Chafee Flirts With Another Democratic Primary Bid

The former Republican and independent is considering a challenge to his gubernatorial successor in Rhode Island.

Former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, right, speaks as Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, looks on during the CNN Democratic presidential debate Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015, in Las Vegas.
AP Photo/John Locher
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Zach C. Cohen
May 24, 2017, 8 p.m.

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.

Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo at the University of Rhode Island's commencement ceremony in Kingston, R.I. on Sunday. Zach C. Cohen

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.

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