Lincoln Chafee

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Lincoln Chafee
Lincoln Chafee official portrait.jpg
74th Governor of Rhode Island
In office
January 4, 2011 – January 6, 2015
Lieutenant Elizabeth H. Roberts
Preceded by Donald Carcieri
Succeeded by Gina Raimondo
United States Senator
from Rhode Island
In office
November 4, 1999 – January 3, 2007
Appointed by Lincoln Almond
Preceded by John Chafee
Succeeded by Sheldon Whitehouse
Mayor of Warwick
In office
Preceded by Charles Donovan
Succeeded by Scott Avedisian
Personal details
Born Lincoln Davenport Chafee
March 26, 1953 (age 62)
Providence, Rhode Island,U.S.
Political party Republican (1999–2007)
Independent (2007–2013)
Democratic (2013–present)
Spouse(s) Stephanie Birney (Danforth) Chafee
Children Louisa
Alma mater Brown University
Montana State University, Bozeman
Religion Episcopalian

Lincoln Davenport Chafee (/ˈf/; born March 26, 1953) is an American politician fromRhode Island who has served as the Mayor of Warwick (1993–1999), a U.S. Senator(1999–2007) and as the 74th Governor of Rhode Island (2011–2015).

Born in Providence, Chafee is the son of Republican politician John Chafee, who served as the 66th Governor of Rhode Island (1963–1969), the United States Secretary of the Navy (1969–1972) and a U.S. Senator (1976–1999). Lincoln Chafee was educated at Providence Country Day School and Phillips Academy, before graduating with a degree in Classics from Brown University. He then moved to Bozeman, Montana, studying to become a farrier at Montana State University, then working at harness racetracks in the United States and Canada.

Chafee returned to Rhode Island and entered politics as a Republican in 1985 as a delegate to the Rhode Island Constitutional Convention. A year later, he was elected to the Warwick City Council, where he served until his election as Warwick’s mayor in 1992. When his father died in 1999, Governor Lincoln Almond appointed the younger Chafee to his father’s seat in the U.S. Senate. He won the 2000 election to a full term, defeating Democrat Robert Weygand by 57% to 41%.

A liberal Republican, Chafee was frequently ranked as the least conservative Senate Republican, and to the left of some conservative Democrats. He opposed eliminating the estate tax, voted to increase the top federal income tax rate, voted against allowing drilling in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, supported an increased minimum wage and was the only Republican Senator to vote against authorizing the use of force in Iraq. Chafee is pro-choice, supports same-sex marriage, affirmative action, gun controland federal funding for embryonic stem cell research and opposes the death penalty and a Flag Desecration Amendment to theUnited States Constitution.

Chafee did not vote for President George W. Bush in the 2004 presidential election, instead casting a write-in vote for Bush’s fatherGeorge H. W. Bush. Chafee ran for re-election to the Senate in 2006 and was challenged from the right in the Republican primary byCranston Mayor Steve Laffey. Chafee was supported by the Republican establishment, including President Bush’s wife Laura, as the most electable candidate in the heavily blue state and was opposed by several conservative organizations. Chafee defeated Laffey by 54% to 46% but was defeated in the general election by Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse, the former Attorney General of Rhode Island, by 54% to 46%.

Chafee left office in January 2007 and then left the Republican Party to become an Independent in September of that year.[1] He was a supporter of Democrat Barack Obama‘s 2008 presidential campaign and was a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at Brown University’sWatson Institute for International Studies. Chafee ran for Governor of Rhode Island in the 2010 election and defeated RepublicanJohn Robitaille, Democrat Frank T. Caprio and Moderate Party nominee Ken Block with 36% of the vote, becoming the first Independent to serve as Governor of Rhode Island since John Collins in 1790.[2] Chafee was a co-chair of Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign and in May 2013, he announced he was switching his registration to the Democratic Party.[3]

In September 2013, Chafee announced that he would not run for re-election in 2014.[4] On April 9, 2015, Chafee announced that he was exploring a run for U.S. President as a Democrat in the 2016 election.[5] Chafee formally announced the launch of his campaign on June 3, 2015.[6]

Early life, education, and career[edit]

Chafee was born in Providence, Rhode Island, the son of Virginia (née Coates) and John Chafee.[7] Chafee’s great-great-grandfather, Henry Lippitt, was Governor of Rhode Island. Among his great-great-uncles are Rhode Island Governor Charles Warren Lippitt and United States Senator Henry Frederick Lippitt. His great-uncle, Zechariah Chafee, was a Harvard law professor and a notable civil libertarian. The Chafee family was among the earliest settlers of Hingham, Massachusetts, before moving south to Rhode Island.[8] On his mother’s side, his great-grandfather, George de Forest Brush, was a prolific painter in the American Renaissance.

He attended public schools in Warwick, Rhode Island, Providence Country Day School, and Phillips Academy. At Brown University, Chafee captained the wrestling team, and in 1975 earned a Bachelor of Arts in Classics. He then attended the Montana State University horseshoeing school in Bozeman. For the next seven years, he worked as a farrier atharness racetracks in the United States and Canada. One of the horses he shod, Overburden, set the track record at Northlands Park in Edmonton, Alberta.[9]

Local politics (1985–1999)[edit]

Chafee entered politics in 1985 as a delegate to the Rhode Island Constitutional Convention. A year later, he was elected to the Warwick City Council, where he served until his election as Warwick’s mayor in 1992, a post he held until his 1999 appointment to the U.S. Senate.

United States Senate (1999–2007)[edit]


After his father announced he would not seek re-election in 2000, Lincoln Chafee announced he would run for the seat.[10] When John Chafee died suddenly in October 1999, Governor Lincoln Almond appointed the younger Chafee to serve out the term.



He was elected to a full six-year term in 2000, defeating Democratic candidate then-U.S. Representative Robert Weygand by a 57%–41% in the heavily Democratic state.


In September 2005, Steve Laffey, the mayor of Cranston, Rhode Island, announced his intention to run against Chafee in the Republican primary election. Among other stances differing from those of Chafee, Mayor Laffey opposed abortion and stem cell research. Laffey was supported by notable conservative groups including the Club for Growth and several Ohio-based anti-abortion groups. Chafee went on to defeat Laffey in the primary on September 12 by a margin of 53%–47%, an unusually close margin for an incumbent Senator. The turnout for the Republican primary was the largest in Rhode Island history. In his victory speech, Chafee credited independent voters and disaffiliated Democrats for his victory.[11]

Despite Chafee’s high approval ratings statewide, the state had tended to lean heavily toward socially liberal or moderate candidates for many decades. As a result, Whitehouse succeeded by attacking the instances in which Chafee supported his party’s conservative congressional leadership (whose personalities and policies were very unpopular, state-wide).

Chafee was defeated by Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse in the general election, 54%–46%. In response to a question at a news conference on November 9, 2006, Chafee stated he was unsure whether he would remain in the Republican Party after serving out the remainder of his term. According to Michelle R. Smith of the Associated Press, when asked whether he felt that his loss may have helped the country by switching control of power in Congress (toward the Democrats and away from Republicans), he replied: “To be honest, yes.”[12]


Descended from a long line of moderate, center-right New England Republicans, Chafee’s stances began to be perceived by party members as “liberal” as the party moved increasingly to the right. The now dominant conservatives referred to him as a “Republican In Name Only“, or RINO. Most notable among these was Human Events magazine, which named Chafee “the No. 1 RINO in the country.”[13] In 2006, the National Journal rated Chafee as the most liberal Republican in the Senate, and placed him to the left of two Democrats, Nebraska‘s Ben Nelson and Louisiana‘s Mary Landrieu (the only Republican ranked to the left of the latter senator).[14]

Known for often disagreeing with the Republican Party leadership, Chafee says he did not cast his ballot for President George W. Bush in the 2004 election, instead choosing towrite in former president George H. W. Bush as a nod to the Republican Party of his father.[15] Chafee frequently criticized the younger Bush’s record on the environment, and expressed concern about the 2004 Republican platform and overall philosophical direction of the party. He described the younger Bush’s presidency as “an agenda of energizing the far-right-wing base, which is divisive.”[16] Soon thereafter, he rejected Democratic overtures to leave the Republican Party after appeals to him from other Republican senatorsto remain in their caucus.[17] Chafee considered challenging George W. Bush for re-nomination in the New Hampshire primary in 2004 on an anti- (Iraq and Afghanistan) war platform. In his autobiography, Against the Tide (2007), he states that “In the fall of 2003, part of me thought it was cowardly to oppose the president on so many issues and then not oppose him head-on as he sought renomination.” However, he decided not to run after the capture of Saddam Hussein on December 13, 2003.[18]

Fiscal policy[edit]

Chafee opposes eliminating the federal estate tax. Chafee also voted against both the 2001 and 2003 congressional budget bills that cut and/or rebated individuals’ federal income taxes. He pointed out that tax cuts reduce revenue to the federal government, thereby worsening the federal budget deficit and increasing the amount of money it has to borrow in order to operate.

On November 17, 2005, he was the only Republican to vote in favor of reinstating the top federal income tax rate of 39.6% (which last existed under President Bill Clinton in the 1990s) on the highest-income taxpayers.

Chafee was one of the few Republicans to vote against allowing drilling in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and was a member of the Republicans for Environmental Protection. He has been endorsed throughout his career by the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters.

Chafee favors increased federal funding for health care, and supports an increase in the federal minimum wage. In 2003, Chafee voted against the Medicare Part D prescription drug expansion. However, Chafee also cast a crucial procedural vote against a Democratic attempt to kill that bill, which failed by only two votes.[19] Chafee also co-sponsored theClass Action Fairness Act of 2005, which expanded federal jurisdiction over class-action lawsuits, and voted against a wholesale ban on gifts from employees of lobbying companies.[20]

Some of Chafee’s positions considered to be within the mainstream of the current Republican Party include his support of free trade agreements (e.g., North American Free Trade Agreement and Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA);[21] Bankruptcy Reform; the partial privatization of Social Security;[22] and the USA Patriot Act.

Social policy[edit]

Chafee was a member of the Republican Majority for Choice and Republicans for Choice. Chafee was also a member of the Republican Main Street Partnership

Chafee is pro-choice.[23] In 2003, Chafee was one of the three Republican Senators to oppose the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act. His 2005 senatorial re-election bid was endorsed by NARAL Pro-Choice America. He also supported federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.

Chafee is a supporter and was one of three Republican senators to come out for same-sex marriage.

He supports affirmative action and gun control, and was one of only two Republicans to vote against the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (which prevents firearmsmanufacturers and dealers from being held liable for crimes committed with their products. On June 27, 2006, Chafee was one of only three Republicans to vote against the proposed Flag Desecration Amendment.

Chafee opposes the death penalty, and has consistently voted against limiting death penalty appeals in federal cases. He has also favored including racial statistics in death penalty appeals, and making DNA analysis a prerequisite for any federal-level, criminal executions.

On May 23, 2005, Chafee was one of 14 bipartisan senators to forge a compromise on the Democrats’ use of the judicial filibuster, forestalling the Republican leadership’s implementation of the so-called “nuclear option“. Under the agreement, the Democrats would retain the power to filibuster a Bush II judicial nominee only in an “extraordinary circumstance”, and three of the most conservative Bush appellate court nominees (Janice Rogers Brown, Priscilla Owen and William Pryor) would receive a vote by the full Senate. Chafee was the only Republican to oppose George W. Bush’s nomination of Samuel Alito to the United States Supreme Court. However, he voted to end debate on the nomination, helping to end any chance of a Democratic filibuster of it.[24] Chafee did not announce his opposition to the nomination until a majority of Senators had already publicly said they would support Alito.[25]

Foreign policy[edit]

Chafee was the only Republican in the Senate to vote against authorization of the use of force in Iraq. On June 22, 2006, he was the only Republican to vote for the Levin amendment calling for a nonbinding timetable for a withdrawal of US troops from Iraq.[26] Chafee voted against the Kerry-Feingold amendment calling for a binding timetable.

Chafee is now involved in J Street, a liberal Jewish group that calls for Israel to withdraw from all occupied territories and advocates for a “two state” solution to the Arab–Israeli conflict.

In November 2006, immediately following the midterm elections, Chafee joined key Democrats in opposing President Bush’s renomination of John Bolton as United States Ambassador to the United Nations. On December 4, 2006, the White House announced that Bolton would no longer seek the appointment, and would resign within a matter of weeks.

Committee assignments[edit]

Political hiatus (2007–2009)[edit]

Lincoln Chafee delivers a lecture during his time at Brown University in 2007

In December 2006, Chafee announced he was accepting a fellowship to serve as a “distinguished visiting fellow” at Brown University’s Thomas J. Watson Jr. Institute for International Studies. The university had Chafee lead a student group studying U.S. foreign policy.[29]

In September 2007, Chafee officially left the Republican Party, changing his affiliation to Independent. He said that he did so because of the Republican Party’s drifting away from its core values, such as its abandoning fiscal conservatism. Citing the party’s new tendency to pass tax cuts without spending cuts to balance the loss of revenue, he noted how the party was destroying social programs aimed to help middle-class and lower-income Americans, particularly Pell Grants and Head Start.[30] In February 2008, he said he was considering voting for then-Senator Barack Obama in Rhode Island’s Democratic presidential primary election.[31] On February 14, 2008, with the Rhode Island Democratic primary approaching in three weeks, Chafee officially endorsed Obama.[32] In 2012, he was one of 35 co-chairs selected to “act as key surrogates and ambassadors” for Obama’s re-election campaign.[33]

In 2008, Chafee joined the advisory board of J Street, a lobbying group that promotes diplomatic relations between Israel and its neighbors, and supports an independent Palestinian state.[34]

In September 2008, Chafee received media attention for describing Sarah Palin, then-Governor of Alaska and the Republican vice-presidential nominee in the 2008 presidential election, as a “cocky wacko”.[35]

Governor of Rhode Island (2011–2015)[edit]

2010 election[edit]

On January 4, 2010 Chafee formally declared his intention to run for Governor of Rhode Island in 2010 as an independent, [36] as the incumbent Governor Donald Carcieri (a Republican re-elected the same day Chafee lost his Senate re-election bid) was term-limited at the time. On October 31, 2010, electoral analysis site gave Chafee a 63.8% chance of victory, compared to Democratic opponent Frank Caprio‘s 26.2% and Republican opponent John Robitaille‘s 10.0%.[37] Likewise, other sites, such as the Cook Political Report, classified the race as a “toss-up”.[38] Chafee’s approval rating at the time of his 2006 defeat was between 51% and 63%.[39][40]

On September 16, 2010, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (who had also switched from Republican to Independent in recent years) traveled to Rhode Island. Bloomberg praised Chafee’s “experience and integrity”, saying that Chafee would put Rhode Islanders’ interests “ahead of party interests”, and that Chafee would “produce results -— because that’s exactly what he did as a mayor and as senator.”[41]

It was reported that President Obama’s lack of endorsement of any of the candidates indicated tacit support of Chafee over Democratic challenger Frank T. Caprio.[42]

Chafee easily won the endorsements of all major public school teachers unions, including the Rhode Island affiliates of the National Education Association[43] and American Federation of Teachers[44] in his 2010 gubernatorial campaign.

On November 2, 2010, Chafee won the gubernatorial race, winning with a 36% plurality in the seven-candidate race.

Switch to the Democratic Party[edit]

In November 2011, it was reported that Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, the Chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, had asked Chafee to join the Democratic Party. When asked if he was considering it, Chafee responded, “I’m happy where I am for now.”[45]

In August 2012, he announced plans to attend the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, to show support for President Barack Obama‘s re-election campaign.[46] After constant speculation during his term, Chafee officially joined the Democratic Party on May 30, 2013. He had previously indicated that he might run for re-election as an Independent or a Democrat.[47]

Fiscal issues[edit]

A 2012 poll showed that some of Chafee’s proposed tax increases, intended to move the state from budget deficit to surplus status, had received negative feedback from Rhode Island residents. The majority of constituents opposed Chafee’s proposed increase in driver’s license and registration fees (67.5 percent), restoring tolls on the Sakonnet River bridge (57 percent), raising the restaurant meals-and-beverage tax, and even putting a new tax on medical devices and donations to charity.[48]

Social issues[edit]

On December 20, 2010, Chafee’s spokesman Michael Trainor told Providence Journal that Chafee would skip Episcopalian services on January 4, 2011, to be at home with his family. Trainor elaborated, saying: “His point of view is that his Inauguration Day needs to respect the separation of church and state. Separation of church and state is an important constitutional principle.”[citation needed]

In May 2012, Chafee resisted turning over a case to the U.S. Supreme Court due to his views on the death penalty. In regards to the case, which would likely result in a capital punishment ruling, Chafee said: “The State of Rhode Island must seek to protect both the strong states’ rights issues at stake, and the legitimacy of its longstanding public policy against the death penalty.”[49]

On May 1, 2013, Chafee signed a bill that legalized same-sex marriage in Rhode Island.[50]

Chafee has shown some willingness to deviate from strict “War on Drugs” policies, in favor of alternative approaches to America’s drug-crime problem.[51]

Metric system[edit]

Presidential candidate Lincoln Chafee supports switching the US to metric system.[52]


On “education reform” in general, Chafee does not believe the politically and publicly popular presumption that America’s schools are failing, saying:

This notion of all these failing schools, if this were true, how did America get to be at the status where we are in the world if it were that bad? So I don’t buy into the trashing of our public school system. Somehow Brown University, and University of Rhode Island and Bryant University, Providence College are full of public school students that are doing very, very well and leading America in many fields. Yes, there’s room for improvement, I don’t deny that and I want to be part of the improvement. But the notion that our public school systems are in disarray and failing, I don’t buy that.[53]

Chafee opposes charter schools, saying, “I am wary of charter schools undermining and cherry picking and skimming off the top of our public school system.”[53]

Chafee is “wary” of Race to the Top, “because Race to the Top includes money for charter schools”.[53] He says he would ask federal officials “what kind of flexibility we might have” to alter Race to the Top, were he elected Governor.[54]

Christmas tree controversy[edit]

The Rhode Island State House Christmas tree

In 2011 and 2012, Chafee stirred up controversy over the Christmas tree at the Rhode Island State House. Governor Chafee called the towering fir, decorated with lights, tinsel and toys, a “holiday tree,” insisting that “I’m representing all of Rhode Island, I have to be respectful of everyone.”[55] He made a comparison to the National Christmas Tree, insisting that the White House has a “White House Tree”, and not a Christmas Tree.[56] One Rhode Island legislator called Chafee a “grinch” during the 2012 controversy over whether the statehouse tree would be called a Christmas tree or a Holiday tree.[57]

2014 election[edit]

Chafee had previously indicated that he might run for re-election as an Independent or a Democrat.[47] In the face of low approval ratings, polling showing him trailing in both the Democratic primary and the general election, and with weak fundraising, Chafee announced on September 4, 2013 that he would not run for re-election.[58][59] Chafee thus became just the fourth Governor in the history of Rhode Island to decline to seek a second term, and the first since William S. Flynn in 1924.[60]

2016 presidential campaign[edit]

On April 9, 2015, Chafee announced that he had formed an exploratory committee in preparation for a potential candidacy forPresident of the United States as a Democrat in 2016.[61] He formally declared his candidacy on June 3, 2015.[6]

Political positions[edit]

While serving in the U.S. Senate, Chafee was characterized as a “moderate Republican.” Later, as governor of Rhode Island, he pursued a centrist agenda that alienated special interests on both the left and right, “from unions to the state’s Roman Catholic bishop.” He has called for moderation and deescalation in U.S. foreign policy, combined with pragmatic fiscal conservatism, and liberal social policies.

Personal life[edit]

Chafee and his wife, Stephanie Birney (Danforth) Chafee, married in January 1990.[62] They have three children: Louisa, Caleb, and Thea.

Electoral history[edit]

Rhode Island Gubernatorial Election 2010[63]
Party Candidate Votes %
Independent Lincoln Chafee 123,571 36.1
Republican John Robitaille 114,911 33.6
Democratic Frank Caprio 78,896 23.0
Moderate Ken Block 22,146 6.5
Independent Joeseph Lusi 1,091 0.3
Independent Todd Giroux 882 0.3
Independent Ronald Algieri 793 0.2
Rhode Island U.S. Senate Election 2006
Party Candidate Votes % ±%
Democratic Sheldon Whitehouse 206,110 53.47
Republican Lincoln Chafee (incumbent) 179,001 46.44
Rhode Island U.S. Senate Election 2006 – Republican Primary
Party Candidate Votes % ±%
Republican Lincoln Chafee (incumbent) 34,934 54.17
Republican Steve Laffey 29,556 45.83
Rhode Island U.S. Senate Election 2000
Party Candidate Votes % ±%
Republican Lincoln Chafee (incumbent) 222,588 56.88
Democratic Robert Weygand 161,023 41.15
Warwick, Rhode Island Mayoral Election 1998
Party Candidate Votes % ±%
Republican Lincoln Chafee (incumbent) 17,808 57.56
Democratic George Zainyeh 12,323 39.83

See also