Politics

A Candidate Takes on Taxes

When Lincoln Chafee kicked off his campaign for governor of Rhode Island in January, he did something unconventional: He actually made news. Rather than stick...
by | February 1, 2010

When Lincoln Chafee kicked off his campaign for governor of Rhode Island in January, he did something unconventional: He actually made news. Rather than stick to feel-good rhetoric, Chafee suggested a tax increase. This proposal instantly roiled the Rhode Island political world, and reflects the unusual campaign Chafee will run as he tries to be the first Independent elected governor in the United States in 12 years.

Chafee running as an independent is itself a break from tradition. His father was an institution in the Rhode Island Republican Party, serving as governor and then as a U.S. senator for more than 20 years. The younger Chafee succeeded his father in the Senate, also as a member of the GOP. Despite a moderate record, he was beaten in the Democratic wave in 2006.

Afterward, Chafee became an independent and an outspoken George W. Bush administration critic. As he aims for the governor's office, the question now is whether he'll run as a centrist or try to outflank the Democratic nominee to the left in this overwhelmingly Democratic state.

Chafee's tax proposal didn't go very far toward answering that question, but it did get people talking in the state. He said the state should consider instituting a sales tax on food, clothes and medicine, all of which currently are tax-exempt in Rhode Island.

The reaction was harsh from Republicans, who objected to the higher taxes, and Democrats, who complained that Chafee's proposal would fall disproportionately on the middle class. Still, it was a surprisingly concrete idea for fixing Rhode Island's structural budget problems. "People give Chafee credit for just taking a stand," says political consultant Joe Fleming.

Whether it's a stand that will earn him votes remains to be seen. Democrats have two statewide elected officials in the race in State Treasurer Frank Caprio and Attorney General Patrick Lynch. Were it not for Chafee, either would be fairly well positioned to be Rhode Island's next governor.

Republicans have held the Rhode Island governorship for 16 consecutive years, but so far their only candidate is John Robitaille, term-limited incumbent Don Carcieri's little-known communications director.

Chafee is the most likely alternative to the Democrats. Chafee has personal wealth and name recognition, but winning as an independent is never easy. Maine's Angus King and Minnesota's Jesse Ventura were the last independents to be elected governor, both in 1998.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com

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