WARWICK, R.I.—Lincoln Chafee has accumulated a lot of mementos in this subterranean storage space in a suburban Providence strip mall.
The former independent-turned-Democratic governor of Rhode Island stood among memorabilia from campaigns for governor, Senate, and president, and posed with a photo of Bill Clinton before pivoting to the next president in line.
“Here’s the father Bush—no, shouldn’t do that,” the former Republican senator said, before turning to a shot with the late Cuban President Fidel Castro. “There’s a good progressive,” Chafee said of Castro, who signed the photo in Spanish calling Chafee “young and intelligent.”
Nearly two years after dropping a long-shot bid for the Democratic presidential nomination against Hillary Clinton well before the Iowa caucuses, Chafee is again considering challenging the national party’s preferred candidate by running to her left. For the past month, Chafee has taken to local TV and radio, attacking Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo’s record on the economy and the state budget. He is open to running in the primary against her next year.
Chafee, who served one term as governor before declining to seek reelection in 2014, said he is “angry” about the state’s subsidies to businesses, investments in “high-fee” hedge funds, and increased tolls on truckers. He says Raimondo, a former venture capitalist, “transferred all that retiree wealth to Wall Street,” compared to his “very conservative” opposition as governor and Warwick mayor to inversions.
“In the Beltway, there’s a different perception than there is here,” Chafee said. “They’ve gotta tune in. Don’t make the same mistake we made with our candidate for president.”
There’s no love lost between Chafee and Raimondo, who in 2011 worked together on public pension reform as governor and state treasurer, respectively. He accuses her of trying to “get some cranes in the sky,” regardless of cost, to help her win reelection.
Raimondo is equally skeptical of her predecessor. In an interview on radio station WPRO earlier this month, the governor said Chafee must “feel sore about something,” pointing to the improved unemployment rate compared to the last year of Chafee’s term.
Raimondo’s spokesman, Michael Raia, emphasized that companies don’t receive public incentives until the state sees tax revenue from the new jobs.
“For years, administrations just neglected infrastructure and didn’t invest,” Raia said. “Gov. Raimondo showed the political will to see an opportunity to not only be able to put people back to work but to modernize our infrastructure, which is going to be a boon for business.”
Democratic governors are in the spotlight for their focus on jobs following President Trump’s election. “The whole game is job growth,” Raimondo said in a New York Times report about the party’s path forward that referred to her as a “potential presidential candidate.”
“That’s what people want to see: focus on the economy,” Democratic Governors Association spokesman Jared Leopold said. “That’s what you’re seeing from Democratic governors.”
Raimondo, one of five Democratic governors seeking reelection next year, reported nearly $2.4 million on hand at the end of March. Her race is a priority for national Democrats as they look to rebuild from a nearly historic low in governorships in a potentially favorable cycle for the party.
Leopold said a nonprofit affiliated with the DGA, America Works USA, has spent about $350,000 on broadcast, cable, and online media for its first TV ads of the year, which tout Raimondo’s plan to provide free public higher education. And EMILY’s List, a group dedicated to electing Democratic women who support abortion rights, endorsed Raimondo in February, and has been urging its nationwide network online and in direct mail to back the governor, according to the group’s president, Stephanie Schriock.
“Between her and [Oregon] Gov. Kate Brown, we’ve got two extraordinary examples of what it means to have a woman’s perspective in those governor’s offices, and it is a focus of women and families as the center of the economic agenda,” Schriock said.
Chafee may not be Raimondo’s lone challenger, should he run: state Attorney General Peter Kilmartin hasn’t ruled out a bid. Both of Raimondo’s 2014 opponents have signaled they’ll stay out: former Providence Mayor Angel Taveras said in January he’s “not open” to another run in 2018. Chafee said Clay Pell, who recently announced he’s going through a divorce, told him he won’t run again either.
Even if he doesn’t seek a second term, Chafee is amplifying the talking points of Republicans, whose state party headquarters are next door to Chafee’s. (“I was here first,” he notes.) The Republican Governors Association has slammed Raimondo for months for “mismanaging” the budget. Through its affiliated State Solutions, Inc., the RGA has run digital ads saying, “Rhode Island ranks as the worst state in America for business.”
Chafee voted for Sen. Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primary and said he has “a good record” on same-sex marriage and undocumented immigration: “I haven’t wavered on progressive issues.”
While that could help his appeal to some gubernatorial primary voters, his history as a Republican could hurt him amid the anti-Trump energy on the Left.
“I really wonder if we can trust exactly where he is on all of this,” Schriock said.