimized harm to the poorest residents, Schiller said. “I think that the governor was sensitive to the needs of a lot of people in Rhode Island who were hurting, and he did the very best that he could under those circumstances in terms of budget politics,” she said.

Before Chafee took office, there was a failed attempt to merge Lifespan and Care New England, the state’s two major health care providers. “It makes a lot of sense, in this small state, for them not to be competing,” he said. He oversaw another attempt to execute the merger, which proved unsuccessful in large part due to “fatigue” within the bureaucracy that would have to approve it, Chafee said. The parties involved were afraid the merger would be costly and difficult, which Chafee said he insisted would not be the case. He said he saw this as one of his greatest frustrations while in office, adding that he would not characterize it as a regret because he could not see another way to make it happen.

Competition from out-of-state hospitals increased pressure on Rhode Island-based health care providers, Schiller said, calling this a complicated problem that Raimondo will likely need to address.


Party switching 

The evolution of Chafee’s party affiliation over the years has been another issue of scrutiny for the Republican-turned-Independent-turned-Democrat. He succeeded his father, the late U.S. Sen. John Chafee P’75 GP’14 GP’17, R-R.I., in the Senate as a Republican, but he said he decided to become an Independent after growing increasingly frustrated with the Republican Party. George W. Bush’s administration began in a period of peace and economic prosperity, he said, and following the Sept. 11 attacks, he saw the president and a “compliant Congress” make a series of decisions with which he disagreed. “We were looked at to provide leadership, and we squandered it,” Chafee said, adding that the congressional leadership “knew better … but they just went along with the program.” Chafee was the only Republican senator to vote against the 2003 invasion of Iraq and was one of only two to vote against the Bush tax cuts. He made the decision to switch his party affiliation after leaving Congress.

Over the course of his term as governor, Chafee joined the Democratic Party in May 2013 but then announced he would not seek reelection the following September. Chafee said this decision was due to several factors that he had always considered, including a long-standing plan to only serve one term — though he said he had not publicly announced this before. He cited an environment of frustration among the public when he took office, which contributed to an “absence of intellectual discussion” surrounding several hotly contested issues during his term. Debates about in-state tuition for undocumented students, capital punishment and his decision to label the Statehouse Christmas tree a holiday tree — which garnered national media attention — were more intense than he believed they merited, he said.

Schiller said she suspected Chafee’s decision to not seek reelection was motivated more by a belief that he could not win. “I think switching to the Democratic Party was a mistake,” she said. “He should have remained an Independent, because I think people respected Gov. Chafee’s independence.” Schiller said it was understandable for Chafee to leave a Republican Party that was becoming “too conservative for his liking,” but “once he went Independent to Democrat, Rhode Islanders were less understanding.” The move caused voters to suspect Chafee was simply seeking the Democratic Party’s nomination, Schiller said, which upset many voters because he did not appear motivated by a genuine shift in political ideology.


From Capitol Hill to College Hill 

Chafee, who began his time in elected office as mayor of Warwick from 1992 to 1999, served as a Republican in the U.S. Senate from 1999 until 2007. He sat on the Foreign Relations Committee, a position he said he loved. Following his departure from the Senate, Chafee returned to College Hill as a distinguished visiting fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies from 2007 to 2009, according to the Watson Institute website.

In his time as a fellow at the Watson Institute, Chafee taught what he described as a not-for-credit “study group” seminar for students to share his political background and observations. “I had a class that combined politics with international issues, and students like both of those,” said Chafee, adding that in teaching the class, he was able to draw upon travel experiences with other senators from his time on the Foreign Relations Committee and engage in political discussions with students.

Chafee, who said he was able to design the curriculum of the course himself, smiled when asked about working with the University to construct the course. “They were terrific,” he said. “I had guest speakers come in from all over the country, and even the world.” Speakers included prominent international politicians such as Bolivian President Evo Morales. Chafee added he still maintains contact with many former students.

Chafee remained politically active while at Brown. After losing his 2006 race to U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., he “thought for a long time” about his party affiliation and became an Independent, co-chairing a committee of Republicans and Independents in support of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign.

Reflecting on his time in office, Chafee said, “I knew it was a hard job and I just wanted to give it a 100 percent, and I knew four years is a long time,” adding that he intended to “put every bit of energy I could into turning the state around, and hand it off” to the next person to reside in the executive office.

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