Marie Ahlert had her camera ready when the governor’s car pulled up to City Hall Thursday morning. She wanted to record the day Lincoln Chafee would make it official and register as a Democrat.
Ahlert has supported Chafee since Chafee was a councilman and he took interest in her fight to preserve the designation of Pawtuxet Village as a Historic District. They won that battle and, in the process, preserved the village as it is today. Ahlert wanted to help. She worked on Chafee’s re-election as a councilman and was a staunch ally when the Republican Chafee won the job of mayor. Chafee appointed Ahlert City Clerk. It is a position she has held ever since.
On stepping out of the car, Chafee spotted Ahlert and waved. When he reached her, he gave her a hug and then entered the building to meet an encampment of reporters and photographers in the Board of Canvassers. With a simple “D” on his voter registration, he abandoned the role of the state’s first independent governor and ramped up speculation on a bid for re-election that will play out in 2014.
Ahlert wouldn’t have imagined what she was witnessing when she first started working for Chafee, but she did see one familiar characteristic in his act – something she always admired.
“He believes in what he does,” she said.
Chafee projected that image of a man of conviction as he highlighted his political career and persistently avoided reporters’ questions over how or whether his Democratic label might improve his chances of being re-elected.
After completing the paperwork handed him by Dottie McCarthy in the Board of Canvassers, with cameras clicking and TV camera crews bumping into each other for the best angle, the media was ushered into City Council Chambers, where the governor would answer questions. Chafee took the moment to make a swing through City Hall offices to connect with people he had worked with as mayor. At the City Clerk’s office, he chatted with Violet Major, trading family news. He then headed for the archives, hoping to find Judy Wild, but she wasn’t there.
In Council Chambers, Chafee shunned the podium bristling with TV and radio microphones and went to the Ward 9 council seat, where his elective career started. Members of the media hustled to relocate equipment. Would Chafee be sitting or standing? Chafee staffers asked if the name of the current councilman, Steve Merolla, should be shrouded. It wasn’t.
Standing, Chafee went into a monologue on his political roots and how as a councilman he got the “dirt under my fingernails here.” As a councilman, he said, he learned the importance of quality municipal services and being involved in issues people care about, from trash collections, to snow plowing, a reliable waste water system and responding to constituent calls. He said he was pleased by his ability as mayor to bring labor peace to the long running dispute over the teachers’ contract – “a labor peace that has endured.”
Chafee then talked about his tenure in the U.S. Senate and how it put him on a national stage, dealing with the “big issues” of the Iraq War and the environment.
Cameras clicked, TV crews kept recording, reporters, anxious to get to their questions answered, respectfully waited.
Chafee focused to his job of governor, noting that unemployment rates continue to decline and that there are continued signs of an improving economy. He said that, in one sense, nothing has changed since he sat in the Ward 9 council seat. He said the job of delivering quality services at the lowest possible cost hasn’t changed.
“You are always going to be judged on how you do the job,” he said.
Finally, Chafee was addressing the issue reporters had come to report. Notebooks flipped open; pens transcribed quotes.
“There comes a time to look at the national agenda,” Chafee said. He said he cares strongly about the environment, and the Republican agenda, to reward the top 1 percent, “is not what I’m about.”
He said that President Obama is “a big reason” why he is now a Democrat. He said he has been looking for a “political home” and that he wants to be a part of “the team making life better for Americans.” As an independent, he was not a part of the team, nor could he effectively weigh in on national issues.
He also confessed he expects he’ll be attending many more spaghetti dinners as fellow Democrats send him tickets to their fundraising events.
How his change in party affiliation will affect Providence Mayor Angel Taveras and State General Treasurer Gina Raimondo, both Democrats considered candidates for governor, was what the news media wanted Chafee to talk about.
Chafee sought to disconnect the issue. He said he would have become a Democrat regardless, and that the party designation in no way changes his commitment to deliver the best possible services at the lowest cost.
“My job is to make it better,” he said of the state, “and that’s what I’m doing.”
There were some benign questions like, “How do you feel now?” to the insightful, “What do you think your father would have to say?”
Chafee said he hadn’t made the decision lightly, and, predictably, said he felt “fine.”
He wrestled with the question about his father, John Chafee, who was governor and who died while he was a U.S. Senator. Chafee talked about how his father had been forced out of leadership positions as Senator and how the party has changed.
Chafee didn’t take any swings at his potential opponents.
But that didn’t change reporters’ opinions.
As Bill Rappleye sat in the Channel 10 news truck and prepared his broadcast, he was asked what he thought of Chafee’s performance.
“It’s all about re-election,” he said.