Lincoln Chafee is the governor of Rhode Island. He was elected in 2010 as an independent, having left the Republican Party after a re-election defeat for the U.S. Senate in 2006. In 2013, he became a Democrat. Before serving in the Senate, Chafee served on the Warwick City Council and as that city’s mayor. The first half of the conversation was published in the May 7 issue. CLICK HERE to read part 1.
Grant Reeher (GR): Rhode Island has been one of the models for the state health care insurance exchanges under Obamacare. How did you approach that? What decisions were most important in accomplishing that?
Gov. Lincoln Chafee (LC): Well, first of all, we passed the exchanges through the House but it failed in the Senate, and they adjourned without passing a bill to form an insurance exchange, and it got hung up on some abortion language they just couldn’t resolve. So I instituted it by executive order, and then we got a good team working on it, and now we are leading the country in sign-ups to this exchange.
We’ve had tremendous success in communicating with our people. I have to say that this has not been a partisan issue in Rhode Island, thank goodness. The detractors are few. It seemed like everybody in Rhode Island said let’s try it —Democrats, Republicans, Independents — let’s try something different from the old escalating insurance rates from Blue Cross or whatever your insurance might be, going to the emergency room to get your primary care. Let’s try this, and we have had great success.
And it is very interesting that the level of attention our citizens are paying to the details of the different plans that are offered, which is flabbergasting as we look at how this is unfolding. How the people are reading the fine print and paying attention, and making really good decisions on the kind of insurance they want to pick on the exchange.
GR: Why do you think the Republicans in the state aren’t digging in on this, because this seems to be one of the big issues across the country and it is going to be one of the big issues in the 2014 mid-term elections.
LC: The Republicans in Rhode Island seem to get into gun issues and other social issues; thank goodness they have not focused on this one.
GR: You started your political career on the Warwick City Council, then you became mayor of Warwick. You also served a term in the United States Senate. Now you are a governor. So you have seen it all. At heart, do you think you are more of a legislator or an executive?
LC: I’d say executive. I really loved my time as mayor. I had, in my seven years as mayor, four different council presidents, all very different. And I just enjoyed working with them. I had to have Democratic votes to get things passed. I loved the challenge. The economy was better in the ’90s; it helps to have that wind behind your back. It’s been harder being governor with the wind — with the economy being difficult in Rhode Island — more in your face. But I do love it.
GR: And you have also served at all three levels of government: local, state, national. Which level of government do you think works the best, given its role?
LC: I would say the state, despite the challenges with the economy that we have had in Rhode Island, and as I have said earlier, some of the small issues that have become big issues unnecessarily. Despite all that, there is so much that is happening at the state level, the health exchanges we are doing there. Even with climate change, even with the immigration. I mean these should be really federal issues. We are doing it state by state.
It’s been fun working with all the other governors, I love going to the governors’ conferences and networking with Republicans and Democrats. Our New England governors have a great group, and we even work with the eastern Canadian provinces.
GR: Having been on both sides of the legislature-executive divide, what do you think is the most important thing that executives underappreciate about legislators and their jobs, and vice-versa?
LC: Often, it’s all about ego. You have got to listen and talk to each other. They run as hard for their seats. I worked just as hard to become mayor as a councilman, and they worked just as hard to become a state representative or become a state senator. They want to be listened to, they want to be talked to and included in the process and that is just natural human emotion.
GR: You announced relatively recently that you are not going to run for re-election as governor. Is this it for you in terms of elected political office?
LC: I’m still feeling young, and I have covered the gamut — at local, state and federal, so we’ll see. I don’t have any plans.
GR: Do you get a sense that [the decision not to run] gives you a space that you might not have had before? It goes back to the problems of polarization between the parties, the nastiness. You take some of that off the table here. Do you see a difference now in your office as governor?
LC: Yes, absolutely. Just having the time, the money, and also being a new Democrat going to every Democratic event. Once I became a Democrat I had to go out and meet my new party in Rhode Island, every spaghetti supper and breakfast. So having the time, not fund raising and doing some of those political events, is very beneficial to focus on the issues and not be in the middle of the partisan warfare.
GR: I was told to ask you this by a constituent in Rhode Island: When you leave office will you still see Ernie the barber?
LC: Of course! Of course!
GR: And I imagine then that like a lot of barbers, this fellow Ernie, whom I’ve never met, likes to give political advice. So what advice has Ernie been giving you lately?
LC: Well, my first budget — because I had to get the revenue; my predecessor had done nothing on the revenue side, it had all been on cuts. Rhode Island was suffering — as a result, I had to go into revenue and one of those was taxing haircutters (laughs). So I asked Ernie about it. I told him my budget is coming out, and it’s going to include expanding our sales tax into services. (Currently) it’s in goods, as many states are. But if we could lower it and expand it into some services, I thought that made sense, because when the sales tax was put in, most of purchasing was goods, and it’s changed over the 60 years since the sales tax was put in Rhode island. Now, it’s majority services, so it just made sense. And we could lower the sales tax. That was my first budget, and I ran it by Ernie, and he said I’ll pay my fair share if you spend it wisely. And I said we will, we’ll put it into education, we’ll put it into our roads and bridges, we’ll put it in back into our poor communities that have been suffering under these deep cuts. And he said OK. And so the media — when I said that in my state address — they went down to interview him. He was good to his word. He said we need government, we wish we didn’t have to pay any taxes, but are we going to be like back in the 1500s, with anarchy?
GR: What professional or creative achievement in your life so far has surprised you the most?
LC: I would say the immigration — fights to provide in-state tuition to our undocumented — that was such a surprise. That it made no sense that these youngsters didn’t have the same chance. They are here; we all know they are here to go on to be able to afford higher education. It’s just common sense. We want an educated population, whether illegal or not. Let’s address immigration, but those we know who are here, let’s get them educated.
GR: And you got that through?
LC: Yes we did, but boy, oh boy, the opponents. And also politically, it surprised me that those that were the Republicans and those that were opposed to the in-state tuition — this is a fast-growing demographic voting bloc. I mean just politically, don’t you want to be on board with their issues? That surprised me.
Every week Grant Reeher, Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse University, leads a conversation with a notable guest. Guests include people from central New York – writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals whose work affects the public life of the community – as well as nationally-prominent figures visiting the region to talk about their work.
Grant Reeher hosts WRVO Public Media’s program “The Campbell Conversations” at 6 p.m. Sundays at 89.9 and 90.3.