Newly inaugurated Governor Lincoln Chafee '75 P'14 urged Rhode Islanders Jan. 4 to reclaim the state's historic legacy of tolerance and independence in spite of challenging economic times.
Chafee — a former Republican who is the first independent to be elected to the state's top office — was sworn in as Rhode Island's 58th governor. The heir to a Rhode Island political dynasty, Chafee took the oath of office on a Bible that belonged to his father, Republican John Chafee P'75, a former Rhode Island governor and U.S. senator.
In keeping with his inauguration theme, "A Time to Come Together," Chafee asked Rhode Islanders to unite behind Roger Williams' vision of "a ‘civil state' … a vibrant, diverse community that is free of political, cultural and ethnic division."
In his inaugural address, delivered on the State House steps, Chafee criticized the state's political establishment for failing to address Rhode Island's challenges.
"The time of irresponsibility has ended," Chafee said.
Ted Widmer, the director of the John Carter Brown Library and a former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, was the lead writer of Chafee's speech.
In his address, Chafee said he would rescind Jan. 5 an executive order by former Governor Donald Carcieri '65 mandating the use of E-Verify, an online federal program allowing employers to check workers' eligibility for legal employment.
Chafee said the order causes "needless anxiety within our Latino community without demonstrating any progress on illegal immigration." He also said he hoped Rhode Island would pass a bill legalizing gay marriage in the near future.
"I think that Gov. Chafee has the opportunity to bring individuals together in ways that we haven't done for some time in Rhode Island," wrote Domingo Morel GS '13, a political science Ph.D. candidate and co-founder of the Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University, in an e-mail to The Herald.
Chafee's election marks what he called in his inaugural speech a "second chance" for the former U.S. senator and mayor of Warwick, who lost his 2006 Senate re-election bid to Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse. Chafee broke from the G.O.P. in 2007 after joining the Watson Institute for International Studies as a distinguished visiting fellow.
Chafee will assume the governorship in a state facing double-digit unemployment, a nearly $300 million budget deficit and controversy surrounding education reform, an issue that made national headlines after a mass firing last year at Central Falls High School.
According to David Ricci, a teacher of government at La Salle Academy in Providence, the Central Falls issue is only one of many Chafee must tackle in his first months in office.
"Nothing is going to happen without money," Ricci said, adding that Chafee's proposed 1 percent sales tax on currently tax-exempt items may be one of the ways to start raising the necessary revenue.
Charles Picerno, a self-described "nomadic Rhode Islander," was among a small group of protesters at the inauguration ceremony. Picerno said Chafee has an "elitist mentality" and added that taxation is the exact opposite of what should happen to ensure the state's wellbeing.
"I own the government, the government does not own me," Picerno said, carrying a sign that called for Chafee's recall. Other protestors carried signs in favor of the E-Verify system.
Peter Carney, a Warwick resident who attended the inauguration, had a more positive view of Chafee. He said the governor has "got some moral fiber" and that Chafee deserves credit for defecting from the Republican Party on issues like the Iraq War during his Senate career.
Chafee's transition team had promised that the inauguration festivities would be frugal and modest. The ceremony included a poem read by Rhode Island's poet laureate, Lisa Starr, as well as a flyover by Blackhawk helicopters and C-130 transport aircraft and a 19-gun salute. Following the ceremony, Chafee greeted members of the public who had formed a long line around the second floor of the State House.
Returning Lieutenant Governor Elizabeth Roberts and Secretary of State A. Ralph Mollis as well as newly elected Attorney General Peter Kilmartin and General Treasurer Gina Raimondo were also sworn in at the State House Tuesday.
The ceremony came on the heels of Providence Mayor Angel Taveras' inauguration Monday as the city's first Latino mayor.
The inauguration's events concluded with a special WaterFire in Waterplace Park and a packed public reception in Chafee's honor at Ruth's Chris Steak House in Providence. Chafee opted out of an inaugural ball in favor of a party open to the public.
"It's only anybody's guess" what Chafee will do in office, said Marilyn Soscia, who attended the inauguration ceremony. In any case, "something has to change" in the state, she said.