Dan Lawlor: Rhode Island Needs More Lincoln Chafees
Monday, September 24, 2012
The 2010 Governor's race was a hard fought contest among a Moderate, a Democrat, a Republican, and an Independent. The independent, Lincoln Chafee, won. Chafee's base was a mix of old school Republicans, good government types, state labor unions, and progressive activists. Those disparate groups all had faith in the mantra -"Trust Chafee."
Chafee-ism is really a modern version of liberal Republicanism - it is the philosophy of Earl Warren, Nelson Rockefeller, Claudine Schneider, and the retiring Olympia Snowe. It's not a bad fit for this state. Concerned with business growth and a fair deal, liberal Republicanism promised a better managed welfare state, with an eye toward fiscal responsibility and a rejection of corruption.
Back in the 1960s, California Senator Thomas Kuchel, a liberal Republican and major supporter of the Civil Rights Act, warned, "If the grand old Republican Party were to become a shriveled, shrunken, impotent political haven for an anachronistic few, then vast changes, and not for the good, would enter our way of life." As Rhode Island can see, without active competition among political parties, insiders are re-elected and rewarded, even as many people suffer.
Kuchel once defined liberal Republicanism as a “combination
of liberal and conservative … conservative in dealing with the people’s money, liberal in dealing with human problems."
As the national parties have purged moderate members (Christine O'Donnell anyone?), and as more and more Americans are registering unaffiliated or independent, there is pent up demand for a different kind of politics.
If planned right, Chafee-ism might have a future that outlasts Linc's term (terms?) in office. For his re-election, Chafee should actively recruit a range of big names to run as independent candidates for the state wide offices. Everything from Lt. Governor (even though I think it is a useless position), Secretary of State, Attorney General, to Treasurer. Individuals like Ruth Simmons of Brown University, Tony Maione of the United Way, Steven Brown of the ACLU, Wayne Montague of Hope High School fame, Shelia Dormody,Director of Sustainability for the City of Providence, heck, even Arlene Violet.
When Chafee leaves office after his second term, an Independent Lt. Governor or Secretary of State would be in a good position to run for office and win. Non mainstream candidates could bring new perspectives and new appointees to power. Chafee will leave the state with a better legacy if he can help promote a large number of independent candidates to office, breaking the traditional party monopoly on higher office and appointments.
The Republican Party's right wing tilt has failed to adequately challenge the Democratic Party. So be it. Chafee should take the lead to organize a broader Independent movement in the state. We need a new way forward. The Moderate, Libertarian and Green Parties have roles to play as well, and I would encourage each of those parties to field candidates for a range of offices going forward. Even when the candidate is not likely to win, merely giving voters a choice is important and a form of accountability.
Around New England, various third parties have take fruit over the last thirty years, from the successful "Connecticut Party" of the early 1990s to the Vermont Progressive Party of present. We need political leaders who will challenge us and work to build something bigger than one person.
Rhode Island needs more than a one Chafee cult. If the unusual alliance of old school Republicans and modern progressives is to have legs, it needs a political organization to support that philosophy, which, based on the last Governor's race, was embraced by nearly a third of Rhode Islanders. To build up this "independent" organization, Chafee should consider either joining up with the Moderates or Greens for his round two, or simply do a big recruitment drive for independent candidates for higher office. His supporters need to do more than "Trust Chafee", and must plan to organize a base around his philosophy when he leaves.
In practice, it is admitted, Chafee-ism, has been mixed. Many of his key department heads are part of the Smith Hill boy's club - Charlie Fogarty (former Lt. Governor), Steven Costantino (former House Finance Chair), and Richard Licht (former Lt. Governor) among the most obvious. The state's unemployment rate has remained above an abysmal 10% during his term. However, the Governor does not always disappoint. Chafee has made bold stands for marriage equality and for undocumented students, despite considerable opposition. Chafee did propose a tax solution (expansion of the sales tax) that would have eliminated the state's structural deficit (while the policy was regressive and I would suggest ill-considered, it was a real attempt to close the deficit). The Governor has also been active with the State Treasurer in pension reform efforts. More recently, Chafee has accelerated the regulation review process among state agencies to cut red tape for small businesses. Yet, despite the good will, many people are genuinely hurting.
Recently, Governor Chafee has said
, "“The immense challenges small businesses face in our state are urgent and they demand attention now. "
The Chafee base was voting for some real change. Especially in light of the 38 Studios collapse and ongoing jobs and education crisis, we need real change. For the values Chafee represents- independent liberalism, principle, and problem-solving - to have a political home once he leaves office, there needs to be an organization to support them. If not, Chafee-ism will be a flash in the pan before the return of the major parties.
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