PROVIDENCE — When he was running for governor, candidate Lincoln Chafee often pointed to his experience as mayor of Warwick in the 1990s as one of his credentials for heading an executive branch of government.
On the eve of his 100th day as the state’s first Independent governor since the colonial era, The Times asked Chafee how being governor compares with leading the state’s second largest city and how he has found the two jobs to be completely different.
“It’s similar in that building a team of department directors is critical,” Chafee answered. “My success in Warwick depended on department directors, people involved in my administration and people who served on the important boards, that’s the similarity.
“The difference, which I have to say I was prepared for, having watched previous governors, is the power of the General Assembly. In Warwick, we had a strong mayor charter; that’s not the case here. Everything, even appointments to boards, has advice and consent” from the Senate, he added. “Mike Lewis, my director of the Department of Transportation (a holdover from the Carcieri administration) is still held up. So it has to be a partnership.”
The partnership so far is a cordial one, Chafee said, even though the next day House Speaker Gordon Fox spiked the centerpiece of the governor’s first proposed budget, a plan to lower the sales tax from 7 percent to 6 percent, but broaden it to include a wide array of services that had never been taxed before along with an even more controversial provision to tax some items such as home heating oil, goods used for manufacturing and research and development, residential water use, even caskets and burial clothes.
But even after rejecting the Chafee tax plan as “unacceptable,” Fox went out of his way to praise the still-new governor.
“I like him, and I give him a lot of credit, I want that to not be misunderstood,” Fox told a gaggle of reporters who buttonholed him outside the House chamber. “This is a strong, decent, honorable man who wants to deal with some real tough issues and I think he is courageous. I’ve already developed a very good working relationship with Governor Chafee…I feel protective of him because I think he is a decent man.”
Chafee’s budget proposal sparked the state’s first businessman’s rebellion since the business community came together to protest Workers Compensation costs under the Sundlun administration two decades ago. More than 100 business people – all adamantly opposed to the sales tax idea, signed up to testify against it at a House Finance Committee meeting that lasted more than six hours. When it was all over, and after Fox announced the budget would not pass in its current form, Chafee still stuck to his guns, insisting his is a good budget that will help the state dig out of its deficit problems while fully funding the new formula to assist public school districts, provide money for higher education, whose budget had been slashed for several years in a row, and offer money to cities and towns as an incentive to allocate funds to bring down the unfunded liability of their pension funds. He even made a YouTube video to state his case for the budget, which he says he expects to negotiate with legislative leaders.
“I’m a conservative budgeter,” he said.
Chafee describes his relationship with the General Assembly so far as “very good.” He said he has spoken with the leaders of both chambers both formally and informally and will continue to do so. “It’s important that when we have our differences we have to make sure there are no misunderstandings so the differences don’t get exaggerated.”
He is also looking to reach out to rank-and-file lawmakers.
When he recently dropped by the minority leader’s office, Chafee said, he ran into Republican Rep. Brian Newberry of North Smithfield. Newberry told Chafee he had a group of students coming into the Statehouse that afternoon and Chafee agreed to welcome them and showed them around the governor’s office. “That type of thing occurs,” the governor said, “anytime a legislator wants anything, I’m willing to jump.”
The governor’s office itself spotlights some of the difference between Chafee and his predecessor. When Republican Donald Carcieri was governor, all of the doors to the governor’s office suite, which takes up an entire corridor on the second floor, except the ceremonial State Room, were kept locked with keypads. Carcieri used the largest of those rooms as his private office. Chafee opened up that large room as a reception area, with the door kept open at all times. He uses a smaller space at the end of the corridor, which was previously the chief of staff’s office, as his work space.
Spokesman Michael Trainor said having the reception room door open at all times took a little getting used to for the Capitol Police, who are concerned about security, but that is the way Chafee insisted on having it.
Even though he has only been in office for about 100 days, Chafee has generated harsh criticism of his policies that sometimes gets personal. Just about all of the local talk radio stations in the state hammer him relentlessly for his tax plan, his decision to overturn Carcieri’s executive order on immigrations as one of his first acts as governor and for his outspoken support of same-sex marriage which he goes so far as to say would be an economic tool for the state.
“No one likes personal attacks,” he allowed, “I don’t think that’s constructive. But I like a fair challenge. I don’t read the blogs. I don’t listen to talk radio. Angry people are always the loudest, that’s a given.”
Sometimes, he said, even his critics realize they went too far. “There was a quote by a veteran who said I voted for Chafee but now I hope he dies in office.” As part of his budget, Chafee proposed raising the board and support fee at the RI Veterans Home to 100 percent of a resident’s countable income. “And he wrote me the kindest letter of regret, he said ‘I fought for freedom of speech in World War II, I fought for our liberties, but not that kind of language. And I of course wrote back and thanked him.”
Even though he is still brand-new in the job, politics being what it is, Chafee acknowledged having one eye on a possible re-election campaign in four years. “I’m having a fundraiser, I have an annual Run for the Roses fundraiser the Thursday before Kentucky Derby Day. We’ve been doing that since I was mayor. The invitations are in the mail.”
So he is thinking about another term? “Yeah, I’ll do the mechanical steps. But I’m going to do what I think is right, and best for Rhode Island, and worry about re-election later.”