Will Rhode Island Go Independent?

Photo by the Associated Press
Independent Lincoln Chafee, right, addresses a campaign forum in Providence while other gubernatorial candidates look on.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. - With all the well-documented anger against hyperpartisanship and against both major political parties this year, you might expect the time to be ripe for a crop of independent governors. No independent or third-party candidate has been elected anywhere in the country in more than a decade. If this is the year of the independent, though, it is starting off relatively slowly.

Except in Rhode Island. The Ocean State is usually seen as a bastion of Democratic power, but that's not entirely true. Rhode Island does vote reliably for Democrats at the presidential level, and routinely elects a Democratic legislature, but in fact it hasn't had a Democratic governor in 16 years. It is one of only nine states in the country where independent and unaffiliated voters outnumber those of either major party.

That's where Lincoln Chafee comes in. After serving one term in the U.S. Senate as a liberal Republican and then losing his seat to a Democratic challenger, Chafee is convinced this is the moment to seek the governorship under an independent banner.


The last time any state elected an independent governor was in 1998, when Minnesotans picked former wrestler Jesse Ventura and Maine voters reelected Angus King for a second term. Earlier in the 1990s, voters in Alaska and Connecticut elected independent governors. Few have come close since then.

But Chafee looks pretty strong so far. Many Rhode Island sources consider him the man to beat. A Rasmussen Reports statewide telephone survey in April showed Chafee running neck-and-neck against one of the two major Democratic candidates, and well ahead of the other Democratic hopeful and the likely Republican nominee.

Voters, candidates frustrated by parties

One reason Chafee retains a reservoir of good feeling in his state is that, in the consensus view of experts, he didn't lose his Senate seat in 2008 because of anything he had done in office; he was a Republican, even if a very liberal one, and a majority of Rhode Islanders wanted to express a protest against the party of President George W. Bush. "They were voting against his party's identification," says Jennifer Lawless, a political science professor who taught at Brown University in Providence in 2008. "Democrats needed to win Rhode Island to retake the Senate," and the electorate wanted that to happen.

If anything, Chafee has moved further left now that he is free of any partisan ties. During a gubernatorial forum in Providence in May, he won the biggest applause of the night when he reminded the audience that as U.S. senator he voted against Bush's tax cuts and the Iraq war.

Rhode Island isn't the only place where independent gubernatorial campaigns are taking shape in 2010. New England seems to be sprouting them. Massachusetts State Treasurer Tim Cahill is running as an independent there and businessman Eliot Cutler is doing the same in Maine.

But Chafee is a little different, in part because he is — well, a Chafee. His father, John H. Chafee, was a popular governor and U.S. senator for whom roads, buildings and a Navy missile destroyer are named. The Chafee family was among Rhode Island's "Five Families" who essentially ran the state until the 1930s as owners and managers of textile mills, banks and universities. John Chafee, a rumpled, easy-going man who betrayed few signs of his elite background, was admired by voters of all parties and backgrounds. "Chafee's name definitely helps because there remain such good feelings toward his father," says Lisa Pelosi of Johnson & Wales University in Providence.

Race is chock-full of personalities

Two other major candidates have some family ties of their own to take advantage of. One leading Democratic contender is Frank Caprio, the state treasurer and son of a chief judge who hosts the TV show "Caught in Providence," a local version of "The People's Court" or "Judge Judy." A second prominent Democrat, Attorney General Patrick Lynch, is the brother of the former state party chairman, who is himself running for Congress this year. Patrick Lynch has excellent name recognition on his own: He oversaw the investigation of the Station nightclub fire in West Warwick that killed 100 people in 2003.

If there is a candidate with an "outsider" strategy in this year of anti-establishment sentiment, it is John Robitaille, a former aide to retiring Republican Governor Don Carcieri. Robitaille is trying to make the most of it. "I don't come from a legacy family like the other candidates do," he says. He emphasizes his humble upbringing, a five-year stint in the military and his experience starting a business from scratch. "And unlike the other candidates, I have had executive branch experience and understand the budget."

For now, though, it is Chafee who is drawing most of the attention. "The timing couldn't be better," he insists. "There is frustration with both parties. Running as an independent will free me from the constraints that party politics impose on candidates," he says, giving him flexibility to bring in the best people from both major parties and "people without political ties to solve our problems."


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