Lincoln Chafee's Not-So-Brag-Worthy Record as Governor

To the surprise of many, Lincoln Chafee, the Republican-turned-Independent-turned-Democrat, joined the presidential race Wednesday.
by | April 23, 2015

This story was updated June 4, 2015 at 6:42 a.m.

Lincoln Chafee stepped down as Rhode Island's governor earlier this year. The state isn't an electoral powerhouse, and there's little evidence that Chafee did much with the job that will encourage Democratic voters to give him a serious look.

"Chafee's record as governor is limited," said Brown University political scientist Wendy Schiller. "We have a weak governor to begin with, but he was... weaker than most."

An overhaul of the state pension system was the most important legislation during Chafee's single term, but it was his successor who got it done. As treasurer, Gina Raimondo led the push for legislation that suspended annual cost-of-living increases for retirees and moved current state workers to a hybrid system that combined pensions with defined contribution plans.

"I don't think anyone credits him with the idea of tackling that issue," said John Marion, executive director of Common Cause in Rhode Island. "He was an active participant, but now governor, then treasurer, Gina Raimondo really drove the train on that." 

Chafee's proudest accomplishment was signing a bill in 2013 that made Rhode Island the 10th state to legalize same-sex marriage. A year earlier, Chafee had issued an executive order recognizing same-sex marriages performed in other states.

"The point is not simply that we are welcoming to gay people, though we are," Chafee wrote in a New York Times column. "It is that we want to welcome everyone."

Chafee also reached out to immigrants, offering in-state tuition rates to undocumented students and repealing an executive order requiring employers to check the legal status of workers through the E-Verify system.

But Chafee was unable to get much of what he wanted through the legislature, starting with a widely criticized proposal his first year in office to raise $165 million in sales taxes.

In 1999, Chafee, then a Republican, was appointed to the U.S. Senate to succeed his late father, John Chafee, who had been a long-serving senator and governor. Lincoln Chafee won a full term in 2000 but lost in 2006. Despite a voting record that was liberal on many issues, Rhode Island voters that year preferred to elect an actual Democrat to the seat. Chafee ran for governor as an Independent in 2010. He won by a plurality, taking just 36 percent of the vote. He thus had no mandate but soon squandered what little political goodwill he had acquired.

Once in office, he made series of symbolic missteps that allowed his opponents and the media to characterize him as out-of-touch. He called the tree in the capitol building a holiday tree, rather than a Christmas tree. He fought a losing battle against the feds to keep them from prosecuting an alleged murderer out of concern they'd seek the death penalty. Shortly after his inauguration, his staff announced a talk radio "avoidance policy," which also drew criticism in some quarters.

"He didn't show a talent for marshalling public opinion, but he did show a talent for finding controversies that were distracting from his efforts to shape the economy," Marion said.

The economy didn't shape up all that well on Chafee's watch. The state's unemployment rate fell from 11.4 percent to 7.1 percent during his time in office, but the latter figure was still high by national standards; the state lagged behind its New England neighbors in job creation.

Then-Gov. Lincoln Chafee, right, standing with the state-appointed receiver of Central Falls, R.I., before announcing the city would file for bankruptcy in 2011. (AP/Stew Milne)

Raimondo inherited a budget from Chafee that was $200 million out of balance, as well as numerous local government financial headaches, including a fire district that declared bankruptcy days before Chafee stepped down.

In January, the Providence Journal derided "the general dearth of leadership that has characterized Lincoln Chafee's failed one term as governor."

Chafee switched to the Democratic Party in 2013. That didn't help him much politically. With approval ratings in the 20s, Chafee decided not to seek a second term.

He always claimed to be most interested in the nuts and bolts of running the government, creating a new office of management and budget. His administration was unmarred by any major scandal -- no mean feat in Rhode Island politics -- but his focus on executive management failed to pay political dividends.

Chafee liked to brag about cutting waiting times at the DMV, but at least one reporter doubted such progress would matter much on the presidential hustings. "Wait until the crowd in Des Moines hears what he did for the DMV," Edward Fitzpatrick, political columnist for the Providence Journal, tweeted sarcastically.

Chafee's White House aspirations caught just about everyone by surprise in Rhode Island. Given his record as governor, there's a reason he's been concentrating on foreign policy lately. He was the only Senate Republican to vote against the Iraq War back in 2002 -- a position, he keeps pointing out, that Clinton failed to take.

The Iraq war is starting to be a long time ago, but who knows? The issue worked against Clinton for Barack Obama.