By Ted Nesi
PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Gov. Lincoln Chafee stunned Rhode Island’s political world on Wednesday by announcing that he will not seek re-election in 2014, leaving the race to become Rhode Island’s next chief executive wide open.
Chafee, who was elected as an independent in 2010 but became a Democrat in May, said he made the decision after reflecting on it at length during the month of August and discussing what to do with his family, as well as with some of his informal political advisers.
“The challenges we have in this state are very significant and I want to put all my energy and time into addressing those challenges,” Chafee told reporters at a press conference outside the R.I. Department of Motor Vehicles, which he cited as one of the government agencies his administration has successfully worked to improve since 2011.
“This is going to be a time-consuming campaign,” Chafee said. The first-term governor said he remains in good health and said the decision was made solely based on the work ahead. He informed some of his staff members about his plans at a meeting Wednesday morning.
Chafee said he plans to serve out the remainder of his term, which continues through December of next year.
The governor’s shock decision could convince more politicians to join a field of 2014 governor candidates that was already expected to include Democrats Treasurer Gina Raimondo and Providence Mayor Angel Taveras; Republican Cranston Mayor Allan Fung; and Moderate Party founder Ken Block.
Raimondo has raised more than $2 million already, a huge sum for a politician in Rhode Island, while Taveras has $692,590; Fung has $256,498; and Block had $73,987. Chafee had done relatively little fundraising in recent quarters, and he had $377,391 in the bank on June 30, less than Raimondo or Taveras.
But the only person who has formally declared his or her candidacy for the job so far is Block. “I thank the governor for all of his years of service to Rhode Island and wish him the best in any future endeavors,” Block told WPRI.com in a statement.
The Cook Political Report, a Washington-based elections forecaster, changed its rating on the governor’s race to “Lean Democrat” after Chafee’s announcement. “His decision bolsters Democrats’ hopes of keeping the seat, but creates a very different dynamic in what will be a fierce battle for the nomination,” Jennifer Duffy, Cook’s senior editor and a Rhode Island native, wrote in a brief analysis.
Chafee – who has a much warmer relationship with Taveras than he does with Raimondo – repeatedly declined to say whether he leans toward a specific candidate to succeed him. He also said he had not given advance notice to President Obama, whose re-election campaign Chafee co-chaired, or other leading Democrats.
Raimondo thanked Chafee for his years in public office. “Like his father before him, the governor always had Rhode Island’s best interests at heart and was an unfailing optimist during very difficult times,” the treasurer said in a statement. She added: “I also look forward to finding ways to work together with him in the future to continue to move Rhode Island forward.”
Taveras told WPRI.com: “I appreciate Governor Chafee’s focus, particularly on cities and towns, which has been very important, and I look forward to working with him for the rest of his term.” The mayor said his timeline for deciding on whether to run for governor “hasn’t changed. I will be making a decision soon.”
Chafee never really hit his stride in the governor’s office after winning the 2010 race with just 36% of the vote against Republican John Robitaille, Democrat Frank Caprio and Block. His major policy initiatives have frequently been overshadowed by his own off-the-cuff remarks on topics ranging from what to call a State House Christmas tree to whether illegal immigrants should have driver’s licenses.
The governor acknowledged the job of governor was harder to do effectively than he expected, saying the “irrational negativity has been worse than I expected” among many Rhode Islanders. Yet he said he hadn’t done any private polls to test whether he could win a second term, and emphasized that the decision wasn’t political.
“I thought the time was good now to tell Rhode Islanders, you’re going to see Lincoln Chafee devote all his time to the things he really cares about,” he told reporters.
Chafee added: “I think I would have won.”
Chafee argued Rhode Island has made significant positive strides during his time in office, citing improvements at the DMV, the Department of Transportation and RIPTA; the stabilization of troubled cities such as Central Falls; the ongoing local implementation of Obamacare; rising funding for education; a lower unemployment rate; and the ongoing efforts to deal with the fallout from the failed 38 Studios deal.
Still, Chafee expressed frustration with the limited powers of Rhode Island’s governor versus the state legislature, which frequently ignores the requests of the state’s chief executives. He said he will push hard for voters to call a constitutional convention when they are asked to do so on the ballot next November.
In a statement, House Speaker Gordon Fox said he has had “an excellent working relationship” with Chafee. “He has always been a true gentleman with great character and compassion,” Fox said. “In making his decisions, I am convinced that Governor Chafee always had the best interests of the citizens of the state in mind.”
Chafee was born into Rhode Island Republican royalty as the son of the late John Chafee, who served as the state’ governor from 1963 to 1969 and later as its U.S. senator from 1976 to 1999. The younger Chafee, a Brown University graduate, was mayor of Warwick when his father died and he was appointed to succeed him.
During his seven years in the U.S. Senate, Chafee frequently found himself at odds with the Bush administration and other leading Republicans, voting against the Bush tax cuts and the Iraq war and loudly complaining about the death of the moderate GOP. He lost his seat to Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse in a hard-fought 2006 campaign during which Whitehouse argued keeping a GOP senator would empower Bush.
Chafee declined to rule out running for another office at some point in the future, and said he will continue to live in Rhode Island after leaving the governor’s office. “It’s the best state out of 50,” he said.
Dan McGowan contributed to this report.