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Jim Baron's Politics as Usual: Even in exiting race, Chafee confounds

September 6, 2013

A whole lot has been written about the 2014 governor’s race already – news stories, editorials, opinion and analysis pieces, blogs, Tweets and various other forms of punditry.

Well, you can take all of those, rip them to shreds and use them to kindle the first fall fire in your hearth. They all became worthless on Wednesday when Gov. Lincoln Chafee announced he would not run for re-election next year.

All of the aforementioned writing was based on the premise that Chafee would be seeking re-election. There were other variables posited: Would Providence Mayor Angel Taveras throw his hat into the ring? (that is a sure thing now); would Democratic General Treasurer Gina Raimondo perhaps run as an independent to avoid a messy three-way primary with Taveras and Chafee? (she pooh-poohed that earlier, saying she is a Democrat and would run as one); would Ken Block forsake the Moderate Party he built with his own two hands to run as a Republican, which would cause the Moderates to lose recognized party status? (that one’s still up in the air).

But all of that speculation was based on Chafee being a candidate, especially after he switched parties (again) last May to become a Democrat, which everyone took as a sure sign that he would run again.
Chafee was one election too late with that move. It might have worked in 2010 when Frank Caprio, the party’s standard-bearer ran on a conservative, pro-business platform that many rank and file Democrats didn’t embrace.

But this time around the Democrats have Taveras and Raimondo, two real, longtime Democrats, so the party doesn’t have much need for a Linc-come-lately. (Thanks for everything Linc, but what have you done for us lately? Politics can be a cruel business.)

Chafee denies it, and he told reporters he hadn’t done any polling before his decision to bow out of the race, but you have to think a major reason why he isn’t seeking a second term is that he would have been pretty unlikely to win; he probably would have been knocked out in the primary of his new party, the Democrats. His poll numbers were mired in the cellar and he wasn’t doing all that great in fundraising.

That’s why Chafee’s departure is such a boon for Taveras. In a three-way primary, Chafee and Taveras would have split the liberal (they call themselves progressives now) vote, they would have split the labor vote, and Raimondo would have waltzed to victory. A head-to-head contest pitting Taveras against Raimondo will be much harder to call, but Taveras has a real chance, if he can overcome the treasurer’s massive advantage in fundraising. She has $2.1 million in the bank, but Caprio had a huge war chest as well and it only bought him third place in 2010.

There are other variables as well. Will Chafee leaving the race spark new interest from Republican John Robitaille, who came within a cut hair of beating Chafee last time? And if he doesn’t run, could Ken Block, who arguably has better name recognition, win a Republican primary against Allan Fung, if he chose to join the GOP?

A Block vs. Raimondo race would be a battle for the hearts and minds of pro-growth, pro-business conservatives, where a Block vs. Taveras matchup would be a turnout race testing Democrats against Republicans (a fight Republicans often win at the gubernatorial level in Rhode Island).

Fung would likely have a harder time against either of the two better-known and better-funded Democrats, and if Block sticks with his Moderate Party, that would probably reduce Fung’s vote total.
But back to Chafee and his dismal poll numbers.

I am among the 22-or-so percent of Rhode Islanders who think Chafee has been doing a good job given what he had to work with. In many ways, he is what many of us say we want in our politicians.

He says what he thinks, without spin or guile. I don’t think the guy could lie if he wanted to; he would choke on the words before they came out of his mouth. He stands by his convictions with a stubbornness that I haven’t seen since his father, the late governor and U.S. Sen. John Chafee, no matter how much flak he takes or from whom.
He was supposed to be in the pockets of “the unions” but he stood by Education Commissioner Deborah Gist when she was under fire as her contract came up for renewal earlier this year. He stuck to his guns (until losing in court) on trying to keep Jason Pleau from the death penalty and, as it turns out, he ultimately got his way, anyway. Pleau is going to spend the rest of his life in prison rather than being executed.

To put in a positive light one of the things too often painted as one of his negatives, Chafee adamantly refused to back down on the Christmas tree/holiday tree issue, calling the Yuletide evergreen a “holiday tree,” as his predecessor, Republican Donald Carcieri did. That being said, anybody who judges the performance of a governor by what he calls a Christmas tree is an idiot.

But he could also change when he thought it was necessary. Chafee left the Republican Party that was his family heritage when he thought it had spun too far to the right and became an independent. When he was sure the Democratic Party was in line with the ideas and issues he thought important, he joined it. Instead of getting credit for growing with the times and adapting to new realities, he was ridiculed as a flip-flopper.

As he said when announcing his departure, “If you look up ‘principled leader’ in the dictionary, you’d see a picture of Linc Chafee.” That’s not the kind of thing one usually says about one’s self, but in Chafee’s case, if he didn’t say it, nobody else would, and it is true (metaphorically speaking).

Chafee is fiscally frugal, but insists that money be spent where he thinks it is important: education, for example, and infrastructure. His decision to fund transportation projects out of the budget, rather than perennially borrowing money to pay federal matching funds is going to pay big dividends for the state pretty soon.

He is not an arrogant, self-important jerk like too many politicians are these days but his soft-spoken, modest (albeit sometimes quirky) Everyman persona was mistakenly and unfairly interpreted as wimpiness. For some reason, the man just couldn’t buy a break. The unabashed joy that some (particularly the callers) on talk radio took in Chafee’s leave-taking was downright unseemly. For all of their know-it-all attitude, they apparently don’t know a good public official, and a good man, when they see one.

History will judge Chafee more generously than his contemporaries do. Not only was he governor during tough times when the economy was in the toilet, but there is only so much a governor can do about unemployment, especially in Rhode Island, where it is really the General Assembly that calls the shots, but it did whittle down some during his tenure. He kept the school funding formula on track and halted the ever-spiraling rise of college tuitions. He pushed hard for marriage equality, then signed the bill within hours of it passing in the legislature.

If Chafee is right in saying he will be able to do more about the issues he cares about in the next 16 months or so if he isn’t trying to campaign for re-election at the same time, then the state will benefit from that.

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