Lincoln Chafee ContactBack to top
Address: 82 Smith Street, Providence RI 02903-1196
Lincoln Chafee BiographyBack to top
- Elected: 2010, term expires Jan. 2015, 1st term.
- State: Rhode Island
- Born: Mar. 26, 1953, Providence
- Home: Warwick
Brown U., B.A. 1975
- Professional Career:
Blacksmith, Harness Racetracks, 1976-83; Manufacturing planner, Electric Boat, Quonset, 1986-90; Exec. dir., Northeast Corridor Initiative, 1990-92; Distinguished visiting fellow, Brown U. Watson Inst. for Intl. Studies, 2007-09.
- Political Career:
Warwick City Cncl., 1986-91; Warwick mayor, 1992-99; U.S. Senate, 1999-2007.
- Family: Married (Stephanie); 3 children
Rhode Island’s governor is Lincoln Chafee, a former U.S. senator who in 2010 became the first independent to serve as the state’s chief executive. He announced on Sept. 4, 2013 that he would not seek reelection after, earlier this year, switching to the Democratic Party in an effort to boost his sagging popularity. Had he run in 2014, he faced a tough primary against state Treasurer Gina Raimondo and Providence Mayor Angel Taveras.
Chafee is soft-spoken and taciturn to the point of shyness, but he possesses the most powerful name in Rhode Island politics—he is the son of John Chafee, a former moderate Republican governor and senator as well as secretary of the Navy. The younger Chafee grew up on an estate in Warwick, developing a love of horses. He attended the prep school Andover, where one of his classmates was Jeb Bush, later Florida’s governor. He returned to the state to go to college at Brown, where he was captain of the wrestling team. Anxious to learn a trade and see more of the world, he went off to horseshoeing school at Montana State University and then spent seven years working as a blacksmith at racetracks in the United States and Canada.
He returned to Rhode Island in 1984 and, a year later, was elected to the Rhode Island Constitutional Convention, followed by his election to the city council in Warwick, the state’s second-largest city. In 1992, he was elected mayor of Warwick by 335 votes and was reelected three times. In March 1999, John Chafee announced he would not seek reelection in 2000, and the next day, Lincoln said he would run for the seat. The older Chafee was a productive legislator who was greatly beloved in Rhode Island, respected as a member of one of the “Five Families” that dominated the state’s business and political landscape.
When the senator died in October, Republican Gov. Lincoln Almond appointed Lincoln Chafee to fill his father’s unexpired term. He was only the second son appointed to the Senate to succeed his father, the other being Harry Byrd, Jr., in 1965. He quickly established himself as the heir to his father’s philosophy, regularly joining Democrats on social and economic issues. But he said he would not switch parties, explaining, “I’m named after Abraham Lincoln.” He was easily elected on his own in 2000 with 57% of the vote over 2nd District Democratic Rep. Robert Weygand. As a moderate Republican in the Senate from 1999 to 2007, Chafee went to great lengths to dissociate himself from his party as it shifted to the right.
Chafee became disenchanted with the policies of President George W. Bush, and his vote helped defeat the 2003 energy bill. He also opposed Bush’s proposal for a prescription drug benefit under Medicare and was the only Senate Republican to vote against the Iraq War resolution in 2002. Then in 2004, he declined to be co-chairman of Bush’s reelection campaign in Rhode Island and withdrew his earlier endorsement of the president. In 2006, he drew an aggressive Democratic opponent in former state Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse (whose father had roomed with Chafee’s father at Yale in the 1940s). Chafee stressed his willingness to cross party lines, but Whitehouse urged voters to vote their party preference, especially as Republicans were in danger of losing their majority in the Senate. He easily beat Chafee, 54%-46%, helping Democrats assume control of the chamber that year.
Chafee spent the next two years as a visiting fellow at Brown and wrote a book, Against the Tide: How a Compliant Congress Empowered a Reckless President, an indictment of Bush’s failure to fulfill his campaign pledge to be “a uniter, not a divider.” He endorsed his former Senate colleague Barack Obama for president. In January 2010, Chafee entered the race to succeed Republican Gov. Donald Carcieri, who was barred from seeking reelection by term limits. He formally declared himself an independent at a time when public distrust of both major political parties was on the rise. He vowed to right the state’s ailing finances not by cutting social programs but by eliminating a series of exemptions to the state sales tax, a proposal amounting to a tax increase that he said would raise more than $100 million. He also promised to help create more jobs by promoting a new transportation hub near the Providence airport.
The goodwill he had earned as a senator put him atop the early polls over Democratic state Treasurer Frank Caprio and Republican John Robitaille. Chafee’s main competition was Caprio—at least until Caprio, in a radio interview about President Obama’s decision not to endorse him on a visit to Rhode Island, responded that Obama could “take his endorsement and really shove it.” In a Democratic-dominated state that remained loyal to the president, the effect was instantaneous, and Robitaille surged ahead of Caprio in the polls. Chafee was able to withstand an October scandal—his campaign manager resigned after a report that he was collecting unemployment benefits while on Chafee’s payroll—and got campaign help from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Chafee pulled out a close victory, getting 36% to Robitaille’s 34%—a difference of about 8,600 votes. Caprio finished with 23%. Chafee won Providence County, by far the largest source of votes.
Chafee’s early moves as governor generated controversy. As his first official act, he rescinded an executive order that cracked down on the hiring of illegal immigrants. State Police superintendent Brendan Doherty resigned in March after clashing with Chafee, though both sides denied that friction played a role. He removed reform-minded members of the state education board and named as its chairman a lobbyist for a gambling parlor. He angered the news media by forbidding top state officials from appearing on talk radio programs and suggested that businesses refrain from advertising on such shows. Some of the state’s largest employers, such as toymaker Hasbro and biotechnology company Amgen, came out strongly against his effort to stop corporations from using out-of-state subsidiaries to reduce their Rhode Island state taxes.
Chafee has been both unpredictable and fiercely independent as governor. On some matters, he governed like a liberal Democrat. He signed a bill in July 2011 allowing gays to enter civil unions and later campaigned strenuously in 2013 in favor of a bill legalizing same-sex marriage. He also supported decriminalization of marijuana. In his June 2012 budget, he approved increasing the cigarette tax.
Yet Chafee’s conservative inclinations were visible in his plan to overhaul the state pension system. Chafee’s proposal sparked outrage and protests by public-sector unions, though the matter got considerably less national attention than Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s collective bargaining changes. In November 2011, Chafee signed in law a bill that suspended cost-of-living increases, placed a percentage of worker retirement funds into new 401(k)-style plans, and raised the minimum retirement age. Despite the radical nature of the plan, Chafee was able to get bipartisan support in the legislature. Public sector unions sued the state, and the legal challenges continued into early 2013.
When federal authorities tried to force Rhode Island, which does not have capital punishment, to turn over murder suspect Jason Wayne Pleau for a possible federal death penalty trial, Chafee refused, claiming it was an issue of state sovereignty. The U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that Pleau could stand federal trial, but Chafee and his attorneys petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court; the high court declined in January 2013 to hear the case. The Pleau matter was deeply unpopular with lawmakers and the public and was regarded as a reason for Chafee’s low status in polls—one survey that month found only 33% of voters approving of his job performance.
Chafee was given a primetime speaking slot at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., and told the Associated Press in December 2012 that he was considering abandoning his earlier resistance to switching to the Democratic Party. In May 2013, he made the decision and joined the Democrats, a move that seemed calculated to shore up his political support. Chafee said that his views better aligned with the Democrats on issues important to him, namely public education, job creation and equal rights.
But, never a strong fundraiser, he was weak financially going into the primary season. Acccording to the Associated Press, Chafee had raised just $377,000 compared to Raimondo's $2 million and Taveras' $700,000. He relied heavily on his personal wealth in his earlier political contests.Show Less
Lincoln Chafee Election ResultsBack to top
Senate: 2000 (57%)