PROVIDENCE — Calling for “an era of political collaboration, of cultural and ethnic acceptance, of shared sacrifice and, more importantly, of faith and trust in each other,” Lincoln Chafee became the first Independent governor of Rhode Island in the modern era at 12:22 p.m. Tuesday.
A bright sun peeked through thin clouds as Chafee was sworn in by Secretary of State Ralph Mollis — his wife, Stephanie, holding a Bible used by Chafee's father, the late U.S. Senator and R.I. Governor John Chafee — but it did little to warm the several hundred spectators on the south lawn of the Statehouse from the mid-30s January chill.
Also taking the oath of office on the Statehouse steps were Lt. Gov. Elizabeth Roberts, Attorney General Peter Kilmartin, General Treasurer Gina Raimondo and Mollis.
Chafee, who sold himself during the campaign as a conciliator who could help disparate groups and individuals reach consensus, told a crowd assembled on the south lawn of the Statehouse that, “the only way to move forward is to move forward together.
“In every segment of our society, Chafee said, “we have tolerated something that Roger Williams did not — a refusal to do the work necessary to correct our course and an acceptance of a fractious society that emphasizes division over common purpose.
“In short,” he added, “our politics have not lived up to our ideals. That must change. The time of irresponsibility has ended.”
Chafee was careful to spread the blame for that irresponsibility.
“Our present condition has not developed overnight,” he said. “It has been decades in the making and is the shared legacy of Democrats and Republicans, business and labor, liberals and conservatives. Finger-pointing and blame will do nothing to alleviate our situation.”
A onetime Republican turned Independent, Chafee was elected with 36 percent of the vote in a seven-person race. He has appointed well-known Democrats and Republicans to his cabinet to fashion a governing coalition to accomplish the goals of his administration. He maintains that his ability to build coalitions and form consensus will overcome his lack of party allies in the legislative branch.
Chafee's inaugural address largely stuck to broad themes such as reclaiming the legacy of Roger Williams, working together toward common goals and the meaning of a civil state. But he did single out two specific issues for mention as he begins his administration.
“Tomorrow, I will rescind the so-called E-Verify executive order,” Chafee declared as boos mixed with the cheers that had met his speech to that point. A group of protesters stood at the back of the crowd, holding a large sign in support of the E-Verify program. He had pledged throughout the campaign to countermand the order issued by Gov. Donald Carcieri in March, 2008, that requires state departments and contractors to use the federal E-Verify system to ensure that newly-hired employees are eligible to work in this country because of their immigration status.
It also requires State Police and corrections officials to work with federal immigration officials in identifying illegal aliens they encounter in the course of their duties.
“However well-intentioned it may have been,” Chafee said of his predecessor's order, “it has caused needless anxiety within our Latino community without demonstrating any progress on illegal immigration, an issue I strongly believe must be solved at the federal level.”
The new governor also made a pitch for same-sex marriage, another issue that was a hallmark of his campaign.
“I would hope Rhode Island will catch up to her New England neighbors and pass a bill to establish marriage equality,” he said, drawing only cheers this time. “I urge the General Assembly to quickly consider and adopt this legislation. When marriage equality is the law in Rhode Island, we honor our forefathers who risked their lives and fortune in the pursuit of human equality.
“Mark my words,” Chafee challenged, “these two actions will do more for economic growth in our state that any economic development loan. Because good business is about treating people right, just as good government is.”
Outlining his definition of a civil state, Chafee said it means, among other things:
--- 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;
--- That 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;
--- Clean parks and athletic facilities, clean water and air, and proper stewardship of our amazing natural resources;
--- 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;
--- That each able citizen has an opportunity to work, build a career or launch a business
--- That as citizens, Rhode Islanders deserve honest, reliable government – but as users of services taxpayers must give government the resources to do its job well.
“Our state may be small,” Chafee said, “but our ambitions have never been. Our challenges are great, and our obstacles are many, but I promise you today that our great state will lead again. Rhode Island’s best days are still ahead of us. Let us today begin that journey to a better future.”