I was elected to public office 26 years ago, as a city councilman in Warwick. I was grateful to the voters for trusting a Republican to look after my mostly Democratic constituents, and I always tried to live up to their expectations by seeking the best of both traditions. Like most Republicans of that era, I supported a more modest approach to government spending, and doing more with less. Like most Democrats, I also believed in a safety net, and helping people make the most of their lives, with affordable health care, good schools and decent wages. I tried to defend all of my constituents, Republican and Democrat, against the large moneyed interests who were always good at angling for an advantage – an easement here, a regulation neglected there. I cared about the environment, too, a tradition that is at least as Republican as Democratic. How can you grow up in Rhode Island and not love Narragansett Bay?
I felt that I was exactly where I wanted to be – proud of my moderate Republican roots, but attuned to the needs of my lunch pail Democratic constituents. I also thought it worked in Rhode Island, nearly a one-party state, to have a few principled Republicans here and there, keeping an eye on the till. In the jobs that followed – mayor of Warwick, and then senator, I always tried to follow the same path.
But in my years in the Senate, that path grew narrower. I constantly found myself at odds with the Bush Administration. I had not changed – but my party had. Like my father before me, I occupied what was once a crowded branch of the GOP – New Englanders who were dedicated to fiscal responsibility. The job of government, we believed, was to keep the books, with minimal intrusion into our personal lives. We believed in environmental protection, in growing the middle class through education and quality health care, in avoiding costly foreign wars.
We were right to care about the environment, because in no time at all we became an endangered species. The Bush Administration was squandering President Clinton’s surpluses on two reckless wars, tax cuts for the wealthy and higher costs for Medicare. In the face of tremendous GOP pressure, I voted against each of these. I paid a price, in the anger of the Bush White House, and in lack of support from some Republican factions. But my conscience told me that my party was going in the wrong direction. The party of fiscal discipline was spending wildly on war while cutting revenues. The party of privacy and decency was spying on Americans at home and abusing human rights abroad. The party of modest foreign policy had abused our alliances and brought America’s stature in the world to an all-time low.
Despite my voting record, which I stand by to this day, I was defeated in 2006, as part of the broad rejection of Republicans in that election cycle, and after a costly primary from the right. The following year, I disaffiliated from the Republicans and endorsed then-Senator Barack Obama’s candidacy for President. With Susan Eisenhower, granddaughter of President Dwight Eisenhower, I co-chaired Republicans and independents for Obama and campaigned for the freshman senator in swing states such as Florida, Ohio and New Hampshire.
I made this decision because I had worked with then-Senator Obama on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and came to know a man who believed, as I did, that America was quickly losing its hard-earned position in the international community. That our foreign policy was increasingly one of arrogance and recklessness, and less one of cooperation and common purpose. In short, I endorsed Barack Obama because his values aligned with mine, and that remains the case today.
In 2010, I successfully ran for Governor of Rhode Island as an independent. In the time since, despite inheriting extremely difficult circumstances, I have worked every day to make Rhode Island a better place to live, work and raise a family. There is no question that challenges remain, but I am proud of the progress we have made. In my time as governor, we have dramatically increased funding for public education. We have successfully instituted a tuition freeze at the Community College of Rhode Island, Rhode Island College and the University of Rhode Island to make college more affordable for Rhode Island families. We have launched new workforce development programs and initiatives to boost the skills of Rhode Islanders looking for work. We are investing in our infrastructure to improve the quality of our roads and bridges while getting Rhode Island construction workers back to work. We have preserved thousands of acres of open space and expanded our renewable energy portfolio. We have restored aid to cities and towns to help keep property taxes down for Rhode Island homeowners. We are leading the nation in implementing President Obama’s Affordable Care Act to make health care more accessible and affordable for individuals and employers. We have extended the freedom to marry to all Rhode Islanders, regardless of sexual orientation.
Education. Infrastructure. Workforce development. Tax relief for middle class Rhode Islanders. Quality, affordable health care. Environmental protection. Tolerance of diversity. These are my priorities and guiding principles as governor. They are the same priorities I have always had, since I started my career as a Republican. But as I survey the political landscape, I realize that these priorities are overwhelmingly the priorities of one party – the Democrats. The Republican platform of 2012 clearly rejected these ideas, and there is little hope of moderation making a comeback in a political echo chamber dominated by extremist pundits, huge corporate donors and a Congress that seems to enjoy its own dysfunction.
I have enjoyed being an independent, a word that resonates in Rhode Island, and I appreciate the support that I have received from both parties in my career so far. But in my time as governor, I have come to realize that it is going to take a team effort to defend Rhode Islanders against the big moneyed interests.
Therefore, after much contemplation, I have chosen to join the Democratic Party. I want to support President Obama’s agenda, the Democratic governors’ agenda, and the Rhode Island Congressional delegation’s agenda – and I can most effectively do that as a Democrat. Many people have asked me what my father – a lifelong Republican – would think of my decision to join the Democratic Party. And I can say with confidence that Dad would be proud. Because he was pro-choice, for environmental protection and supported common-sense gun control measures, the GOP was leaving him behind even in the 1990s. In fact, in 1990, Dad lost his leadership position within the Party to a conservative senator from Mississippi. The truth is that Dad’s principles and my principles – those I’ve always had – reflect those of today’s Democratic Party, and are fundamentally at odds with those of today’s Republican Party.
My dad chose to name me after one of his heroes, Abraham Lincoln, father of the Republican Party. I recently came across a quote attributed to my namesake that I believe is fitting for the decision I have made.
“I am not bound to win,” he said, “but I am bound to be true … I must stand with anybody that stands right, and stand with him when he is right, and part with him when he goes wrong.”
As long as Democratic leaders all across this country are standing for what is right – for growing the middle class, for education, for identifying smart and constructive strategies to get our people back to work, for asking everyone to pay their fair share, for tolerance of diversity – I will stand with them.
This isn’t about politics; it’s about principles. For nearly three decades, I have been in public service to do what is right for the people of Rhode Island. Today, with this decision, I believe I am advancing that cause.