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Linc Chafee: Not his dad’s Rhode Island

February 3, 2012

Lincoln Chafee holds the same job his father John Chafee had in the 1960s. The son is finding out the hard way that it isn’t his father’s Rhode Island or America.

After a rocky first year as governor in recession-racked Rhode Island, Governor Chafee has set his sights lower. Chafee last week offered up a taxing and spending plan that was nowhere near as ambitious as last year’s proposal.

In the fresh blush of his inauguration, Chafee proposed a huge overhaul of the state’s sales tax regimen. He pushed a plan that would have raised $165 million in new money, largely by extending sales levies to services and items that had long been exempt.

Last year’s plan dropped in the General Assembly like a fishing sinker in Narragansett Bay after the business community rebelled.

Last week’s more modest plan would hike meals and beverages taxes by two-percent and increase a few other splinter taxes to generate enough money to help our cash-strapped communities pay or public schools. So far, General Assembly leaders have said they will give Chafee a fair hearing, which wasn’t case last year. (Chafee says if  state tax revenues roll in at a better-than-expected pace he would be willing to cut the request to one-percent.).

Sitting in his sunny State House office one afternoon last week, it was a chastened Chafee who lamented some of the obstacles in his path while sounding upbeat about Rhode Island’s future.

The governor’s State of the State address came the same day as the funeral of Chafee’s friend, folksy Democrat Joe Garrahy, who served as governor in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

John Chafee led a New Frontier Rhode Island that had a stellar factory economy, large Cold war military installations in Newport and Quonset and John Kennedy’s generous –to-states administration in Washington.

By the time Garrahy came to office, the Newport naval base had been down-sized and the 1970s oil shock had hurt a Rhode Island economy that still had a manufacturing base and a strong middle class.

Now, the state and national economies are struggling. Rhode Island battles one of the nation’s highest unemployment rates. A new wave of immigrants whose native language is Spanish has rubbed up against a culture forged by the sons and daughters of European immigrants.

And a sharply divided electorate and a coarse media culture that too often values demonization over discourse has altered forever the language of politics. Talk radio has been around for years, but the cerebral and droll Sherm Strickhouser was nothing like the vitriol of Buddy Cianci or John DePetro.

Lincoln Chafee, a liberal Republican-turned independent, was elected with just 36 percent of the vote. He has been skewered for what he considers minor issues, most prominently what to call a State House evergreen, the Cranston prayer mural controversy, and extending in-state college tuition rates to the children of undocumented immigrants.

Chafee used precisely the same words as his predecessor Donald Carcieri in a news release announcing a `Holiday tree  lighting.’ Yet he was slammed by talk radio, Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas Tobin and the vocal minority of conservatives who care about such issues.

The decision on college tuitions, the governor says is “just common sense.’’ What would we rather have, says Chafee, an “educated undocumented immigrant’’ or an “uneducated undocumented immigrant.’’

How do we develop an educated 21st Century work force without making college available to the smart and motivated among our state’s children?

Chafee is also upset that the Providence Journal, the state’s largest newspaper, slams him for such trivia as how many feet a train link is from Green State Airport. Compared to Chafee, Carcieri was treated with cream puff coverage by the Journal.

Chafee doesn’t always help himself. He will never be confused with Pericles as an orator. And maybe when a federal judge takes down a school prayer banner, the governor should just hold his tongue. (It is understandable that Chafee would support Judge Lagueux, a protégé of his father, but still…). The prayer kerfuffle does make one wonder if there are any adults left in Rhode Island, given the venom spewed at a teen-age girl.

You may not like Chafee, but you have to grant that Rhode Islanders know where he stands. In the maelstrom of modern politics, that stands for something. And if only Chafee could do something concrete for the economy, such as jumpstarting the Green airport runway extension, Rhode Islanders then might give him a break on some of the topics that make up the white noise of our state’s contentious political culture.


Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:40 and 8:40. You can also follow his political analysis and commentary at our `On Politics’ blog at




One Comment leave one →
  1. Barry permalink
    February 8, 2012 9:51 pm

    On the whole this is unfairly negative. Governor Chafee cannot control the legislature any more than previous Governors, but he has appointed good people to run agencies, kept a civil tone, is trying to upgrade infrastucture, the DMV, and to take advantage of our strengths, and he has avoided ideological stances in favor or pragmatic choices – siding with the “right” on needed pension cuts for state retirees, voter id to guard against election fraud, and with the “left” on reasonable tuition breaks and restoring some funding at URI/RIC/CCRI, adovcting for mariag equality, protecting the environment with proposed bond issues… His strength is that he doesn’t owe anything to either party and its insiders, though that can be a weakness at the legislature. Chafee’s independence reflects the best qualities of Rhode Islanders and we should be proud to have elected him Governor.

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