Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D)
Elected: 2006, term expires 2012, 1st term.
Born: Oct. 20, 1955, New York City .
Education: Yale U., B.A. 1978, U. of VA, J.D. 1982.
Family: Married (Sandra); 2 children.
Elected office: RI Atty. Gen., 1998-2002.
Professional Career: RI spec. asst. atty. gen., 1984-90; Legal counsel, Gov. Bruce Sundlun, 1991; Policy director, Gov. Bruce Sundlun, 1992; Director, RI Dept. of Business Regulation, 1992-1994; U.S. atty. for RI, 1994-1998; Practicing atty., 2003-2006.
The junior senator from Rhode Island is Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat elected in 2006. He is a wealthy descendant of Charles Crocker, one of California’s “Big Four” men who built the Central Pacific Railroad, the eastbound section of railroad that connected with the Union Pacific line at Promontory Summit, Utah, to form the nation’s first transcontinental railroad. His grandfather was a diplomat and so was his father, Charles Whitehouse, a World War II Marine Corps pilot who became U.S. ambassador to Laos and Thailand in the 1970s. Sheldon Whitehouse was born in New York City and spent his formative years overseas, including in Cambodia, South Africa, the Philippines, and Guinea; as a teenager, he taught English to Vietnamese children in Saigon. He attended the prestigious St. Paul’s prep school before graduating from Yale University and the University of Virginia Law School. Whitehouse clerked for the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals in 1982-83, then moved to Rhode Island to take a job as assistant state attorney general. After the 1990 election of Democratic Gov. Bruce Sundlun, Whitehouse became Sundlun’s legal counsel and policy director, working on the state’s banking crisis and also doing a stint as the state’s top business regulator.
|Sheldon Whitehouse (D)||206,043||(54%)||($6,494,266)|
|Lincoln Chafee (R)||178,950||(46%)||($5,381,488)|
|Sheldon Whitehouse (D)||69,290||(82%)|
|Christopher Young (D)||8,739||(10%)|
|Carl Sheeler (D)||6,755||(8%)|
In 1994, with support from family friend Democratic Sen. Claiborne Pell, he was appointed U.S. attorney for Rhode Island by President Clinton. In that role, Whitehouse launched an undercover investigation that resulted in the conviction of Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci for public corruption. Whitehouse also focused on environmental cleanup, leading an investigation that resulted in the largest fine in state history for an oil spill on Narragansett Bay. His wife, Sandra Thornton Whitehouse, is a marine biologist and environmental advocate.
Whitehouse ran for office for the first time in 1998, when he sought to become Rhode Island attorney general. In the three-way Democratic primary, his opponents portrayed him as an inexperienced, fox-hunting patrician trying to buy his way into public office. But Whitehouse was better known in the state than his opponents, and he secured the nomination. The general election against state Treasurer Nancy Mayer wasn’t much easier. Mayer forced him to concede that he had tried drugs as a student and questioned whether he was tough enough for the job. Whitehouse told The Providence Journal, “The book on me was, ‘Smart kid, works hard, but, you know, has no common touch, can’t relate to people, will be a disaster.’ In fact, I got advice from some political types to run sort of a Rose Garden strategy: You know, ‘Don’t go out, don’t let people see you, ’cause if they see you they’re not going to like you. Just mail your résumé around, you know, and spend a lot of money on television.’ ” But the tide began to turn after Mayer ran highly negative ads on the drug issue that backfired in the absence of evidence that the incident was more than a short chapter from Whitehouse’s distant past. He won the election, and went on to burnish his reputation for fighting corporate abusers. Whitehouse successfully sued to hold paint companies legally liable for toxic levels of lead in their products.
By 2002, Whitehouse was widely viewed as a contender for governor. He ran, but lost the Democratic primary by 926 votes to Myrth York, a wealthy liberal and a Federal Hill neighbor in Providence. She outspent Whitehouse by more than 2-to-1 in the primary, but went on to lose in the general election to Republican Donald Carcieri. Whitehouse also harbored ambitions for the U.S. Senate. He had considered running when Republican John Chafee announced in 1999 that he would not seek a fifth term, but decided against it. But when the Chafee seat came up again in 2006, Whitehouse was ready to make the race.
John Chafee, who had roomed with Whitehouse’s father at Yale, died in office in October 1999. His son, Lincoln, was appointed to finish his term, then went on to win a full term in 2000 with 57% of the vote. A moderate Republican like his father, Lincoln Chafee often sided with the Democrats, and there was frequent speculation that he would switch parties. But the national Republican Party understood that he might be the only Republican in heavily Democratic Rhode Island who could hold the seat—he and his father were the only Republicans elected to the Senate from Rhode Island in the previous 70 years. Still, Chafee never had a firm hold on the seat. In 2006, he had to fight for renomination in the primary against Cranston Mayor Steve Laffey, a GOP fiscal conservative and a sharp-elbowed campaigner who was backed by the anti-tax Club for Growth. The National Republican Senatorial Committee under Sen. Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina vigorously defended Chafee, reasoning that he would be the stronger general election candidate; he won the September primary 54%-46%.
Whitehouse also looked to have a competitive primary in 2006, but he won easily after Rhode Island Secretary of State Matt Brown dropped out in April amid allegations of campaign finance violations. That gave Whitehouse a decided advantage over Chafee. The incumbent had little cash left after the bruising primary, while Whitehouse began the contest with more than $1 million. Chafee emphasized his willingness to work across party lines, but Whitehouse urged voters to vote their party preference, a problem for Chafee in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 2-to-1. There was little daylight between the candidates on issues—both backed more federal support for embryonic-stem-cell research, abortion rights, and gun control—so Whitehouse hung the unpopular Bush administration and the national party around Chafee’s neck, running ads with the tagline, “Finally, a Whitehouse in Washington you can trust.”
Whitehouse won 54% to 46%. He took 72% of the vote in Providence, 66% in Pawtucket, 61% in East Providence, 64% in Woonsocket, and 77% in Central Falls—mill towns and gentrifiers. Chafee won 54% in Warwick, carried Kingston and Westerly’s Washington County, and ran not much better than even in Newport and Bristol counties.
Whitehouse was one of eight new Democratic senators whose election gave control of the Senate to the Democrats in 2007. He immediately got seats on desirable committees: Environment and Public Works, Budget, Intelligence, and Judiciary, where he joked that he was the only WASP among the committee’s mostly Catholic and Jewish Democrats. “This is the first time in my life I’ve brought diversity to a group,” he quipped at one of his first committee meetings. On Judiciary, amid a scandal over suspected political firings of U.S. attorneys, Whitehouse joined criticisms of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales as partisan and disrespectful of prosecutorial autonomy. After Gonzales resigned under pressure, Whitehouse opposed the nomination of his successor, Michael Mukasey, for refusing to say whether a form of coercion called waterboarding was an illegal tactic against terrorism suspects. “America for centuries has been called a ‘shining city on a hill.’ We are a lamp to other nations,” he said in challenging Mukasey’s failure to take a stand. He also backed legislation to limit torture by intelligence agencies and their contractors.
In other areas, Whitehouse was more conciliatory with the Republicans. After a March 2007 visit to Iraq, he toned down his earlier criticism of the Bush administration and pointed to improved security in the country. He worked across the aisle with Sen. Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, to encourage stepped-up use of health information technology, including electronic prescriptions. On the environment panel, Whitehouse signed on to an ambitious bill to curb greenhouse gases that cause global warming.
In the presidential campaign, Whitehouse was an early backer of Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, who easily won the Rhode Island primary.