CRANSTON – In a move that stunned the Rhode Island political world, and completely scrambled the complex electoral calculus for the 2014 gubernatorial race, Gov. Lincoln Chafee announced Wednesday that he will not seek a second term as the state’s chief executive.
Chafee’s choice was all the more surprising because in May he switched parties to become a Democrat, an action universally believed to be positioning himself for a re-election bid under the banner of his new party. He ends a career in public office that stretched from the 1980s to the present, and saw him serve as a city councilman and mayor in his hometown of Warwick, a U.S. senator, all as a Republican, and governor as an Independent and, most recently, a Democrat. Although he says he has no immediate plans for what he will do after he leaves office, Chafee, 60, refused to say he would not run for some office in the future, joking that “I’m still a young kid.”
Chafee said he will finish out the remainder of his term and has no plans to step down.
Modest, unassuming and downright shy by the standards of most politicians, Chafee eked his way into the governor’s office in 2010 with just 36 percent of the vote. After he took office as governor, Chafee’s approval ratings plummeted even lower, to the point where last year he was called the least popular governor in the country after his ratings bottomed out at 22.1 percent in a February 2012 Brown University poll. He was plagued by controversies that ran the gamut from the state’s stubbornly high unemployment rate, which remained mired in the double digits until earlier this year to an annual dust-up about what to call the Statehouse Christmas tree – like his predecessor, Chafee insisted on calling the holiday evergreen a “holiday tree.”
Chafee told reporters he had not done any polling before making his decision and believed he would have won if he did seek a second term.
Despite the efforts of the press corps to elicit a political reason for his decision, Chafee doggedly insisted he wanted to devote all his time on issues important to the state – education, unemployment, workforce development, helping cities and towns through difficult financial times and trying to achieve a settlement in the unions’ challenge to Rhode Island’s new pension law without difficult and expensive litigation – without the distraction of running what would be a long, intense and costly re-election campaign.
He acknowledged that he was able to do his job and run for re-election as a mayor and senator, but said the state’s problems are too vexing at this moment for him to do the same thing as governor.
Chafee said he mulled his political future for much of the summer, discussing it with his wife, Stephanie, during an August vacation in Maine. He said he informed his staff of the decision Wednesday morning.
The two Democrats widely believed to have been planning to mount a primary challenge against Chafee – Providence Mayor Angel Taveras and General Treasurer Gina Raimondo – were diplomatic in statements responding to Chafee’s taking himself out of the 2014 contest, in keeping with their often stated positions that they have not made a final decision about whether to run for governor.
Taveras’ written statement said: "I have a great deal of respect for Governor Chafee. He is a man of integrity who has dedicated his career to public service. Governor Chafee understands the need to support cities and towns. My office has worked closely with the Governor's office and will continue to do so for the rest of his term." A Taveres political spokesman said the mayor has not changed his timetable to announce his future political plans sometime in the fall.
Raimondo’s statement struck a similar tone: "I would like to thank Governor Chafee for his many years of public service to the state of Rhode Island. 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.
"I enjoyed working with him in public life and wish him and his family the best in the years ahead. I also look forward to finding ways to work together with him in the future to continue to move Rhode Island forward."
Chafee said he would not support any candidate in the Democratic primary race.
Republican Mayor Allan Fung of Cranston, also believed to be preparing to make a bid for governor and Ken Block, founder of the Moderate Party of Rhode Island and the only declared candidate for governor so far, did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.
Chafee’s departure from the race means the state could see its first female governor, its first Latino governor or its first Asian-American governor.
The governor made his announcement at the rear of the Department of Motor Vehicles headquarters, saying the reduction in long wait times at that office is a symbol of his success in office.
After following the footsteps of his famous father, the late U.S. Senator and Gov. John H. Chafee, into the Republican Party, the younger Chafee served as a city councilman and mayor of Warwick before becoming a U.S. Senator himself. Becoming increasingly estranged with the national GOP while he was in Washington, Chafee became an Independent after a particularly rancorous primary battle in 2006 that contributed to his loss of the Senate seat to Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse, a seat his family had held for the Republican Party for more than three decades. Chafee said his father always told him to leave a workplace better than he found it, and he is confident he will have done that when he leaves the governor’s office.
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