Analysis: Chafee scrambles the 2014 campaign – once again


Angel Taveras has always liked Lincoln Chafee. But he’s probably never liked him more than he does today.

Chafee’s surprise announcement that he won’t seek re-election – made outside the DMV, no less – sets up the 2014 Democratic primary for governor as a clear choice between two formidable candidates: Treasurer Gina Raimondo and Providence Mayor Angel Taveras, each a first-termer with a high approval rating.

That’s good news for Taveras. Raimondo isn’t going to win over the state’s politically powerful public-sector unions, and she’s going to face at least some resistance from those liberal Democrats who are skeptical of her ties to the financial sector. Taveras, on the other hand, is viewed more warmly by labor for negotiating his pension cuts – an oft-heard talking point these days.

The big challenge for Taveras was going to be competing with Chafee for the same slice of the electorate – Latinos, liberals and labor. Chafee was unlikely to win the primary, but it’s conceivable he could have taken enough votes from Taveras to hand victory to Raimondo – an ironic possibility considering Chafee has a much warmer relationship with the mayor than he does with the treasurer.

By exiting the race, Chafee gives Taveras a much clearer path to the nomination. The mayor can fight Raimondo on the turf of fiscal responsibility, citing his year and a half working to keep the capital out of bankruptcy, while arguing his negotiated settlement to the city’s pension crisis is a more conciliatory – and more progressive – approach than Raimondo’s top-down reform.

Raimondo’s advisers know all this, of course. Their task in the coming months will be twofold: establishing the treasurer’s Democratic bona fides to win the primary, and tearing down Taveras’s accomplishments in Providence to raise doubts about whether he should get a promotion. Raimondo has more than $2 million – along with outside allies – to help her with that task, and Chafee’s exit will let them train all their fire on Taveras.

It’s not clear yet how Chafee’s decision will reverberate for the Republicans. A Democrat hasn’t won a gubernatorial election in Rhode Island since 1992, which makes the GOP nomination a valuable commodity despite the state’s deep-blue hue. Cranston Mayor Allan Fung is still the most serious candidate, but Ken Block, John Robitaille and others could take another look at the race now. However, they have to feel less confident about the GOP’s prospects against Raimondo or Taveras than against Chafee.

As for Chafee, the 60-year-old governor’s decision was stunning mostly because it came out of the blue on a quiet Wednesday afternoon – the writing had been on the wall for a while. His poll numbers have always been anemic, and his fundraising in recent quarters has been weak. Chafee has managed to hemorrhage support each time he’s been on a statewide ballot: he got 57% in 2000, 47% in 2006 and 36% in 2010.

In short, it was very, very hard to see how Lincoln Chafee could win another election for governor without another multi-candidate perfect storm. That’s been true for a while, though – what made him decide?

The political environment certainly must have played a role: it was increasingly clear he couldn’t win. But Chafee, an optimist by nature, has been beaten down by a consistently difficult two-and-a-half years. He cited the “irrational negativity” of some in Rhode Island on Wednesday, and it’s true he has few allies – and many, many critics – in the state’s chattering class.

But Chafee has also been his own enemy at times, beating the drum for unpopular policies – a prime example being his 2011 budget proposal, with its huge sales-tax hike – and giving oxygen to sideshows like the “holiday tree” controversy, which he cited repeatedly today as a particular frustration.

(Indeed, GOP Chairman Mark Smiley quipped on Wednesday: “Although Lincoln Chafee does not believe in Christmas trees, his announcement that he is not seeking re-election is certainly an early Christmas gift for all Rhode Islanders who want real leadership in the State House.”)

Chafee has also struggled to figure out how to deal with the General Assembly. He always saw himself as the anti-Carcieri, someone who would build a productive working relationship with lawmakers. (“I’m not going to fight with the General Assembly,” he told me flatly in 2011.) In practice, that’s often left Chafee complaining about bills, then allowing them to become law anyway, as with the recent EDC legislation.

That may be why Chafee emphasized Wednesday that he strongly believes Rhode Islanders should call a constitutional convention when they’re asked whether to do so on next year’s ballot. The governor, who was a delegate to the 1986 convention, said he’s come to think that shifting the balance of power away from the legislative branch and toward the executive is one of the most important changes Rhode Island could make to improve policymaking. Watch for him to campaign hard for that next year.

Chafee’s supporters point to a number of accomplishments during his tenure, many of them under the radar. (Ironically, the most high-profile policy of his tenure is one associated with a different politician: the pension law.) He’s proud of the increase in education spending, the improved efficiency of the DMV, the end of the DOT’s debt habit, the passage of same-sex marriage, the 38 Studios lawsuit, the falling jobless rate, and the stabilization of Central Falls and other troubled cities. He’s stuck to his guns, and his principles.

Dave Kane, whose son died in the Station nightclub fire, recalled that Chafee was one of only two Rhode Island elected officials who helped secure the site for a permanent memorial. Kane said Wednesday, “I will never forget the compassion, understanding and support offered by this gentle and honorable man.”

Meanwhile, Chafee will remain the governor of Rhode Island for another 16 months. (Unless of course Obama gives him a job – hello, Gov. Elizabeth Roberts!) He spoke obliquely about that Wednesday, saying: “Obviously, it’s not just the time and energy that goes into a campaign but, as you know, if you’re looking at an election sometimes you make compromises that might not be made if you weren’t involved in a campaign.”

Which compromises did he have in mind? Could the last year-and-a-half of Chafee’s tenure be significantly different from the first two-and-a-half years? Will he buck organized labor – or be more supportive? Will he fight more with the General Assembly? Will he enact policies that don’t have widespread public support?

Looks like we’re about to find out.

• Related: Watch Lincoln Chafee’s entire Wednesday press conference (Sept. 4)

20 thoughts on “Analysis: Chafee scrambles the 2014 campaign – once again

  1. I saw him a couple of weeks ago when he visited my workplace. I noticed that he looked much better than he did during his last campaign. Relaxed and healthy. He was a quietly effective governor, and I think we will appreciate him more as the years go by. He inherited the recession– not helped by previous Governor Carcieri, and the 38 Studios mess that Carcieri left us to fix.
    Our challenge now is to elect a good governor. I’m leaning to Angel Taveras, but he’ll have to either win the ‘burbs or get the city folk to the polls.

  2. Ninjanurse are you kidding? Do you live in RI? Do you pay attention to the news? You say he was quietly an effective governor? He will go down as the worst Governor RI has ever had. He was clueless! Of course you are leaning toward Tavares because anyone who props up Chafee is clearly a democrat. The same party that is killing our state. I’ll bet you check the D box every election. By the way the 38 Studios mess was created by Gordon Fox, Don Carcieri supported it but he didn’t drive the bus. Now Gorden Fox is covering it up.

    • Totally false. Carcieri was Chairman of the EDC Board (which, by the way, consisted of his hand-picked nominees) when it approved giving the $75 million to 38 Studios. The General Assembly gave them permission to do it but they didn’t have to. If Carcieri thought it was a bad idea, he could have stopped it in a second. But he didn’t – he supported it through and through. The Assembly leadership deserves their share of the blame for that mess but let’s not act like Carcieri wasn’t one of the ringleaders.

  3. He has dedicated his entire adult life to public service, and I hope people honor him and his family for the many sacrifices they have made. Thank you Governor Chafee. If only more politicians would be as selfless as this man has proven to be in his dignified exit.

  4. I disagree that he did not stand a chance in a 3 way race, most people I spoke to thought it was a brilliant move on his part, especially if Obama came to town and stumped for him. He would drag some of the latino vote from Taveras, conquer the liberal/wasp vote of east side/islands and his base who would vote for him no matter what. He could have also done a deal with the unions and settle pension reform which could then possibly put them on his side. He could very well have slipped in. His decision makes it a great matchup with Taveras and Raimundo, gives voters a clearer choice. Looking forward to that discussion. Business needs to get going in this state and this election will be an opportunity for small business to get involved and push for changes.

  5. This State needs voter initiative, allowing petitions to place questions on the ballot such as ‘should the EDC be abolished etc.

    Take the power away from the elected who are in no way representative of the people.

  6. Governor Chafee is a person of little honor. He turned his back on both Pres. Bush, Sr. and Jr., both of whom his father had long histories of loyalty with. Sadly, this is not a man of honor. He is cunning and very wise politically. He sees the handwriting on the wall. His legacy will be helping the culture devolve with his advocacy for ssm and his ardent support of abortion on demand including sex selection abortion. There is no leadership in this state and I am greatly worried about its future with the large no leaving, especially those snowbirds who continue a rapid exit to Florida and other more tax friendly states. Why stay in a state where they tax your social security and pension?

    Governor Chafee, you made the right choice for once. Let’s pray you can’t inflict any more damage to this State. I hope the voters of this state wake up and don’t choose a woman who is co-opted by her corporate ties to Wall Street and hedge funds. Taveras has done little… nice guy but no leadership skills… he supported the man who bankrupted Providence and left our City in dire financial straits. I can’t trust Angel. Fung signed a sweetheart deal for the firefighters so he can get elected but he at least seems to have some skills at being a Mayor of a large city; however, he did not show any leadership over the removal of the prayer banner. There are no leaders left in our little State.

    • This is total baloney. His father had no “long history” with Bush, Jr. and Chafee cast his ballot in 2004 for Bush, Sr. in recognition of the fact that he sought a return to that kind of governing. Sadly, you seem to believe that ours should be a society with some kind of official religion and that’s just plain madness.

  7. To all you haters out there I say look around the country and compare Chafee to some of the other governors out there…scott walker…. he was not a right wing ideologue who sold his soul to out of state interest for campaign contributions….although he made some mistakes he certainly cared about R.I. and acted out of the state’s best interest. Compared to Carcieri….(Schilling and Studio 38 fame)…he was not a hypocrite…proclaiming to be anti-govt. while giving away the state’s money. We will have to see if Tavares is strong enough to overcome gina’s war chest and her ties to out of state hedge fund interest…I know I will never vote for her again…but she doesn’t care anyway….Good luck Linc!!!

  8. It appears that our Governor has sent his staff to this page to comment. You don’t have to be a hater to recognize a poor leader. Shall I start with the fact that he avoided paying his property taxes when he was running for office. He removed existing rules on illegal immigration the minute he took office. Now our state is a safe haven for those who wish to come to our nation and receive free government assistance. How about him defending a murderer from the federal government? There is a long list of issues he clearly mishandled. But it is so much more than this. He was an embarrassment to our state. We gained so much negative attention when he was made a fool by the national media over a Christmas tree. I also find it telling that individuals have to comment and compare him to Carcieri and remind everyone about 38 Studios. Sorry democrats, your party not only started the ball rolling on 38 Studios (Fox and Paiva Weed), they rigged the General Assembly votes to pay the bondholders when we didn’t have to, in order to stop a real investigation into the matter.

    • Interesting that nobody made a big stink when Carcieri called it a “holiday tree” for his entire tenure but Chafee continues doing it and all of a sudden it’s a huge problem.

  9. Chaffee had his own agenda in mind in every issue he chose to fight. He never considered what the “people” or majority wanted. He didn’t govern, he dictated. And, too often, those who suck up to the governor, for their own political reasons, gave him what he wanted. It will be very interesting to see who comes out on top in this election. I don’t see anyone I’m excited about. Poor Rhode Island.

  10. The Bozo only wanted gay marriage passed, Jason Pleaus release and to get everyone wanting help from the government on the roles as he has no clue due to the $$$ his wife has but he approves of drinking on his property…

    Good riddance! Don’t let the door hit you in the ass!

    All he has done is the DMV but all pothole roads lead to the registry…fix the damn roads!

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