Chafee rehashes political career


Charlie Wolfson

Former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee spoke to Northeastern students, mostly political science majors, Tuesday in Renaissance Park. Chafee, who also served as a U.S. senator and ran for president as a Democrat in 2016 but has been affiliated with the Republican party and was an independent during his career, detailed his experience in local, state and national politics fighting the “political machine.”

Chafee often crossed party lines in the Senate, unlike many of his colleagues who he described as self-interested, and who caused him to say “good riddance” to the Senate upon losing his re-election bid in 2006. He eventually took action to do his part to change this culture in Washington politics. He changed parties officially in 2013, fed up with social talking points that had begun to dominate the Republican agenda. He said he would have done so years earlier, if it were not for Senator Mitch McConnell’s promise to support Chafee’s interests in BRAC, a bill that would affect transportation infrastructure in Rhode Island.

“McConnell called me and said, ‘Linc, I know what you’re thinking. If you stay, we’ll give you what you want for BRAC.’ And nobody from the Democratic leadership called me,” he said. “And everything I asked for, Mitch made sure it was in that bill.”

This was his main example of the Democratic party’s general lack of organization. He also quoted Will Rogers, a political humorist from the early 1900s.

“Will Rogers once said, ‘I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat,’” Chafee said.

Chafee attributed the Democratic party’s recent downfalls, like their loss of seats midway through President Barack Obama’s first term and the election of President Donald J. Trump, to this lack of organization.

He lamented how the 2016 Democratic primary was conducted. He said he felt “the fix was in” for Hillary Clinton, citing the fact that her vote in favor of the Iraq War as a senator should have been a “career ender.”

“I wasn’t happy with the coronation of Hillary Clinton,” he said. “I wasn’t surprised that the party was doing it, but I was surprised that the media was going along with it. I mean, there was a prime-time debate on CNN, two hours. I ended up speaking for eight minutes. It was the Clinton News Network.”

Second-year political science major Jeff Cowen noticed Chafee’s presence in the 2016 campaign season and attended the talk to find out more about his motives in that election.

“I already knew a bit about Chafee as a politician,” he said. “I didn’t understand why he was running, at the time. It seemed like he had no chance, so I was wondering why he would do that.”

Chafee told the students about his experience climbing the political ladder: he began his career as one of 100 delegates to the 1985 Rhode Island Constitutional Convention (Con-Con), which Rhode Island voters have the option to enact every 10 years, as they did in 1985. He went on to become a city councilor in Warwick, Rhode Island, the mayor of Warwick, a U.S. senator and the governor of Rhode Island.

Chafee emphasized the importance of grassroots, door-to-door campaigning in an era of social media fueled super-campaigns.

“It’s all a big circle,” he said. “The way to get traction in a presidential primary is no different than it was for Con-Con. Just as I went door to door in Warwick in 1985, I began my presidential run in New Hampshire, going to small meetings in basements of churches and schools. You don’t need a lot of money to get started.”

At each position, Chafee recounted, his intention to make conscientious, responsible decisions on behalf of the community were met with staunch opposition from entrenched members of political mechanisms, donor politics and a political culture in which officials care more about re-election than doing what is right.

“When I arrived at my first political office, Con-Con, I was given a lesson in power politics,” Chafee said. “The state legislature had stacked the convention with people who wouldn’t take power away from the legislative branch. Shorter term limits? No. Allowing the Governor the power to line-item veto? No.”

During his time on the Warwick City Council, Chafee often found himself on the losing end of 8-1 votes. Many situations arose like one he described Tuesday, in which the other eight councilors voted to allow condominiums to be built on a historic colonial site in the face of officially documented outcry from the community. Chafee knew he had to aim for a higher office if he was going to make a difference.

“You could say I was fighting the good fight, but really I was making no difference in those 8-1 votes,” he said. “That’s why I ran for mayor.”

He met similar challenges at that office: he was the first Republican mayor in Warwick in 32 years. Though he worked hard to befriend the Public Works department — “I have to pick up the trash, plow the snow, fill the potholes,” he said — he still was slowed by a “Democratic machine.” Public Works was staffed by faithful Democrats who were resistant to his Republican policies.

As a senator, Chafee took pride in being the only Republican to vote against certain things he viewed as immoral. When the Clinton administration tried to roll back emissions regulations, he was the only Republican to vote ‘no.’ He was also the only GOP senator to vote against the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, on the grounds of Alito’s anti-abortion views.

Some students simply didn’t want to pass on the opportunity to hear from such an accomplished politician, like first-year political science major Akash Kaza.

“I’m from Connecticut, so I recognized Chafee in the (2016) debates,” Kaza said. “I wanted to hear his take on the current political events, considering his role in the 2016 election.”

Chafee concluded the talk by voicing his optimism despite the state of disarray in which both the country and the Democratic party find themselves.

“I don’t see anyone (to be the Democratic frontrunner in 2020) right now,” he said, “But everything’s upside down right now. I have faith that it will right itself.”