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POLITICS AS USUAL: Do you think Chafee failed?

January 23, 2014

Editor's note: Jim Baron's column, Politics As Usual, appears on Mondays in The Times. The column below was first published in The Times on Jan. 20, 2014.

Ever since Gov. Lincoln Chafee announced last September that he would not seek another term at the Statehouse, reporters have been nagging him to say what he thinks his legacy should be or what he would like it to be.
I think we got that answer last week, with Chafee’s final State of the State address.
In three quick paragraphs right at the start of the speech – on the first page of the printed version – Chafee sets out much of what he wanted to do and thinks he has been successful doing as the state’s chief executive.
• “I am proud that we are making Rhode Island a better place to live, work, and raise a family. We have increased funding for public education at all levels. We have taken steps to preserve and protect our environment and reduce the harmful effects of climate change. And, we have successfully launched HealthSource RI, the state health care exchange.
• “I am proud that we are identifying problems and finding ways to solve them. The DOT is no longer borrowing to fund basic transportation projects. We have dramatically reduced wait times at the DMV. And we have brought Central Falls out of bankruptcy to a new era of fresh leadership.
• “I am proud that we are living up to our state’s long legacy of diversity and tolerance. We have rescinded the divisive E-Verify law. We have given to all qualified Rhode Island students the opportunity to receive in-state tuition. And, we have extended the freedom to marry to all loving Rhode Island couples.”
Look how closely those retrospective claims mesh with what he said in his inaugural address on his first day in office back in January 2011, when he pondered on what the Rhode Island’s founders meant by the “flourishing civil state” they meant to build:
• A civil state means that personal freedoms are protected, different orientations are respected, and the dignity of all citizens is enshrined in both the law and in everyday practice.
• A civil state means a fair safety net to provide for basic human needs, swift and fair judicial proceedings, humane prisons, well-run police and fire departments, good roads and bridges, and customer service versus customer suffering at our state agencies and departments.
• A civil state means a public education system that challenges our students in the right way — with inspiring teachers, clean and safe classrooms, up-to-date textbooks, and the chance to lead better lives than their parents did. The Rhode Island we all want starts there, in those classrooms — and while we all want improvement in education, we must not dismiss what has worked as we strive for progress.
For all the people who would like to paint Chafee as a failed governor, I would submit those passages as evidence that he has been quite successful at what HE wanted to do, even if those goals aren’t what his critics thought the governor should have been doing.
One politically savvy woman I talked to after the speech suggested: “We ought to draft him for four more years as governor.” But if you put any stock in the polls, that is not what the vast majority of Rhode Islanders are thinking. And as far as the people on talk radio and other critics are concerned, they see him as so hapless they seem surprised the man can even feed himself.
My hunch is that history will view the Chafee administration more kindly than his contemporaries do.
Education was first and foremost in the massive budget document Chafee presented to the legislature on Wednesday. He wants to pump an additional $38 million into school districts through the state funding formula.
He wants to pony up another $10 million to prevent tuition hikes at the University of Rhode Island, Rhode Island College and Community College of Rhode Island. He is looking for a whopping $125 million bond issue to build a new engineering school at URI, and he is asking for $1.8 million in workforce development to give Rhode Islanders the skills to do the work that employers claim they can’t find people qualified to do. He is big on infrastructure improvements – continuing the Historic Tax Credits program he resurrected last year, and establishing a bridge repair and replacement program without borrowing the money to do it. Good luck trying to get any of the state’s so-called “fiscal conservatives” to give Chafee credit for any of that, however.
The extreme makeover of Gina Raimondo continues apace.
You will recall that when the general treasurer and Democratic candidate for governor officially announced she was entering the race with a video at the end of last month, pains were taken to change the hard-eyed, make-the-tough-choices, numbers cruncher into a more warm and fuzzy, family-friendly state den mother.
Now, with her campaign kickoff in Pawtucket last week, Raimondo made a lurch to the left, answering the critics who said, far from being a liberal, Raimondo was barely a Democrat, and many expected her to make her gubernatorial bid as, perhaps, an independent.
But onstage at Hope Artiste Village she portrayed herself as a full-throated “progressive.”
• “I am a Democrat who believes in banning assault weapons, getting rid of high-capacity magazines and letting cities and towns ban these weapons without asking the state’s permission;
• “I’m a Democrat who believes in raising the minimum wage and indexing it with regular cost of living adjustments;
• “I’m a Democrat who believes that every four-year-old should have access to pre-K … and that we have a responsibility to protect every child from sexual exploitation;
• “And I’m a Democrat who believes that undocumented workers should be able to get drivers’ licenses. It’s not just about safety. It’s about doing the right thing;
• “Finally, I’m a Democrat who believes in holding Wall Street to the same ethical standards as everyone else in this country.”
Pleased to meet you, Gina 2.1.
Raimondo’s camp also borrowed a page from Karl Rove, Republican master of the dark political arts. Remember when Vietnam War hero John Kerry, the now-Secretary of State, who was “Swiftboated” in the 2004 campaign against President George W. Bush? The idea is you attack your opponent at what he considers one of his principal political strengths.
Raimondo is pitted in the Democratic primary against Providence Mayor Angel Taveras, who wants to be the first Latino governor of Rhode Island, and she is running straight at him with Latino voters, picking up endorsements from high-profile Providence Latinos who Taveras has ticked off with some of his mayoral decisions, and spurring a “Latinos con Gina” movement, con being the Spanish word for “with.”
Time will tell whether this will work for Raimondo in the primary (her work will be made a lot easier if Clay Pell decides to enter the race, as it looks like he is about to do) and whether she can then tack back rightward in the general election full enough and fast enough to convince independents and some Republicans to remember “Pension Reform Gina” and vote for her.
--Jim Baron is a columnist and political reporter for The Times.


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